With that in mind, the No. 6 Badgers didn’t need to play their absolute best to beat No. 12 Arkansas. They had to be “just good enough.” They were just that in their 17-14 victory at the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“When we had to make big plays, we had guys step up and make those plays, and that was the key to victory,” left tackle Joe Thomas said.
Take the first two drives and their respective end results, for example. The Razorbacks’ first drive was stunted when a 30-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right by a few inches. Wisconsin’s initial drive culminated with Taylor Mehlhaff knocking through a career-best 52-yard field goal, good with just a few yards to spare.
As it turned out, each squad picked up two touchdowns the rest of the way, and it was Mehlhaff’s big kick that proved the difference when all was said and done.
“It feels awesome to have a career-long in a game like that,” Mehlhaff said. “It’s a big, important game, [so] when it’s decided by a field goal, it feels great to hit that.”
The rest of the first quarter went quite well for Wisconsin, as quarterback and game MVP John Stocco orchestrated a nine-play, 91-yard touchdown drive — capped by a 22-yard touchdown strike to Paul Hubbard — and the Badgers, after 15 minutes, had themselves 105 offensive yards and a 10-7 lead. Despite moving the ball with ease on their first touchdown drive, Wisconsin mustered just 96 yards the rest of the way for a total of 201 total yards. Meanwhile, Arkansas’ offense continued to bolster down the field, racking up 368 offensive yards.
“It wasn’t the prettiest,” senior linebacker Mark Zalewski said. “I don’t think offensively or defensively we really played our best game, but it seemed like we stepped up at the right times, and besides a few given plays, we really reacted to the ball and swarmed the ball. … An ugly win is a win, so we’ll take it.”
It was head coach Bret Bielema’s contention that his team’s grittiness allowed Wisconsin to defeat the SEC West champion Razorbacks without the benefit of a point in the second half — or positive rushing yards.
“I have a group of coaches that really play to the strengths of the game that’s in front of them,” Bielema said. “We’ve preached all along — it’s not so much what happens during the course of the game, it’s how you react to it.”
It was a sentiment the first-year coach repeated all year long, and his team did react in the closing minutes. Travis Beckum’s first-down catch (off a 3rd-and-10 play) that moved the Wisconsin chains for the first time in the second half — with just 7:31 to go — couldn’t hide the Badger offense’s inability to operate for the majority of the half, but it did kick start the offense just enough to run out the clock.
Running back P.J. Hill, who fumbled the ball with six minutes to go, rebounded on Wisconsin’s final drive of the game. Following a 24-yard completion to Beckum, Hill ran the ball on six consecutive plays picking up 19 yards and one key first down. Though the late effort was nothing spectacular, it was Hill’s shining moment of the game and helped Wisconsin kill off the vast majority of the game’s last eight minutes.
“That’s when I started going a little bit, I knew what I had to do, the guys up front knew what they had to do,” Hill said. “That fumble I had earlier was a mistake. I just put that behind me and just kept grinding the ball down the field.”
Hill, The National Freshman of the Year, ended up with just 36 yards, averaging a miniscule 2 yards per carry.
Finding a way to win even when they weren’t at their best, the Capital One Bowl was a personification of the 2006 Badger squad. So it was appropriate that they won without a strong output from their prolific running game.
“We’ve been in situations like that before, but we just kept a positive mindset, just got the ball down the field as best we could, and we came out with a good win,” Hill said. “That’s just something we do together as a team: We stick together, we communicate and we try to be on the same page as best as we can.”
And Stocco made Arkansas pay for loading the box with nine guys throughout the game. The senior quarterback claimed the MVP award for the game with 206 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“Our coaches understood that we weren’t running the ball with much success, so [offensive coordinator] Paul Chryst, with his bag of tricks, went to a couple different options,” Bielema said. “We went to John’s throwing, and were able to have some success. … This program really doesn’t care about who gets the credit, they just care about wins.”