In addition to growing pains, Wisconsin's defensive line was riddled with real-life injuries all season. Those setbacks prompted coaches to come to All-American offensive tackle Joe Thomas as they prepared in December. The hope was that Thomas could go both ways in Monday's Capital One Bowl here, taking perhaps a dozen snaps on the defensive side of the ball to provide some support.
There must just be something about that defensive line. Thomas lasted only a few plays before succumbing to an injury to his right knee that prematurely ended his season with a quarter-and-a-half left to play.
"Someone told me at first that it was the ankle, and I was trying to keep my fingers crossed that that's what it was," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "As a coach you know it's the next guy in and I think that shows a good statement about our team.
"We were using him because we were already shorthanded."
Alvarez reiterated afterwards that the decision to use Thomas had been thought out well in advance, as it had been widely reported on. Thomas had gladly agreed to play both sides of the ball and prepared all month to do so. Alvarez said they did not want to overwork Thomas considering the heat and his already heavy load.
Freshman Eric Vanden Heuvel replaced Thomas at offensive left tackle and played solid off the bench, as Wisconsin moved the ball well on all three series he played.
It was obviously not the ending Thomas was hoping for after another successful season, but Wisconsin was able to hang tough without him. At press time, the severity of Thomas' injury was unknown.
"It was an unfortunate thing that happened to Joe, but the one thing about Joe Thomas is as good as a football player as he is, he's twice as good a person," Bielema said. "It's just unfortunate that it happened, but everything in life happens for a reason, and I know he'll handle it."
There had been questions surrounding Thomas' future. He is a junior and could declare his eligibility for the NFL draft a year early. Leading up to the bowl game Thomas had repeatedly said he had not yet come to a decision concerning his future. As to some rumors after the game that Thomas is deciding to stick around as Bielema inherits the team, the future head coach said he will need to hear that for himself.
"I'll believe it when I hear it out of his mouth," Bielema said. "I tend to believe things I hear my own self."
Ending on a high note
The Badger senior class surely did not aim to go out with a third consecutive bowl game loss. Nor did they want to add fuel to the reputation that they do not finish seasons well.
They certainly did their best to erase that image on Monday.
Every senior was awarded a game ball following the 24-10 victory that was one of the team's most impressive and complete during their tenure at UW.
"It is (satisfying), only because it was the last game and you want to go out on top," senior receiver Jonathan Orr said. "Like coach said, there were a lot of subtitles to this game—it was the coach's last game, the seniors' last game, some of the coaching staff will be gone—and to go out and do what we believed we could do all along—it was a satisfying victory."
Brandon Williams made it a day to remember, setting a new Wisconsin bowl record for receiving yards with 173, eclipsing Pat Richter's 163 yards in the 1963 Rose Bowl. It was also the fourth-highest total by any player ever in the 60-year history of the Capital One Bowl.
Six receptions on the day gave Williams 202 for his career, adding to his UW record and placing him seventh all-time in Big Ten history. His 2,924 receiving yards is good for second all-time in the school record books as well. In addition to all that, Williams joined former teammate Lee Evans as just the second Badger to amass 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
"That's a great thing right there," Williams said. "Because Lee was the only guy to ever do it and I said I wanted to start the trend and have a 1,000-yard receiver as well as the 1,000-yard running backs that we always have. So to do that, I'm just very proud of my teammates for helping me accomplish that goal."
Orr and Owen Daniels also ended their careers with successful performances. Orr finished with four receptions for 74 yards, including a 45-yard wide-open connection from John Stocco down the right sideline late in the second quarter.
Daniels caught three balls for 46 yards and a touchdown. It marked just the third time this year Daniels caught at least three passes in a game and was his first scoring reception since he hauled in three against Temple in September.
Donovan Raiola, Jason Palermo and Matt Lawrence all ended their Badger careers on the offensive line, going out with a successful performance in which Brian Calhoun credited them for much of the success in his 213-yard rushing performance.
On the defensive side of the ball, senior linebackers Dontez Sanders and LaMarr Watkins played well for a linebacking unit that set an early tone, coming at the Auburn backfield early and often. As a defense the team played probably its best game all season at exactly the right time.
The other of the three senior starters on the Badger defense who had an impressive performance was cornerback Levonne Rowan, who has had his battles over his career at UW but went out on a high note, as the secondary gave up few long passes on the afternoon. Rowan had four tackles, an interception and a pass breakup.
Alvarez passes torch, silences Packer option
While Alvarez enjoyed going out on top and was planning on celebrating with the team Monday night, he made it clear that he had wasted no time in passing on the head-coaching duties to defensive coordinator Bret Bielema.
"We did that already, I passed the baton as I walked in," Alvarez said. "I said you've got the baton, the office is cleared out, go hire a great staff."
Bielema, who's defensive unit had struggled at times throughout the year causing many to question Alvarez's quick decision to name him head coach, proved himself Monday.
The Badger defense held the Tigers to their lowest offensive output of the season and his linebackers, who had been called out earlier in the week by assistant coach John Palermo, responded with their best effort of the year.
Alvarez has never second-guessed his decision, but complimented Bielema's preparation for the Capital One Bowl and reaffirmed his confidence in the future of the Wisconsin program which he turned around in his 16 seasons.
"I think Bret has a good nucleus," Alvarez said. "These kids know how to win, they know how to work, their a close-knit unit. I'm excited about the future of our program, I'm excited about the person I named to lead the program."
Alvarez, who will officially become solely UW's athletic director on Jan. 30, also silenced any notion of him possibly considering the head-coaching position with the Green Bay Packers, a spot which became vacant with the firing of Mike Sherman Monday morning.
"I've never been interested in the NFL," Alvarez said. "Green Bay would be very flattering … but I'm not interested."
Badgers strong in the trenches
With Auburn's speedy defensive ends and monster offensive line, the Badgers had their work cut out for them Monday, but UW's offensive and defensive lines passed their tests with flying colors.
On the offensive side, the front five moved the Tigers' defensive line and linebackers out of the way, paving the way for Calhoun and his career day.
When Thomas went down in the third quarter, true freshman tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel filled in admirably as Calhoun and the offense went unfazed despite losing one of their most important players.
"I think that's the hardest transition from high school to college is the offensive line," Alvarez said. "He looks the part, 6-8, 335… but it takes a lot to process things. It's magnificent for him."
On the opposite side, it was clear that the month off helped the defensive line.
With defensive tackle Justin Ostrowski feeling the best he has felt all year coming off a knee injury suffered in preseason camp, Jason Chapman was able to move back to end. Chapman and Joe Monty were quick off the edges and the unit came up with three of the Badgers' four sacks.
"Chapman, he gets off the ball so well and he gets great pressure on the quarterback and he just does the jobs that Coach Palermo asks of him," Ostrowski said. "I think all of us did that and I think we were very well prepared for the game."