ORLANDO, Fla. — Fresh off a repeat invitation to the Capital One Bowl, Bret Bielema walked onto the Kohl Center court midway through a basketball game Nov. 22 and awkwardly delivered a somewhat less than breath-taking speech, attempting to encourage fans to travel to South Florida for the Jan. 1 contest.
Thirty-nine days later, the first-year head coach stood in the southwest corner of the Citrus Bowl, facing a three-tiered wall of cardinal-wearing supporters, and surrounded by his “all-time favorite team,” adorned in black championship hats. This time he delivered a knockout address.
As the crowd roared after each proclamation, it was very clear Bielema had rebounded impressively from his earlier oratory issues. It was fitting, as responding to adversity has been the earmark of this No. 6 Wisconsin football team, culminating with a 17-14 bowl victory over No. 12 Arkansas. The win ensured UW its first-ever 12-win season, finishing 12-1 and exceeding all expectations.
“I think when it’s all said and done, we couldn’t ask for anything better,” senior left tackle Joe Thomas said.
Despite rushing for minus-5 yards on the day, falling behind 7-3 early, having several injury issues and not scoring a point in the second half, Wisconsin made big plays when it needed to and pulled out another victory to cap off the 2006 season.
“We don’t have the most All-Big Ten players or the most All-Americans, but when you put everybody together, we’re a group that knows how to win,” Thomas said.
On a day when the Badger running game was woefully unproductive — the team’s worst rushing output since tallying minus-11 yards at Penn State a year ago — game MVP John Stocco completed 14-of-34 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He’s a big time winner,” Bielema said of his fifth-year senior whose last start was almost two months ago against Penn State Nov. 4.
Stocco excelled early and pushed UW to a quick 17-7 lead at halftime, connecting on touchdown passes to Paul Hubbard (22 yards) and Travis Beckum (13 yards).
However, the Badger offense came to a halt, piling up five straight three-and-outs to start the second half. The team relied on the defense to hold the lead, which was cut to only three with 14:04 left to play after a 12-yard Felix Jones touchdown by Arkansas.
The defense held and on the final two drives, Beckum and Stocco came up huge picking up key first downs — after having gone the entire third quarter without one — to wind down the clock.
“We needed to move the chains, and I knew we needed to make a play,” Beckum said. “Sometimes players just needed to take it upon themselves to make the play … and I did it.”
The Wisconsin running game, powering the Badgers through the season behind P.J. Hill, was totally shut down by the Razorbacks, who stacked the line to hold the redshirt freshman.
“They were running a 5-3 defense, which is something that you see on the goal line in high school,” Thomas said.
The win finally gave UW a win over a high-profile, ranked opponent as detractors of the Badgers’ season constantly harped on the fact they had yet to beat a ranked team all season.
“I’m so tired of hearing that stuff,” Stocco said, with a hint of exasperation in his voice. “We did not need to beat this team to validate to us we are a good program.”
Unfortunately for the Badgers, their first win over a ranked team and the SEC runner-up didn’t lead to any immediate jump in respect as UW actually dropped in the polls despite winning and having two teams ahead of them lose. Still, Wisconsin believes the win might springboard the program to a special 2007 season.
“I showed a clip to our guys from some news station back in Arkansas. It was a little bit of motivation for us because it was being painted … that we hadn’t played anybody,” Bielema said. “I felt if we were able to get out of here today with a victory it would be a huge step — not only for this team, but, more important, a building block for the future.”