Badgers kick away bad taste from last month, previous bowl losses

Badgers head coach Barry Alvarez reacts as Gatorade gets dumped on him after Wisconsin beat the Auburn Tigers in the 2015 Outback Bowl.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — They knelt on the sideline in small groups, heads bowed with thoughts that a higher power could perhaps influence a football game. Other Wisconsin players already were mentally preparing for another overtime session, while still more simply closed their eyes and listened for crowd reaction. But in the moment Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson’s 45-yard field goal attempt sailed into the air, there was nothing but silence. Maddening, unbroken silence of 44,023 fans and players collectively holding their breath.

So much disappointment had permeated Wisconsin’s football program on this day in recent years. Four New Year’s Day bowl games the past four seasons each resulted in crushing losses, and the defeats only seemed to magnify in intensity. Those outcomes left this lingering thought inside players’ heads: couldn’t something good happen for a change?

Then, the moment arrived all at once in a triumphant, spontaneous burst of emotion.

Carlson’s kick to tie from the left hash sailed toward the middle of the uprights and pushed on further until it smacked yellow paint and bounded off the right upright, caroming away unsuccessfully to set off a Badgers celebration years in the making.

The miss sent No. 18 Wisconsin to a stirring come-from-behind 34-31 Outback Bowl victory against No. 19 Auburn in overtime Thursday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. And with it, the senior class could leave the field having washed away, at least partially, memories of all those missed opportunities.

"I just couldn’t believe it happened," Badgers linebacker Marcus Trotter said. "I was waiting five years for this. Finally when it happened, I was just like, ‘Thank God.’ Finally to get a chance to win against a great opponent meant everything to us."

Added right tackle Rob Havenstein: "I don’t think I can describe it. I’m just flying right now. It’s unbelievable the way this team battled, the way they came back from everything, over the years, in this game and in the season."

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Havenstein, Ray Ball, Derrick Tindal and Corey Clement watched the field goal miss and sprinted behind the uprights toward the family section to leap into the first row to revel in the team’s first bowl victory since 2009. Badgers players convened at midfield for hugs and soon began high-fiving members of the student band.

When interim coach Barry Alvarez conducted a television interview on the field, Havenstein and fellow offensive lineman Dallas Lewallen crept behind and dumped a jug of blue Gatorade on him, a smile creasing Alvarez’s face as the remains clung to his skin. Dozens of players then hoisted Alvarez in the air, Alvarez lifting his right arm and pumping his fist while the team chanted "U-DUB. U-DUB. U-DUB."

"I’ve had a couple of those, and I like them," Alvarez said. "It’s a little uncomfortable afterwards, but I like them. And it’s special for those seniors. It meant a lot to them. They’ve won a lot of games here. They haven’t won a lot of bowl games. They’ve put a lot into it. They bought into it. They gave us strong leadership when it was needed, and now they can enjoy it."

Four weeks earlier, this result seemed improbable. Ohio State had embarrassed Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game, raising questions about the Badgers’ talent level against upper-tier programs. And what followed only added to the turmoil.

Head coach Gary Andersen left the team four days later to become coach at Oregon State in a move few saw coming. Alvarez, the current athletic director and the most legendary figure perhaps in Wisconsin football history, returned to the sideline only at the behest of the team’s seniors. He had brought the team out from the depths of despair as head coach in the early 1990s and retired in 2005. He had returned for one game only two years ago after former coach Bret Bielema left, but Wisconsin lost to Stanford 20-14 in the Rose Bowl, and the outcome ate at Alvarez.

This time, Alvarez insisted things would be different. He would insert himself more into the gameplan as the interim coach. He would take charge during critical moments of the game. He would lead in the way he had when he won eight bowl games during his Hall of Fame career.

"I’ll tell you the difference that I noticed in preparation was that we were so much more confident because coach Alvarez is a winner, he doesn’t take any nonsense and he makes the right calls," Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch said. "He makes the gutsy calls, too. You saw on all the fourth downs where we went for it, he’s a great coach and we’re just so lucky to have him."

Alvarez did indeed have a hand in all of the team’s fourth-down decisions. He bypassed a potential game-tying 50-yard field goal on fourth-and-5 in the final minutes, and quarterback Joel Stave connected with tight end Sam Arneson for a first down. Kicker Rafael Gaglianone ultimately buried a 29-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime.

Stave did not play particularly well, finishing his day completing 14 of 27 passes for 121 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. But he also made the plays necessary to keep the Badgers in the game during the fourth quarter and overtime.

"The first three quarters weren’t my day," Stave said. "But it’s a team game. That’s why we’ve got a good running game like that. The way they were able to keep us in it, give us an opportunity to win, I needed to tell myself to get it out of your mind and make the plays you need to make in the end."

Outback Bowl: Badgers 34, Tigers 31 (OT)

In the extra session, Wisconsin (11-3) took possession first and quickly created a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line. But the Badgers gained only two more yards and had to settle for Gaglianone’s 25-yard field goal.

Wisconsin’s defense then held strong against Auburn (8-5). The Badgers snuffed Tigers tailback Cameron Artis-Payne for a 2-yard loss and allowed two passes for a total of minus-one yard. All of it set up Carlson’s field goal, whose miss came after he drilled a 51-yarder earlier in the game.

Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon, a redshirt junior playing his last game before entering the NFL Draft, was named the game’s most valuable player after capping his career with an Outback Bowl-record 251 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Gordon climbed to second on the single-season rushing list with 2,587 yards and finished behind only Barry Sanders’ 2,628 yards set at Oklahoma State in 1988.

Earlier in the week, Artis-Payne suggested Gordon would not have been a 2,000-yard rusher had he played in the Southeastern Conference while alleging Wisconsin played easier opponents such as "Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue." Those comments made their way back to Gordon, who took notice.

"It had me a little fired up, I’m not going to lie," Gordon said. "I had to bite my tongue a little bit when I heard it. You’ve just got to step up to the plate, and I think I did that."

So did the rest of Wisconsin’s team when it mattered most, which paved the way for a celebration players likely will never forget.

"None of these seniors will play another college football game, and we won our last one," Havenstein said. "It is a special thing to end it on a high note."

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