BadgersBowlUFR
BadgersBowlUFR

If you think about it, Wisconsin was maybe the last team in the country to represent the Las Vegas Bowl. The Badgers are lacking in glitz; more Reno than Sin City.

Wisconsin ended up bringing something else to Vegas – a little grit and taste of life in Madison. And unlike most who visit the Nevada desert, the Badgers took home more than they brought – namely the Las Vegas Bowl trophy following a 20-13 victory over Arizona State.

Despite having five starters not suit up – cornerback Faion Hicks, wide receiver Danny Davis, offensive linemen Logan Bruss and Joe Tippmann and safety Collin Wilder – Wisconsin was in control of the game in the first half. The Badgers led 20-6 over the Sun Devils, who also had a number of starters out for this game, thanks to a steady offense and usual strong defense.

But lady luck turned in the third quarter.

Wisconsin lost more offensive weapons as tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receiver Kendric Pryor both had to leave the game due to injuries.

The Sun Devils turned up the defense – the Badgers had minus-7 yards in the third quarter – while making some big plays on offense.

Arizona State made it a one-touchdown game and were driving in the fourth quarter, getting across midfield on another of those chunk plays – a 35-yard completion on third-and-18.

Wisconsin’s defense buckled down, though, and forced a punt. However, the Badgers were pinned to at their own 3-yard line and, as noted, hadn’t exactly been moving the ball.

That’s when the 2021 Badgers showed up one last time. On what would be the final drive of the year and season, Wisconsin marched down the field on an 18-play, 90-yard drive which took up the remaining nine minutes and 57 seconds of the game.

In true Wisconsin fashion, the drive featured 14 runs and a pass to a fullback, plus a couple of kneeldowns and a defensive offsides penalty (without the penalty it would have left the Badgers with a fourth-and-2 and chip-shot field-goal attempt to make it a two-score game). Oh, also another big play which we’ll discuss below.

It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest game you’ll see, but Wisconsin did enough to win plus got some younger players on the field for some valuable experience.

It might not have been flashy, but the Badgers left Las Vegas a winner. You can’t ask for more than that.

Here's a recap of Thursday’s bowl game:

PLAYER OF THE GAME

With all the weapons missing for Wisconsin, the Badgers had one remaining: running back Braelon Allen. The freshman sensation rushed for over 100 yards – in the first half. But Arizona State stymied Allen in the second half, holding him to 13 yards on seven carries. Then came that final drive. Wisconsin relied on Allen to help salt away the game. He carried the ball 10 times and gained 45 yards, including getting a first down on third-and-one to open the drive and later having runs of 14 and nine yards. Allen finished with 29 carries – his previous high was 25 – for 159 yards, the 10th-highest total for a Wisconsin running back in a bowl game. Allen didn’t find the end zone but it’s hard to see the Badgers having won this game without him.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT ME

Linebacker Nick Herbig had seven tackles, five solo, including a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss. Herbig notched two sacks – both of which were key plays. His first came in the opening quarter. On Arizona State’s fourth play of the game, a first-and-10, Herbig corralled quarterback Jayden Daniels for a 13-yard loss. On the next play, an obvious passing down, John Torchio picked off Daniels to set up Wisconsin’s first touchdown. Herbig’s second sack occurred in the fourth quarter. On third-and-8 from the Wisconsin 47, he tossed Daniels for a 5-yard loss, which forced the Sun Devils to punt … and Arizona State never got the ball back.

THAT MOMENT

We haven’t mentioned Graham Mertz yet but that’s about to change. The sophomore quarterback completed 11 of 15 passes for 137 yards with a touchdown and an interception. In the third quarter, Mertz completed two passes – both of which were to Allen and went for one yard. But on that final drive of the game, Mertz had his biggest throw of the game. On third-and-12 from UW’s own 24, with pressure up the middle and a defender barreling down on him (and Mertz getting his just after he threw), the Badgers quarterback found a wide open Chimere Dike downfield for a 30-yard gain to the ASU 46. (By the way, on that play, or rather after it was over, Jack Dunn was picked up and tossed to the ground. No penalty, but apparently the refs nearly gave the Sun Devils two points for a takedown.) It was only the fifth first down thrown by Mertz this season on 24 third-and-10+ attempts (one of those first downs was earlier in the game, a 31-yarder to freshman Markus Allen on third-and-11). Wisconsin turned the game over to Allen and fullback John Chenal the rest of the way.

THIS NUMBER

48. How about we give credit to a kicker? Collin Larsh was often passed over by head coach Paul Chryst on potential longer field-goal attempts this season. His long was only 43 and over the last four games he made just 3 of 6 boots. But late in the second half there was Larsh connecting on a 48-yarder, a career long (his previous high was 44 back in 2019). It tied for the second-longest field goal in a Wisconsin bowl game, behind just Taylor Mehlhaff’s 52-yarder in 2017 Capital One Bowl and tied with John Hall, who hit one from 48 yards in the 1995 Hall of Fame Bowl. Larsh, who said he’s returning in 2022, also made one from 35 yards out at the close of the first half.

THEY SAID IT

"Took a lot of guys to get us that victory. It's really what this season's been. It's a special team." -- head coach Paul Chryst

"That (drive) is a testament to the work we put in throughout the summer and season. We needed to put together a big drive at the end. You have to put trust in each other and be confident in the play calls and that you're going to execute and get it done. I feel like we did that and made big plays when we needed them." -- running back Braelon Allen

"We had been struggling. Chim ran a heck of a route, and Graham made the throw." -- Chryst on Graham Mertz's 30-yard completion to Chimere Dike

"It means a lot to us. We knew what this defense could have been, we knew we were special. We wanted to make history. We wanted to be one of those defenses that people look back on and say, 'Those guys are great. Those guys got after it.'" -- linebacker Jack Sanborn on UW finishing with the best run defense (61.0 yards/game) in school history.

"I give all credit to Wisconsin’s defense. Everybody in this room knew what they were capable of. They’re not a top ranked defense in the nation for no reason. They’re very disciplined. We knew coming into this game that the game would be won up front at the line of scrimmage." -- Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels

"They’re scary because when you watch them on tape, that’s exactly what they can do. They can chew up some drives, they can chew up a lot of time. I kept looking up at the clock, trust me. Every time they made a first down I kept looking up at the clock and I said, ‘We’re running out of time.’ Toward the end there, we were actually going to let them score but they knew we were probably going to try and let them score and they said, 'Alright, we’ll take a knee.' We were running out of time. We were within two minutes and I said, 'The only way we’re going to have a chance is if we let them score now and then we get the ball and hopefully we got some time left and maybe we can do this, score and kick and onside kick and all that crazy stuff.' But they prevented us from doing that. They did the right thing, they took a knee.” -- Arizona State head coach Herman Edwards

WHAT'S NEXT

Wisconsin’s next game won’t be until Sept. 3, 2022 when Illinois – and former Badgers coach Bret Bielema – visits Camp Randall Stadium. But there’s plenty of questions to be answered before then: Will associate head coach/run game coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph be leaving Wisconsin? Which Badgers players might leave for the NFL and what seniors could return for another year? Are there any more transfers – coming or going – in the pipeline? There’s some exciting young players to look forward to next season but also problems which need fixing. See you for spring ball.