Football: Badgers knock off Auburn in Outback Bowl

Tanner McEvoy, who started this season as Wisconsin's starting quarterback, did not register a pass or a rush in the Badgers' game against Auburn.

Tanner McEvoy, who started this season as Wisconsin's starting quarterback, did not register a pass or a rush in the Badgers' game against Auburn.

Image By: Kaitlyn Veto

TAMPA - Melvin Gordon has left his final mark on Wisconsin football. In a season defined by broken records, national accolades and dominant performances, Gordon can add one last highlight to his repertoire: a victory in his final game as a Badger.

Gordon’s 34-carry, 251-yard and three-touchdown performance powered the Badgers (11-3) to a thrilling 34-31 overtime victory over Auburn (8-5) in the Outback Bowl Thursday in Tampa, Florida. Gordon consistently picked up big chunks of yardage to make up for a largely ineffective passing game, scoring all three of UW’s second-half touchdowns to force overtime.

After ending regulation in a 31-31 stalemate, kicker Rafael Gaglianone hit a 25-yard field goal in the Badgers’ first overtime possession.

Wisconsin’s defense then held its ground, forcing Auburn to bring out kicker Daniel Carlson to attempt a 45-yard field goal. Carlson’s kick glanced off the right goal post and fell harmlessly to the ground, prompting Wisconsin to celebrate a successful season that looked like it had gone awry.

Gordon felt that the victory was especially important to the seniors playing in their final game, given that the Badgers had fallen short in their last four bowl appearances

“You look at those many bowl games, and people almost expect you to lose,” Gordon said. “Some of those guys may never play football again. This game though, they’ll remember forever. Now when they tell their kids about their last game, they can say they won it.”

There was a period of time where it looked like the Badgers were on their way to their fifth straight bowl loss. After getting off to a hot start on their first drive, which was highlighted by sophomore Corey Clement’s 43-yard rush on a jet sweep and a 7-yard touchdown pass from redshirt junior Joel Stave to Clement on the ensuing play, the offense went cold.

UW’s remaining first-half drives ended with three punts and two interceptions by Stave. The Badgers worked the ball into Auburn territory on four of their five drives, but came away with no points to show for it.

Meanwhile, Auburn scored on a two-yard run by senior running back Cameron Artis-Payne and a 66-yard strike from senior quarterback Nick Marshall to junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis.

Gordon then took over in the third quarter. He picked up 56 rushing yards on Wisconsin’s first drive of the second half, and he capped it off with a punishing 25-yard touchdown run. Gordon slammed the ball through the heart of Auburn’s defense and fought off a tackler at the goal line to even the score at 14.

Barry Alvarez believed that offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s strategy of throwing the ball in the first half to later open up rushing lanes for Gordon allowed the star running back to get rolling in the final two quarters.

“Our game plan was to open it up early, throw the ball to loosen them up, getting them running around up front and then let the offensive line take over and establish our running game,” Alvarez said. “I really liked what I saw that opening drive of the second half when we ran the ball down the field.”

UW’s defense struggled the entire game. It allowed 435 yards of total offense, and the only second-half drive that Auburn failed to score ended on a missed field goal. Redshirt senior linebacker Marcus Trotter asserted that Wisconsin came in adequately prepared, but it missed assignments at key times.

“The hardest part was just Auburn is so good because even though you know what they’re doing, sometimes people get out of their gaps and that’s the hardest part,” Trotter said. “But for the most part we were consistent, staying in gaps and making plays but they’re a great team and they’re going to capitalize on our mistakes.”

Auburn pulled ahead, 31-28, with just three minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Wisconsin quickly drove into Tiger territory on its ensuing drive. Facing a fourth-and-five situation on Auburn’s 33-yard line, Stave negated his earlier miscues, extending Wisconsin’s drive by hitting senior tight end Sam Arneson on a comeback route that went for seven yards. Stave then connected on a ten-yard pass to senior wide receiver Kenzel Doe two plays later that set up a 29-yard Gaglianone field goal to force overtime.

The bowl victory came at a key time for the program, as its humiliating loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and Gary Andersen’s departure created a tumultuous atmosphere that very easily could have yielded a poor Outback Bowl performance. Alvarez made it his primary initiative to bring stability to the team in its transition period.

“The older guys bought in to that right away,” Alvarez said of his message to the team. “You can go back, they were good in practices. They followed our plan. I changed a lot of things that had been done, as far as weight workouts, conditioning, how physical we were in practice, how we practiced, even going to a movie last night instead of what they normally do. And everything I changed they bought in to, and they felt like that did help them win.”

The departure of Gordon, who finished the season with 2,587 rushing yards, just 41 yards short of Barry Sanders’ FBS record, and the installment of Paul Chryst as head coach lead in to a new era of Wisconsin football. Its dramatic win in the Outback Bowl will provide a starting point that invokes confidence moving forward.

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