NEW YORK — Nothing that happened in the Pinstripe Bowl was going to erase the memories of a season that went awry for the University of Wisconsin football team, but that didn’t mean the Badgers had nothing to gain Thursday at Yankee Stadium.
Topping UW’s to-do list against the Miami Hurricanes?
Sending out a loyal group of seniors on a high note, especially after losing Paul Bunyan’s Axe to Minnesota a month ago. Providing a boost of confidence and enthusiasm to the underclassmen who will be charged with returning UW to the national discussion next season. And finally, finding an answer or two at the troublesome quarterback position.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
The Badgers’ dominating 35-3 victory over the Hurricanes upped their record to 8-5 while leaving the seniors with smiles on their faces and giving the returnees a jolt of energy for the offseason. The win would have been even more comforting, however, had it shed any light on UW’s future at football’s most important position, quarterback.
But first things first. UW put together its most impressive victory of the season behind a relentless running game and a defense that squeezed the life out of the Hurricanes. That won’t make anyone forget about UW’s often-disappointing play this season, especially when it gave us reminders throughout the first half of why it was relegated to the Pinstripe Bowl in the first place.
The Badgers jumped to a 14-0 lead and still maintained a 14-3 edge at halftime, but they could have put away the Hurricanes had they not followed their season-long pattern of squandering scoring opportunities, once with a Jack Coan interception on a ball that never should have been thrown, two other times with missed field goals by Rafael Gaglianone. The second half was a different story, however, as tailback Jonathan Taylor and his line pounded the ball down the throats of a very good defense, leading to a rout in a game where UW was an underdog.
“To end all this with a win like that is awesome,” senior guard Michael Deiter said. “It still could have been a better year, no doubt, but it wasn’t. It is what it is. But we ended the way we wanted to.”
That was something everyone from coach Paul Chryst on down wanted for the seniors.
“We definitely came into this game with a chip on our shoulder,” sophomore tight end Jake Ferguson said. “Losing the Axe was rough and the seniors won’t get a shot back at it. I think coming into this game we knew what had to be done and I think a lot of guys stepped up. It was good to see.”
Especially for the future. Taylor, UW’s latest 2,000-yard man, is the best runner in college football. And the defense, which battled injuries and inexperience all season, finally put it all together even though it was missing three stellar seniors — nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, linebacker Ryan Connelly and safety D’Cota Dixon.
Miami’s attacking defense, which led the nation in tackles for loss, dropped Taylor behind the line five times in the first half. That was eliminated in the second half as Taylor and seniors Taiwan Deal and Chris James took turns blasting though the Hurricanes defense.
Meanwhile, the UW defense was magnificent throughout. In addition to forcing five turnovers, it limited the Hurricanes to 169 yards, with 83 of them coming on two runs — an option keeper and a scramble — by quarterback Malik Rosier. On its other 38 plays, Miami gained 86 yards.
“Whoever is going against us next year, they’ve got another thing coming,” sophomore safety Eric Burrell said. “We ended this thing off right this year. I’m excited for next year. I can’t wait to get it started.”
It would be a lot easier if Coan, a sophomore, had built on his strong finish in his most recent appearance, at Purdue. Thursday, Coan was playing in place of three-year starter Alex Hornibrook, who has been in and out of the lineup the second half of the season due to recurring concussions. Hornibrook’s play before he was injured had regressed from last season and Coan did more with his feet than his arm against Miami, leading to speculation that there will be a quarterback competition during the offseason, one that could include incoming freshman Graham Mertz, among others.
Chryst didn’t exactly shoot down that notion after UW’s uneven quarterback play continued.
“That’s the beautiful thing about sports, is you compete,” he said. “You have to. There’s not one thing that we did at that position that you say, ‘All right, this is how we want it to be.’ There’s moments, but clearly we’ve got to get better at that position, and better in the consistency of play at that position. Yet every victory, they contributed to it.”
All the Badgers did, which is why their trip to New York City was a success. They gave UW its fifth consecutive bowl victory and did it convincingly.
“We really needed this,” freshman cornerback Rashad Wildgoose said. “It boosted our confidence back up, as a unit, as a group. It shows us how good we can be.”
Though it won’t change their disappointing season, the victory certainly gave the Badgers something to hang their helmets on. The running game, the defense and the knowledge of what it takes to win tough games are in place. If only the same could be said for the quarterback.