The Wisconsin (4-3) defense definitely played with some twang after halftime Wednesday afternoon.
Facing a middling Wake Forest (3-4) team in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., a flurry of defensive stands and turnovers put Wisconsin ahead for good with a 42-28 victory, clinching their nineteenth-consecutive winning season.
It didn’t start well for the Badgers’ secondary, however. Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman put the Demon Deacons in the end zone on the team’s first two drives, carving up UW defensive backs Caesar WIlliams and Scott Nelson. Neither scoring drive took more than four minutes, and had Wake Forest up 14-0 before the midway point of the first quarter.
“I think we put ourselves in a bad spot there, linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “Everyone was calm, I was calm on the sideline … There was a ton of football to play, we all knew that, and a ton of guys stepped up today.”
Momentum swung in Wisconsin’s favor toward the end of the first half with a blocked punt that set the Badgers up on Wake’s 9-yard line. A 5-play, 9-yard touchdown drive capped off by a Graham Mertz quarterback sneak would tie the ballgame up going into halftime.
“When you look back at it, winning teams do play complementary football,” Head Coach Paul Chryst said of the special teams setting up a quick touchdown drive. “Football is a great sport, and in my opinion the greatest team sport. It takes every group to do their part.”
The second half is when things really got spicy for the Mayo Bowl Badgers. Tied at 21 with Wake Forest driving deep into Wisconsin territory, linebacker Noah Burks picked off a Hartman screen pass and took it back 41 yards to flip the field position.
According to Sanborn –– the Duke’s Mayo Bowl Most Valuable Player –– Burks re-arranged the playcall just prior to snagging the team’s first interception.
“Originally, that was supposed to be my guy,” Sanborn said. “[Burks] made a quick adjustment to change the play, and I don’t think the quarterback saw him at all. Credit to [Burks], he flipped the momentum with that one play, and from there I think it just took off.”
Burks mentioned that the Wisconsin sideline seemed to get a jolt of energy following his big play.
“I definitely felt a lot of juice … guys running around getting excited on the sideline which is always fun to see,” Burks said following his pick. “Turnovers are such a huge momentum changer, so to be able to bring that to our side of the field was great.”
Nelson would be the next recipient of a post-holiday gift from Hartman, who tried to force a fourth-and-four pass over the middle that Nelson intercepted in full-stride. He was able to sprint down inside Wake Forest’s 5 yard line, but replay review placed him down at the WF 2. Two plays later, senior Garrett Groshek punched in a one-yard touchdown to put Wisconsin up by two scores.
Nelson, echoed what each of the Wisconsin defenders said postgame regarding the interceptions: Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s preparation had the team completely dialed in on Wake Forest’s passing attack.
“The coaches, they figured out around third-and-medium, Wake Forest likes to run a lot of option routes with the slot receiver No. 5,” said Nelson, explaining why he jumped the route. “So we were going to drop the safety into the window there and give him a chance to make a play.”
Wake Forest’s game plan was quickly turning into The Second Half from Hell(man’s). Another Hartman interception, this time thrown right into the hands of Sanborn, was his third consecutive drive ending in a Badgers takeaway.
It was Sanborn’s first interception of the short season, and capped off a fantastic 2020 campaign that saw his NFL Draft stock rise sharply. While Wisconsin has a knack for keeping players around through graduation, the junior is a name to watch as a potential NFL Draft declaration candidate this spring.
Nelson had high praise for the junior linebacker that started all seven of Wisconsin’s games this season as the leader of the defense.
“He erases a lot of plays that may have been big plays,” Nelson said of the Mayo Bowl MVP. “He shaves off mental errors and missed tackles by other teammates … Being able to talk to him, bounce stuff off of him, he’s a very smart individual when it comes to football. You saw him making a bunch of plays today, so credit to him.”
Hartman wasn’t quite done passing out freebies to the Wisconsin secondary though. His fourth and final interception looked nearly identical to Nelson’s, but instead was grabbed by safety Collin Wilder, who weaved poorly downfield and was caught by Hartman right before the Wake Forest goal line.
“It kind of felt like one led to another,” Sanborn said of the four straight interceptions. “After three picks, we were joking ‘hey Collin, you have to get one’ and then he got one … Collin and Scott just have to get into the endzone next time.”
The four consecutive interceptions of Hartman stand out even more when considering that the Wake Forest quarterback had only thrown one pick all regular season. That included clean games against No. 1 Clemson and No. 19 Virginia Tech.
Wisconsin would ultimately come away with a 42-28 victory, improving Chryst’s bowl record to 6-1 as head coach in Madison. Sanborn made a point to acknowledge how important it was to this team to send the seniors off with another postseason victory.
“For some guys, this is their last game playing in the red and white,” Sanborn said. “The second half was just a true team effort –– special teams, offense, defense –– to go out like this says a lot.”