Billed as a battle between two of the nation’s finest defensive players — and certainly college football’s two premier defensive ends — by the time hangovers began to wear off on New Year’s Day, the Outback Bowl provided a clear-cut, symbolic answer for anyone still wondering whether Wisconsin’s Erasmus James or Georgia’s David Pollack more deserved the droves of praise that have been thrown their way this season.

The imagery couldn’t have been more striking: After his final collegiate series, James drifted slowly toward the UW locker room, head disappointedly drooping and an unmistakably disoriented look plastered on his face. After his, Pollack gleefully flopped onto his back in the middle of the field, a memento football held high in the air for fans to see and a broad smile from ear to ear.

It turns out the Chuck Bednarik Award committee was right to choose Pollack over James and Texas’ Derrick Johnson as the 2004-05 Defensive Player of the Year. Pollack’s collegiate-closing MVP performance served as a perfect exclamation point on a remarkable career at Georgia.

“David Pollack was, as usual, fantastic,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said after the game. “He got banged up a little here and there, but continued to fight.”

Pollack’s performance was right on his regular season average of four tackles per game, and his three-sack performance was a personal season high — all the more impressive considering he was matched up against a highly regarded Wisconsin offensive line.

“I wanted to come out here and play hard,” Pollack said. “If I play hard, I know God’s going to take care of me. You can’t always control making plays. In the first half, they put the tight end in motion a lot and didn’t let me do a lot, and Odell (Thurman) made a lot of plays. That’s why it’s a team game. You can’t take one person out of our defense. We’ve got so many guys that can make plays. Everybody stepped up and made plays.”

“I thought he was solid,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said of Pollack. “I thought he played hard. He’s the guy that you want to know where he is.”

Not keeping track of the standout proved a disaster for Wisconsin late in the game. With the Badgers at first-and-goal, down by 11 points in the fourth quarter, Pollack ran straight through the UW line, attacking quarterback John Stocco before he had a chance to see the rush coming. But instead of registering just the sack, Pollack ripped the ball away from Stocco to give the Bulldogs a crucial boost.

“That’s what disappointed me,” Alvarez said. “At the end of the game, we turned him loose down there in the end zone, down there deep.”

Alvarez indicated that the Badgers missed a block on the play, but Pollack had a different impression.

“I wasn’t unblocked,” Pollack said wryly. “They tried to block me.”

The play registered a solid blow at the heart of a Wisconsin comeback effort. The importance of the swing in momentum wasn’t lost on Richt.

“That last play where he ripped it out of the quarterback’s hands and got it before it hit the ground … might have been the difference in the ballgame,” Richt said.

Meanwhile, faced with early double-teams and perhaps still slowed by a lingering ankle injury, James struggled to effectively pressure Georgia quarterback David Greene.

“I thought their defensive line did a real nice job,” Greene said. “But our guys really focused and were able to give me some time to make a few plays.”

“A few plays” might register as a bit of an understatement. Greene passed for 264 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin’s heralded secondary and took just one sack on the day.

The mediocre showing capped a late-season slide for James. After amassing 27 tackles (11 coming for loss) in the first seven games of the season, the talented left end finished the season with just five tackles (none for loss) in the final five.