ORLANDO, Fla. – Looking at the statistics alone, it’s hard to figure.
Negative rushing yards, more than 22 minutes in the second half without a first down, and seven sacks allowed – all of those numbers now lie on Wisconsin’s 2007 Capital One Bowl resume. But so does a victory.
“Well, I’m scratching my head and wondering how we won,” laughed Joe Thomas after being asked whether he thought former coach Barry Alvarez was wondering the same thing.
It didn’t take him long to offer up an opinion, however.
“The answer is that when we had to make big plays, we had guys step up and make those plays,” Thomas said. “And that was the key to victory.”
Thomas and the offense did finally step up in their last two possessions, gaining first down yardage and running off the clock. But for the most part, the guys stepping up to make plays were lining up on the defensive side of the football.
The Razorback defense had the stats – the sacks and hurries foremost. But when the Badger defense needed to be one step shy of perfect to hold onto a 17-7 halftime advantage, they were just that.
Not counting their last minute Hail Mary attempt, the Arkansas offense took the field six times after the break. One of those occasions ended in a Felix Jones touchdown, but in the rest of them Wisconsin was both stingy and timely in its defensive effort.
Don’t think a struggling offense didn’t notice.
“[Jason Chapman] getting in there and rushing that quarterback, DeAndre Levy I think coming up with the interception,” began wide receiver Paul Hubbard, recounting some of the big sparks provided by the Badger defense Monday.
“Guys getting downfield and making plays, [Joe Stellmacher] hitting a guy really good to pop the ball loose – there’s a lot of things that stick out to me. There’s not just one play that I can name off. It was a slugfest. We were going back and forth the whole game.”
Hubbard was correct. There was not one play that sealed either team’s fate in the second half. Instead, as UW struggled in going three-and-out on its first five drives following halftime, there were numerous occasions when Wisconsin’s defense perhaps kept the team from feeling sluggish.
Of course there was the interception referred to by Hubbard, when Levy picked Mitch Mustain at the 28-yard line on a fourth down. There was the reverse to Darren McFadden that safety Zach Hampton – who relieved an injured Roderick Rogers – sniffed out and stopped for just a yard. Or there was the stuff of McFadden by Chapman and the 12-yard sack that followed it, as he ran down quarterback Casey Dick near the right sideline to the roar of a heavy Wisconsin crowd.
A year after the Badger defense surprised a lot of people here in Orlando, this time around they proved they belong amongst the nation’s best , and are a big reason for this UW team (12-1) being the winningest in school history.
“We kept stressing on the sidelines that it was our game to lose,” said senior linebacker Mark Zalewski. “If we didn’t let them score 10 points at a certain point then we were going to win the game. And we just kept saying that. We weren’t worried about what the offense was doing.”
Hampton expanded on how that energy can rub off on the entire team.
“It’s huge,” Hampton said. “Our offense feeds off our defense. I think that’s the way it’s been all year.”
“It was just everybody stepping up and saying if they don’t score, they don’t win,” he later added. “I mean, they got that one there, but you know, we just put it upon ourselves to not let them get in range to score.”
It was not always a tackle in the backfield or a turnover that did the job either. Sometimes it was the plays that will not show up in even an extended boxscore as being particularly important.
The collaring of McFadden from behind by Jack Ikegwuonu on the opening possession of the game saved a touchdown and jump-started a ten-point swing. A hard shoulder from Joe Stellmacher to break up a completion, or a Casillas hand in the passing lane to do the same on fourth down also served as spark plugs.
The Wisconsin defense never tired through it all. They weren’t about to, according to Hampton.
“No, definitely not,” Hampton said. We’ve been getting good conditioning all this December. And you know, we knew it was on us the whole second half. We knew it was going to be on us and we just stuck with our assignments. We played well.”
So while some might be left scratching their heads, the fact is that Wisconsin won by some measure in the way it claims to want to – as a team. The defense kept them going when they needed it most, and in crunch time the offense pulled through.
“An ugly win is a win,” Zalewski said with a smile. “So, we’ll take it.”