Wisconsin gets 10th victory with convincing win over Miami
If the first two plays of Tuesday night's Champs Sports Bowl were any indication, the Badgers were going to have to brace for a long night in Orlando.
Luckily for UW, Miami's 86-yard kickoff return to open the game and 16-yard touchdown run on the next play would be the last time the Hurricanes came anywhere near the endzone until the final minutes of the game. Instead, the Badgers scored the next 20 points en route to a 20-14 win that gave Wisconsin its first 10-win season since 2006.
After the game, a very proud Bret Bielema obviously felt some vindication in his post-game interview with ESPN's Holly Rowe: "You can tell your man (ESPN analyst) Mark May -- he said we wouldn't get to three or four wins -- I think 10 is a lot more than that."
While the score indictated a close victory, it truely did not do justice to UW's dominating performance Tuesday night. The Badgers outgained Miami 436-245 in total yardage, won the time of possession by 18:21 and sacked UM quarterback Jacory Harris five times.
But despite the impressive stats, UW got off to a poor start and nearly let the Hurricanes back into the game late. Miami ran an end-around on the opening kickoff return, which Sam Shields returned for a touchdown. An illegal blocking penalty brought the return back to the UW 16-yard line but that hardly mattered as running back Graig Cooper ran it in for a score on Miami's first play from scrimmage.
Just 23 seconds into the game, UW trailed 7-0. But who would have known that the next 56 minutes would belong solely to Wisconsin?
That was the period of time that the Badgers throughly outplayed Miami, constantly flustering Harris on defense, while executing a nearly flawless offensive gameplan. John Clay took home MVP honors by rushing for 121 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterback Scott Tolzien was incredibly efficient, completing 19-of-26 passes for 260 yards. Tight end Lance Kendricks caught seven of those passes for 128 yards. It all added up 20 points and a 20-7 lead with four minutes left in the game.
But that's when Miami made things a little closer than they really were. UW's defense relaxed just a bit and Harris' led the Hurricanes down the field and hooked up with Thearon Collier for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 left in the game.
A successful on-side kick made the Badgers sweat just a little bit, but the defensive line put the pressure back on Harris and quickly enduced a turnover on downs that won the game for Wisconsin.
The win will likely push Wisconsin towards the Top 15 in the final rankings, a spot they might hold again next fall when the 2010 preseason rankings come out. UW returns all but six starters next season and has depth at every position besides defensive tackle.
Returning to the same site where they were blown out by Florida State to end a disasterous 7-6 season a year ago, UW's performance against Miami resembled the same resiliance the Badgers showed from day one of training camp in August. Bielema and his coaching staff deserves credit for the way they accepted the mistakes from a year ago and put together a plan -- and mindset -- for correcting the issues in a season where youth and depth was supposed to be an issue.
Against Miami, freshman linebacker Chris Borland was all over the field once again, showing the effort UW's defense sometimes lacked in 2008. Left tackle Gabe Carimi returned from a scary injury in the first half and played great, showing the toughness and physicality that was an issue a year ago. As a team, UW limited its penalties, executed its gameplan nearly flawlessly and the coaches didn't make any silly decisions.
Now if Wisconsin can come back in 2010 with the same attitude and add it to the experience coming back, the Badgers might be able to live up to the expectations that are surely coming next fall. That is Bielema's next challenge and if 2009 was any indication, its a challenge he and his team should be able to live up to.