After consecutive losses against Michigan State and Iowa to close out an otherwise perfect 2004 regular season, the tests won’t get any easier for the Wisconsin football team.
At 11 a.m. New Year’s Day in Tampa, Fla., the Badgers will face perhaps their toughest opponent of the season in the No. 7 Georgia Bulldogs.
“We know we have a big game left to play, and we’ll be ready for it,” UW quarterback John Stocco said. “There’s none of that (letdown after the regular season). Just because we lose a couple, that doesn’t mean we’re done. We’re still just looking to go 1-0, now more than ever.”
Going 1-0 against a team of the Bulldogs’ caliber will be no small task. Hailing from the top-rated conference in the country, the Southeastern Conference, Georgia has quietly put together a season to rival all but the top BCS contenders, a fact evidenced by its seventh-place finish in the championship series’ final standings.
The Bulldogs feature a high-powered passing attack, led by senior gunslinger David Greene. Greene has thrown for 2,244 yards in 2004 (good for third in the SEC), has the conference’s second-highest quarterback rating and has put the ball in the end zone 19 times, with just two interceptions. SI.com chose the southpaw as an honorable mention All-American earlier this month.
Though Greene is recovering from a broken bone in his left hand that limited him to 12 passing attempts in the Bulldogs’ regular season finale against Georgia Tech, he is projected to be at full strength by the time Wisconsin gets a shot at him. Should he not recover as expected, junior D.J. Shockley gives Georgia a viable second option.
The Bulldogs’ offense is also more than capable of moving the ball on the ground. With a pair of true freshmen — all-SEC Freshman Team honorees Tommy Brown and Danny Ware — sharing the load, Georgia averaged more than 150 yards per game rushing.
Ware and Brown saw nearly equal playing time in 2004, with Brown racking up 764 yards on 156 carries and Ware adding 631 yards on 126 carries. The duo combined for 11 touchdowns behind an offensive line that — while it was solid against the pass rush, allowing just 13 sacks — has struggled to create gaps for tailbacks.
Georgia’s offense is complemented by one of the best defenses in collegiate football. Allowing just more than 300 yards per game and 20 touchdowns this season, the Bulldogs ranked No. 16 in the country defensively. The Badgers, who have struggled mightily to find their offensive rhythm at times, may look to the air, where Mark Richt’s squad has been somewhat more vulnerable than its has on the ground (111.2 yards per game against the run, 183.1 against the pass).
The stifling Bulldog ground defense is helmed by three-time SI.com All-American and Chuck Bednarik National Defensive Player of the Year award winner David Pollack. The standout defensive end has registered 48 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2004 after what many considered a surprising decision not to jump to the NFL prior to the season.
“Coming back was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” Pollack said. “I’ve just had so much fun this season and really took the time to enjoy everything.”
Pollack has garnered just about every defensive award in the books this season, in almost every case over the same two players: Texas’s Derrick Johnson and Wisconsin’s own Erasmus James.
“I was very surprised,” Pollack said. “I thought Derrick Johnson was a shoo-in. He got a lot of tackles, and Erasmus James — both of them — they were both probably more deserving.”
The match-up between two of the most talented defensive ends to come through college football in recent memory is expected to be, in-and-of-itself, worth the Outback Bowl’s price of admission.
The Bulldog secondary has its own vaunted leader in Thomas Davis, a second-team SI.com All-American pick. Despite missing the Bulldogs’ game against Kentucky and most of their game against Florida, the junior safety led Georgia with 73 tackles. Davis is particularly dangerous on packages that call for him to blitz, registering four pressures in 2004, but is also a major force as a pass defender. He broke up three passes, caused two fumbles and picked off three passes on his way to an all-SEC coaches’ selection.
While Georgia and Wisconsin enter the match-up with identical 9-2 records, the Bulldogs enter the Outback Bowl with two assets that the Badgers can’t claim: momentum and consistency of performance.
The Badgers’ two losses in 2004 came in the final two weeks of the season against unranked Michigan State — a team whose 5-7 overall record kept it out of Bowl consideration — and No. 13 Iowa. Georgia’s two losses, meanwhile, came to two of the top teams in the country: No. 3 Auburn and No. 17 Tennessee.
The difference in the manners in which Wisconsin and Georgia fell is just as notable. The Badgers’ two losses came by an average of 29 points; the Bulldogs’ losses came by an average of 11.5, even more impressive considering that the Vols and Tigers’ average margin of victory was nearly two touchdowns in 2004.