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Badgers aim to regain past postseason form

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Benjamin Worgull
December 29, 2009
— Making his first bowl trip as a college athlete, Scott Tolzien had a good seat to watch a textbook UW bowl victory.

Despite the Badgers not playing their best game, Tolzien saw John Stocco return from a two-game absence to throw for two touchdowns and the Badgers defense limit the high-octane Razorbacks to only two scores in a 17-14 Capital One Bowl victory over Arkansas in 2007.


“That’s what Wisconsin football is—a gritty program,” Tolzien recalled. “It’s about being built on toughness, taking it one play at a time and playing strong, discipline football. There isn’t any secret, you just have to execute your stuff. Our execution that game was top notch.”


The 24th-ranked Badgers hope to win their first postseason game since that Capital One Bowl and end two years of bowl-game frustrations in the process when they take on No. 14 Miami tonight in the Champs Sports Bowl.


After winning a school-record 12th game over Arkansas, the postseason


hasn’t been kind to UW and head coach Bret Bielema. Sloppy play against Tennessee cost UW in a 21-17 loss in the 2008 Outback Bowl and too many mistakes led to an embarrassing 41-13 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl last year.


Two years, two times not executing and playing a four-quarter game, two sour tastes among Badger Nation.


“When I grew up, the one thing you always remember about Wisconsin was the way they finished its season by being excellent in bowl games,” senior Chris Maragos said. “Going along with our team goal of re-establishing Wisconsin football was finishing out the season right. We need to focus on ourselves and try to keep preparing as good as we can so come game day, we can play as good as we can.”


With that thought process, it’s no surprise UW (9-3) is following an identical practice schedule to the one it used in each of its two bye weeks. The Badgers practiced three times after the Hawaii game before getting several days off. Once arriving in Florida, the Badgers have followed their standard work week in the days leading up to the bowl game.


After its first bye, UW routed Purdue, 37-0, after its first bye and crushed Hawaii, 51-10, after the second bye.


“I think it gives us a chance to take a step back and get back to basics,” said Tolzien of the schedule. “In the regular season when you have games back-to-back weeks, you are really chasing to try and get the next game plan in that sometimes you lose those basic fundamentals. The bye week gives you a chance to go back to what you do best—starting with the basics.


“We’ve taken advantage of it so far during the season. Now we have to take advantage of it for the bowl game.”


The only problem is the Badgers’ opponent is much more potent than the two teams UW beat by a combined score of 88-10. Moreover, the Badgers are 0-2 against ranked opponents; Miami (9-3) went 3-1 against the top 25, all coming in the first four weeks of the season.


The Hurricanes’ main weapon is sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris, who orchestrates a pro-style offense that averages 31.7 points per game, has three backs averaging at least 5.0 yards per carry; and 10 players having at least 11 receptions. Harris doesn’t force passes, has an offensive line that gives up an average of only 2.5 sacks per game and has thrown 23 touchdown passes.


“He’s athletic, he’s gifted, he’s a good player,” said Maragos. “He is who he is; he’s his own player. He’s going to do what he does and that’s make good decisions.”


The key with Harris is how healthy is his injured thumb on his right throwing hand. Harris injured the thumb in a 33-24 loss at North Carolina where Miami outgained the Tar Heels, 435-329, but Harris threw four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.


It’s a game similar to Wisconsin’s loss at Ohio State, when Tolizen was victimized by two pick sixes. Also like Wisconsin rebounding down the stretch, Miami rebounded from the UNC loss to beat Duke and South Florida by a combined 39 points to close out the season. Harris spoke Sunday in Orlando that his thumb his fine and doesn’t anticipate it to be an issue.


Even if Harris is slowed, the Hurricanes’ defense will make it challenging on UW and sophomore running back John Clay, who finished the season with 265 carries, 1,365 yards and 16 touchdowns. The front seven of Miami has limited opponents to 96 rushing yards per game over the last seven game and sophomore cornerback Brandon Harris, a first-team Atlantic Coast Conference pick, might be the best cornerback in the country, leading the ACC in passes broken up (14) and passes defended (16).


“I just see, overall, a very good defense from top to bottom,” Tolzien said. “They have real good athletes that fly around and make a lot of plays. It’s going to be a great challenge for us to do what we do best. In order to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best and this is a good football team. This is another challenge for us and a way for us to finish our season the right way.”


The top goal on Wisconsin’s list this season was to re-establish Wisconsin football—playing fundamentally sound football with fewer penalties, fewer mistakes and winning close football games. The small, yet focal senior class has been the driving force in putting the Badgers back on track. But to truly get back to playing UW football, the Badgers need to find a way to hoist a trophy when the clock strikes zero Tuesday.


“Win or lose, we’ve put Wisconsin football in a position to have success in the future and to be a dominant program in the Big Ten and nationally,” Maragos said. “But, this would be a huge springboard for what we want to do and this would really truly fall into place of what Wisconsin football is—winning bowl games and having 10-win seasons.”



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