Bowl win puts Wisconsin's never-give-up attitude on display -- and should pay dividends in 2021
The Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in tough situations throughout the 2020 college football season.
The issues continued to grow whether it was COVID-19 outbreaks that limited the number of practices and led to three games being canceled. The Badgers suffered through injuries and illnesses to key skill positions for the offense, which saw long stretches of poor play this season. After all Wisconsin went through this season, the Badgers easily could’ve packed it in and looked ahead to next season after failing expectations this year.
And things didn’t look good early in Wednesday’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl, but the Badgers rallied to a 42-28 win over Wake Forest.
Wisconsin started as slow as a team can get and struggled in all three phases out of the gate. On offense, the Badgers’ first two possessions ended quickly with punts, and the defense couldn’t get a stop on a pair of long Wake Forest touchdown drives. As for the special teams, the opening kickoff went out of bounds, and the second punt traveled 32 yards following a delay of game. Midway through the first quarter, Wisconsin was down 14-0.
It was a mess all around without much reason for optimism for this group, especially with the way Wisconsin has played offensively aside from its first two games of the season.
Trailing by two touchdowns, redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz threw a perfect pass to tight end Garrett Groshek and took a big shot as he delivered the ball for a 40-yard gain. Finally, Wisconsin had something to cheer about, but the big gainer was brought back with tight end Jake Ferguson being called for a penalty as an ineligible man down field.
Right when it seemed like this just wouldn’t be Wisconsin’s day, the offense started clicking. Mertz found wide receiver Jack Dunn for a 13-yard gain on the very next play. The Badgers converted on a 4th-and-1 from their own territory, and Mertz found receiver Chimere Dike for a 27-yard gain, Dunn went for another 19 yards and the drive ended with a 2-yard score from fullback John Chenal. This was a significant drive that started the turnaround for Wisconsin.
Wisconsin grabbed its first lead late in the third quarter, as the Badger defense started creating turnovers. Wisconsin intercepted passes on four consecutive possessions, and the offense took advantage of short fields. This marked the third time the Badgers scored more than 40 points, as they did it in their first two games of the season against Illinois and Michigan before the offense struggled the rest of the regular season.
Yes, it’s hard to get overly excited about beating an average Wake Forest team in something called the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, but this was encouraging for the culture of this program going into the offseason. The Badgers went down early plenty of times this season, and they seemed to shut down on the offensive end. That didn’t happen on Wednesday. Especially with wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor potentially returning next season, this could be a very different looking team — for the better — in 2021. Neither of them suited up Wednesday for Wisconsin.
This season very easily could’ve been ended in the same fashion Wisconsin fans saw earlier in the season in a three-game stretch in which the Badgers failed to score more than 7 points in any of them, all three losses. With the number of player opt-outs and the lack of interest toward the end of the season for a ton of programs across the country, the Badgers could’ve called it a season, especially with what they’ve had to deal with all year long.
Several programs in the B1G and across the country opted out of bowl games this season, but as the end of the season got closer, more and more Wisconsin players expressed their desire to finish their season and potentially career with one more game. Every player has a chance to return to the field next season even if this was their senior year. I don’t blame other teams for wanting to close out a grind of a college football season, but it’s a good thing that Wisconsin wanted another shot at a victory after seeing three games canceled this year.
Regardless, Wisconsin likely won’t face this type of adversity next season, and hopefully the Badgers will be better for it.