Wake up, Badger fans. It’s real.
After a decade of Outback, Capital One and Champs Sports Bowls, UW is headed back to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. The Granddaddy of Them All. The coolest, most awesomest, most kickass bowl of them all. Whichever name you like most (many prefer the latter), stick with it because that’s where Wisconsin’s headed.
It’s been common knowledge since the 70-23 drubbing of Northwestern, but last night, it became official. For many Badger fans, another Rose Bowl berth marks UW’s return to national prominence. For others, it’s a tremendous achievement that signals where the program is headed in the immediate future, vindication for the faith Barry Alvarez had in Bret Bielema way back in 2006. Some want the Badgers in the national championship game; others want them back in the Capital One Bowl.
Regardless, one thing is for certain – the success achieved by the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers is a direct result of the success achieved by the 2009 Wisconsin Badgers, most notably in last year’s Champs Sports Bowl.
Wisconsin ran down, over and through Miami in that game, rushing 42 times for 170 yards and compiling 430 total yards of offense. The Hurricanes had only 61 yards on the ground and finished with 249 total. “The U” was simply no match for UW, who won the time of possession battle, 39:15-20:45.
Afterwards, the Badgers were ecstatic, and rightfully so. After two consecutive bowl losses, Bret’s program had righted the ship. The players couldn’t stop talking about how long they were going to celebrate, and even stiff ‘ol Bielema threw up the Wisconsin ‘W’ in jubilation.
Offensively, the Badgers might’ve been old school, but they certainly weren’t slow. The offensive line plowed through the physically overmatched (diminutive in comparison) Hurricane front seven, controlling the clock, as well as the tone and pace of the game. This year, Wisconsin is even better, averaging the nation’s seventh-best average time of possession, 32:29 minutes per game. The Badgers rushed for 2,968 yards this season, second in the Big Ten only to the Michigan Denards – err, Wolverines – and 12th in the nation.
Last year, running back John Clay was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the Champs Sports Bowl MVP. In the bowl game, Clay rushed 22 times for 121 yards and two touchdowns, mostly in the first half. This season, Clay was merely the Badgers’ third-best running back at times. Freshman running back James White led the team in rushing yards with 1,029, while Clay was second with 936 yards. Sophomore Montee Ball was third with 864 rushing yards, but even his yards per carry average (6.1) eclipsed Clay’s (5.3).
In the Champs Sports Bowl – and really, all season – the Badgers ran the ball up and down the field with ease. Hey, it’s Wisconsin. But this year, that power run game is something more; it’s Wisconsin Football. Beating the Hurricane down as forcefully as the Badgers did showed Bielema & Co. that running the ball really is more than a strategy, it’s a mentality. It’s an identity.
This year, Wisconsin Football isn’t just power running. It’s dominating, overwhelming, this-will-never-end running with three different backs. All three have different styles, too – Clay’s the traditional power back, White is as fast and shifty as you will find and Ball can literally do it all. No rhyme intended. Say what you will about maybe the Badgers getting lucky by having White emerge so quickly as a true freshman, but don’t forget, that bowl win was in the heart of Florida, where so much of the nation’s best high school talent comes from (i.e. White himself).
Furthermore, Wisconsin Football has been expanded in 2010 to make the quarterback more than just the guy that hands the ball off. Tolzien surprised many by winning the starting quarterback job in Spring 2009, and he was efficient all year. Against Miami, Tolzien capped off his emergence with a 19/26, 260-yard performance. The 260 passing yards are still a career high, but this year, Tolzien has been one of the nation’s top quarterbacks.
Of course, Tolzien owes so much to his offensive linemen: John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler, Ricky Wagner, Bill Nagy, Ryan Groy (to name a few). But on defense, J.J. Watt truly epitomized the leap from good to great that Wisconsin has made this year. In 2009, Watt’s numbers basically spoke for himself; in the bowl game, he did force a critical sack and fumble, but his 44 tackles, 15.5 tackles for a loss of 53 yards, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and five pass deflections were what mainly stood out. This year, Watt’s stats are even better.
The Bednarik Award semifinalist is the Badgers’ superstar on defense, and it was never more obvious than late in the season – his three tackles for loss and two sacks against Ohio State, his shoestring sack of Ricky Stanzi in the Iowa game, his pure dominance over Northwestern are just a few of the moments where Watt was an impact player.
That’s where the greatest connection from last year’s Champs Sports Bowl victors to this year’s Rose Bowl contenders is drawn. This year, Wisconsin took the foundation provided by a dominant, eye-opening bowl win and extrapolated it for an entire season.
Simply put, everything that led the Wisconsin Badgers to success this year was a result of last year’s Champs Sports Bowl. Those aren’t even purely my words.
“I said in the locker room after the Miami game to the seniors that were leaving us that day, ‘You weren’t part of a championship season, but you laid the foundation for where we are to move forward’,” Bielema said. “When we do win a championship, I’ll buy you all a ring.”
Unfortunately, that would apparently constitute an NCAA violation. Don’t worry, Bielema knows that. He also knows that this magical 2010 season didn’t just come out of thin air. It came from last year, a sampling of the dominance that typified this year’s Badgers and this year’s brand of Wisconsin Football.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Do the Badgers owe their success to last year’s Champs Sports Bowl? Let him know at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.