ORLANDO, Fla. — There is nothing new about a Badger running back being the Most Valuable Player of a bowl game victory for the Wisconsin football program.
But the way Brian Calhoun has played all season, and the way he helped dismantle Auburn in the Capital One Bowl here Monday, earned him an tribute from head coach Barry Alvarez that makes the MVP award almost meaningless.
“When we win big games our running backs play well, this one happens to be the most talented of the ones that we have,” Alvarez said. “He’s the most versatile of all the running backs that I’ve had.
“We’ve had some great ones, we’ve had Heisman Trophy winners, and I’m telling you, he has more ability than all of them.”
Indeed that list includes former bowl MVPs Brent Moss, Terrell Fletcher, Michael Bennett and Ron Dayne—the same running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1999 and is the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher.
“That’s not taking anything away from Ron Dayne or Brent Moss or any of those guys, this guy is special and he showed that today,” Alvarez said.
While it was a bold statement from the 16-year head coach following his final game patrolling the sidelines, it was hard for anyone to argue with him.
“It’s flattering, but I can’t take all the credit,” Calhoun said when asked what Alvarez’s comment meant to him.
Coming into this game, Calhoun faced many questions as to how he would fair against a speedy, tough Auburn defense. He had struggled against similarly talented units in losses to Penn State and Iowa, but Calhoun answered the challenged emphatically.
“They came out ready to play and made a lot of plays,” Tuberville said. “We didn’t have the answer to [the Badgers] running the football.”
Along with Calhoun’s presence running the ball, the Badgers gave the ball to Brandon Williams, a senior wide receiver. He had four carries for 35 yards, proving to be a weapon the ground as well as through the air—he also caught six passes for 173 yards.
“They tried to put as much speed on the corner as they possibly could whether it was Calhoun or [Williams],” Tuberville said. “At times, we were in space trying to tackle both of those guys.”
It seemed that, with Auburn’s quick linebackers, Calhoun would have to do his work between the tackles, yet he was able to get outside and bust a couple of big gainers, including a 60-yarder and his 33-yard touchdown run.
“The offensive line did a great job today,” Calhoun said. “Our offensive line was getting on their linebackers and when that happened, they just had a safety out there and it became a one-on-one situation. That’s why we were so productive running the ball.”
Calhoun finished with 30 carries for 213 yards—second-most in Capital One Bowl history—and one touchdown, his Badger-record 22nd rushing score this year.
Along the way, he became just the second player in NCAA history to run for more than 1,500 yards and gain more than 500 receiving yards in the same season. The only other back to do it was Pacific’s Ryan Benjamin in 1991.
Calhoun finished the year with a UW-record 348 rushing attempts, 1,636 rushing yards—good for fifth in school history—and 2,207 all-purpose yards—placing him second in the Wisconsin record books.
Although he is only a junior and just wrapped up his first season as a Badger—he sat out last year due to transfer rules—Calhoun will now be faced with the decision of whether to return for his senior season or enter the NFL draft.
He had said all week that the issue was the furthest thing from his mind, and his effort Monday backed up his words.
But after the game he still maintained that he has not begun to weigh his options and will wait until he gets home.
“I haven’t given it any thought this week at all,” Calhoun said. “I want to enjoy the win with my teammates and I’ll worry about that when the time comes. We just beat a top-ranked team and I want to enjoy that.”
Whether Calhoun makes the early jump or not, nobody can take this season away from him, and Badger fans got a real treat to see him play for the cardinal and white, even if it is just for one special season.