Extraordinary events once again marked a season opener at Camp Randall stadium, with Wisconsin defeating the University of Virginia 26-17 just hours after sheets of rain and lightning threatened to cancel the Eddie Robinson Classic.
The Badgers won the game on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Jim Sorgi to Lee Evans near the close of the third quarter, which increased the score to the winning margin of nine points at 19-10. Evans, who had 135 yards and two touchdowns, broke toward the post as two Virginia defensive backs appeared to miss an assignment. Sorgi saw the opening and slung the ball to Evans, who ran free into the end zone.
The Cavaliers repeatedly loaded eight players into the box in attempts to solve Wisconsin’s running attack. Instead, redshirt freshman Anthony Davis turned in 147 yards in his first collegiate game. Davis and fellow redshirt freshman Jerone Pettus previously had split time, with each enjoying solid success, until Davis, the starter, broke loose for gains of 19 and 26 on the Badgers’ first drive after halftime. Davis had compiled just 17 yards in the first half before receiving the ball on the first five plays of the second.
“It looked like he was heavy-legged,” head coach Barry Alvarez said. “I asked him and he said, ‘My shoes are heavy.’ They were water-logged. So we got him some new shoes.”
Davis was not the only player affected by the weather in the first half. Tight end Mark Anelli also complained about heavy shoes and dropped a low pass in the slick rain on the second drive of the game.
The senior captain redeemed himself, however, when he came up big on the Badgers’ key drive of the second half. On second and seven, moments after Virginia had closed the score to 13-10, Sorgi was chased out of the pocket and prepared to throw the ball away along the right sideline when he saw the target, Anelli, 22 yards downfield. Anelli was covered by UVA’s Raymond Mann but stood four inches taller than the 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore. Sorgi slipped the ball over Mann, where it was hauled in by an exuberant Anelli. Three plays later, Sorgi found Lee Evans in the end zone.
“I knew I had to make the play,” Anelli said. “I’d dropped the one earlier in the game. I knew up in the press box, coaches were yelling at me, so I figured I had to make something happen. Luckily, Sorgi made a great read and laid it up there and gave me the opportunity to at least fight for the ball.”
Sorgi had been under center since starting quarterback Brooks Bollinger left the game on the Badgers’ final drive of the first half. Bollinger had been driven into the turf and rose slowly as fans in UW’s student section cheered the “wave’s” successful clearance of the elusive south end zone sections in front of the UW Field House. Bollinger, who bruised his liver on the play, did not return to the game, finishing 5-13, with one interception.
Sorgi, who had also passed ineffectively in the only series he played in the first half, took advantage of a Virginia defense that had been worn down by Wisconsin’s methodical ground game. He added a spectacular 78-yard insurance touchdown — another strike to Evans — with 11 minutes left in the game, putting the Badgers firmly ahead 26-10.
Virginia quarterback Matt Shaub set up UW’s first two scores, tossing lazy interceptions to defensive lineman Ben Herbert and linebacker Nick Greisen in the second quarter. Pettus followed Herbert’s pick with a 16-yard touchdown dash on a sweep left, and Mike Allen converted Greisen’s 20-yard return into a field goal.
UVA’s backup quarterback, Bryson Spinner, looked sharper than Schaub, lobbing a touchdown over Mike Echols on a flea flicker and tossing a dart to Chris Luzar in the fourth quarter to make the game competitive.
Echols left the game with a sore groin, opening the door for true freshman Scott Starks to gain some experience on the corner. Darius Jones also sat out with injury he sustained during the wet pre-game warmups. The injuries to Jones, Echols and Bollinger, combined with the sloppy weather, provided the sort of opening-game challenge to which Wisconsin has become accustomed.
Scores of players were suspended just prior to last season’s kickoff in the infamous Shoe Box scandal, and injuries and adversity plagued the Badgers all season. After all that, Alvarez told reporters after the game, a little weather delay was hardly a distraction.
“I don’t even worry about it anymore,” Avarez said. “Our guys have been through so much, that stuff’s just like water running off a duck’s back.”
The water proved manageable for Wisconsin, but next week Alvarez and company have to contend with the Duck.