TAMPA, Fla. — Two quick Georgia strikes, coupled with Wisconsin’s offensive woes and a strong Bulldog defense, ended the Badgers’ season on a sour note, in the form of a 24-21 loss at Raymond James Stadium here Saturday. Bulldog senior defensive end David Pollack and senior quarterback David Greene piled up the dirt, burying the Badgers’ hopes of an Outback Bowl victory.
Although Wisconsin narrowed Georgia’s lead from 24-6 to 24-21 with pair of second-half scores, Wisconsin’s sputtering offense, coupled with Pollack’s defensive prowess, stopped the Badgers from pulling ahead. What began as a 9-0 season with visions of a Rose Bowl and even a national championship, ended as a 9-3 season with a heartbreaking 24-21 loss to Georgia (10-2).
Wisconsin had its shot. Down 24-13 late in the fourth quarter, true freshman middle linebacker Andy Crooks picked off a pass from Greene at Georgia’s 11-yard-line and ran it into the end zone. Sophomore quarterback John Stocco completed a pass to junior receiver Jonathan Orr for the two-point conversion, narrowing Wisconsin’s deficit to three.
“We needed a play, otherwise the game is over,” senior free safety Jim Leonhard said. “Crooks stepped up as a true freshman. For him to do that, I think it will carry him onto great things in the next year.”
But Georgia held onto the ball for the remaining four minutes of the game, putting itself in a fourth-and-inches situation. After Georgia and Wisconsin each took timeouts, the Bulldogs decided to go for the first down. Wisconsin’s defense, one of the best in the nation earlier this season, was no match for freshman tailback Thomas Brown, who ran for 11 yards over left end, easily getting the first down and then some. Georgia sat on the ball for the remaining minute to pull out the win.
“We had the chances, we had some momentum and we couldn’t carry the momentum forward,” offensive coordinator Brian White said. “That’s disappointing for us and that’s why they are in the top five in the country on defense.”
Pollack, who was named the Outback Bowl’s Most Valuable Player, harassed Wisconsin all day, sacking Stocco three times for a loss of 12 yards; on one play on a Wisconsin first-and-goal late in the fourth quarter, Pollack sacked Stocco, forced him to fumble and then recovered the ball, stopping a drive that could have resulted in a Wisconsin touchdown. Crooks’ touchdown, however, followed that Badger miscue.
“I thought he was solid,” Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez said of Pollack. “I thought he played hard. He’s a guy that you want to know where he is. That’s what disappointed me at the end of the game; we turned him loose down there in the red zone, down there deep.”
Pollack and the rest of Georgia’s defense punished Wisconsin’s offense plenty himself but the Badgers took beatings from other Bulldogs as well—in addition to Pollack’s three sacks, junior free safety Thomas Davis (twice), junior middle linebacker Odell Thurman and sophomore defensive end Quentin Moses also sacked Stocco. The last two sacks resulted in fumbles.
The Badgers also racked up seven penalties for 45 yards, not including four that were declined.
Two consecutive Georgia possessions early in the third quarter put Wisconsin down 24-6. Up 10-6 entering the third quarter, Georgia flew down the field on the wings of Greene on its first drive in the second half. The Bulldogs executed a 54-yard, three-play drive that would have been flawless if not for a 15-yard personal foul.
The drive culminated with a rather bizarre play. Greene attempted a pass to flanker Sean Bailey that deflected off senior strong safety Robert Brooks and was caught by fullback Jeremy Thomas, who scampered into the end zone.
“When it popped into his arms and he found a way to get it into the end zone, that was one heck of a way for Greene to get his 20th touchdown pass,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “I’m just happy for him. I usually don’t get a grin on my face in the middle of a game but I had to smile at that. It was very unusual and it was a nice gift.”
Wisconsin went three-and-out on the next drive, including two in complete Stocco passes. The Badger signal-caller finished 12-for-27 for 170 yards. Georgia responded to an ineffective Wisconsin offense by capping off a five-play, 47-yard, drive that took just 1:32 before Brown scampered 29 yards into the end zone. Brown finished with 111 rushing yards on 16 carries and four receptions for 44 yards.
“He’s extremely quick. We missed a lot of tackles but I think he had a lot to do with our missed tackles,” Alvarez said. “Again, we had the momentum and he made some plays; he made it happen for them.”
Mike Allen was the Badgers’ offense in the first half, making a 46-yard field goal in the first quarter and a 44-yard attempt just five seconds into the second quarter for the Badgers’ first six points. But the senior place kicker missed a 37-yard attempt that sailed wide right in the fourth quarter, his final field goal attempt of his college career.
“The two I made, they were all right, there was nothing really special,” Allen said. “The balls were very flat and I was barely making them. The one I missed, I just shanked it right, I can’t do much about it.”
Wisconsin scored its first touchdown in the third quarter, on its best possession of the game. The Badgers marched down the field guided by Stocco, who completed passes of 20 and 30 yards to senior receiver Darrin Charles and Orr, respectively. Stocco polished off the 88-yard drive with a 19-yard pass to Charles, who caught it just inside the end zone for the final catch of his career.