Badgers report card: A memorable victory
TAMPA, Fla. — After four disappointing New Year’s games in four years, Wisconsin’s football program finally experienced a measure of redemption Thursday at Raymond James Stadium, coming from behind to edge Auburn 34-31 in overtime. It was thrilling and unexpected, and it was a memorable way for the Badgers to cap an 11-win season.
Barry Alvarez came out of retirement yet again to lead Wisconsin as interim coach. Melvin Gordon showed why he’ll go down as one of the greatest running backs in college football history. And the Badgers were able to celebrate their first bowl victory since 2009.
Let’s recap the performance one more time in the last report card of the season:
Statistically speaking, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave did not have a very good run his last two games against Ohio State and Auburn. He combined to throw six interceptions and complete fewer than half his throws. On Thursday, he completed 14 of 27 passes for 121 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. And two of his three picks were simply inexcusable for a guy making the 28th start of his college career.
But one thing that has always been impressive about Stave is his ability to bounce back from miserable stretches in games. And that’s exactly what Stave was able to do during a critical portion in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Wisconsin faced a third-and-5 from the Auburn 33 in the final minutes, when Stave connected with tight end Sam Arneson for seven yards and a first down. Kicker Rafael Gaglianone eventually buried a 29-yard field goal to force overtime. But if Stave makes a poor decision on the throw, we’re talking about another missed opportunity for Wisconsin in a bowl game.
In overtime, Stave hit tight end Troy Fumagalli for 14 yards on third-and-8, which helped set up Gaglianone’s game-winning 25-yard field goal.
"Just knowing that your team is counting on you, your coaches are counting on you, you’ve just got to be able to put that stuff behind you," Stave said. "It was a tough first three quarters for me. I didn’t play my best football. But to be able to make the plays that we did in the passing game in the fourth quarter was huge for us. I’m just glad my team had confidence in me, my coaches did and that we were able to end it on a high note."
Maybe Stave didn’t inspire the fan base for next season the way he had hoped. But as things stand now, expect Stave to be the starting quarterback against Alabama in the season opener for head coach Paul Chryst’s first game. He has the experience, and it will take some doing for another quarterback to dethrone him.
Two words here: Melvin Gordon. OK, three words: Melvin Freakin’ Gordon.
What a way for Gordon to end his Wisconsin career. He ran for an Outback Bowl record 251 yards, which also broke Ron Dayne’s program record for rushing yards in a bowl game (246 set twice). Gordon closed his season with 2,587 yards rushing, the second-best single-season total in FBS history. He trails only Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders, who rushed for 2,628 yards in 1988.
Gordon was exceptional. He scored a 25-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14 in the second quarter. He added a scintillating 53-yard score in which he juked an Auburn defensive back and scooted to the end zone to put the Badgers ahead 21-17. And his final score from six yards out again gave Wisconsin the lead, this time at 28-24.
Wisconsin fans should really take a step back and try to appreciate all that Gordon accomplished this season. Maybe we’ve become somewhat jaded because UW almost always produces a 1,000-yard rusher, but Gordon’s year was on an entirely different level.
And there’s good news for UW, even though Gordon is gone: Corey Clement will be the star of the show next season. On Thursday, he rushed for 105 yards on 15 carries to help the Badgers gain an Outback Bowl record 400 yards rushing as a team.
After the game, Clement gave credit to Badgers running backs coach Thomas Brown, whose familiarity with Auburn dated to his days as a tailback at Georgia.
"We had an idea that we were going to do this because we’ve watched film on them," Clement said. "We’ve seen teams gash them for a lot of yards. Coach Brown said we can get them. He knew the confidence level of what Auburn was coming into. He said hit them with a wakeup call.
"He’s been in that position as well. He played against Wisconsin in a bowl game, kind of got a wakeup call as well. He said we can do this. Just run the ball how we do."
Save for one significant slip-up, Wisconsin’s pass defense did a pretty solid job against Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall. Marshall completed 15 of 22 passes for 217 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The big play came on a 66-yard touchdown pass to receiver Ricardo Louis, who beat defensive backs Sojourn Shelton and Lubern Figaro (who took a bad angle on the play) to give Auburn a 14-7 lead.
Still, just like Joel Stave, the Badgers’ defense didn’t allow mistakes to stop the unit from performing in the clutch.
During overtime, the Badgers stopped receiver Sammie Coates for no gain and then were not fooled on a trick play that involved a throwback pass to Marshall, which went for a one-yard loss. Those two stops forced Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson into a tough 45-yard field goal, which banged off the right upright to give Wisconsin the victory.
Auburn tailback Cameron Artis-Payne actually finished with nice numbers: 26 carries, 126 yards, two touchdowns and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average. Of course, if he had played against the likes of "Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue," maybe he would have rushed for 226 yards.
Artis-Payne drew the ire of Badgers fans for suggesting earlier in the week that Gordon’s numbers were inflated because of inferior competition. Gordon acknowledged he was motivated by those words, so Artis-Payne never stood a chance in a head-to-head competition with Gordon on Thursday.
Nevertheless, Artis-Payne’s final touchdown very well could have been a game-winner. His 2-yard touchdown run gave Auburn a 31-28 lead with 2:55 left in regulation. For the game, Auburn rushed 43 times for 219 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry. That’s much better than the 3.4 yards per carry the Badgers were surrendering entering the game, but it wasn’t enough.
Rafael Gaglianone is a cult hero in the making at Wisconsin. And if you didn’t believe it before Thursday’s game, you should reconsider now.
Gaglianone buried the game-tying 29-yard field goal to force overtime, and he made the eventual game winner from 25 yards out as well. On the year, Gaglianone made 19 of 22 field-goal attempts, and it’s nice for Badgers fans to know one area that used to be a real bugaboo is completely solved.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the punter because Drew Meyer continued his up-and-down ride this season. His first punt traveled only 24 yards, and he averaged 26.3 yards on three attempts. The second attempt was a good one, as he pinned Auburn at the 7. Still, one has to wonder what exactly happened this season to Meyer, who never seemed to be able to find a groove.
Hey, none of these facets were perfect (save for much of the running game). But you know what? Wisconsin won a New Year’s Day bowl game. And if you can’t grade on a curve for that, then when can you?
Don’t let the 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game ruin your perception of this season. Wisconsin won 11 games, and that’s hard to do. Even harder to do is winning a bowl game. Just ask the past four Badgers teams.
Now, Wisconsin and its fans can enter the offseason happy and know that with plenty of talented players returning, the future remains bright under Paul Chryst.
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