At first, it didn’t appear that the University of Wisconsin football team was interested in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
The defense was being picked apart by Wake Forest’s high-tempo offense and the offense looked hamstrung by the players it was missing.
But after settling in and getting accustomed to the speed the Demon Deacons were playing with, UW made momentum-swinging plays on defense and special teams, the offense made them count by finishing off drives with scores, and the result was a 42-28 win over Wake Forest in a back-and-forth contest that ended up being a comfortable win for UW.
“The defense, the secondary, myself, was just all over the place at first,” junior safety Scott Nelson said of the slow start. “We just didn’t have the awareness we needed. The offense helped us out a lot early and then just playing off of each other.”
“Coach (Paul) Chryst says it all the time — defense helps offense, offense helps defense. Special teams was huge today. (It was) a huge team win.”
The victory pushes UW (4-3) to its 19th consecutive winning season and gives Paul Chryst a 5-1 record in bowl games as the Badgers’ head coach. After falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter, UW tallied the largest bowl-game comeback in program history.
UW snared four interceptions in the second half, all of which were returned into Wake Forest (4-5) territory to set the offense up with a short field. All four picks came off Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, who had only thrown one interception entering the game.
Linebackers Noah Burks and Jack Sanborn and safeties Nelson and Collin Wilder all snagged Hartman passes, with all but Sanborn’s stopping drives in which Wake Forest had the ball across midfield.
“It kind of felt like one just led to the other,” said Sanborn, who was named the game’s most valuable player after posting 11 tackles (two for loss) along with his interception. “That’s a credit to everyone on the team, all the coaches. Wake Forest, they were doing a great job early in the game, but they were running a lot of the same concepts over and over again.”
On all but Sanborn’s interception, the offense made quick work of the short field, scoring a touchdown within a minute, which turned a 21-all tie into a decisive UW edge. The momentum started to shift after Sanborn and Wilder stuffed a fourth-and-1 run to stop a Demon Deacons drive near midfield. The next four Wake Forest possessions ended in interceptions.
“Winning teams do play complementary football,” Chryst said. “I thought all year the defense gave us chances to win in every game, yet we didn’t win every game. Certainly in many of those games, we had to be better offensively. … Football’s a neat game that way, it takes everyone.”
UW defenders said they and their coaches knew from studying Hartman on film that he would focus on the hook/curl zone — an area in the middle of the field typically on the hash marks from 5 to 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. The Badgers used the alignment of their cornerbacks and linebackers to bait Hartman to throw in that area, then would jump the route as soon as he started his motion.
Nelson, Sanborn and Wilder’s interceptions all came on throws to that hook/curl zone.
“We were patient with it at first and then once the looks started coming that we wanted, you could see guys were locked in because we were able to capitalize on that,” Burks said.
UW tallied five rushing touchdowns of 1 or 2 yards, two of which were QB sneaks from Graham Mertz. After Burks’ interception in the third quarter, which was the first of the pick parade, Mertz had a 14-yard touchdown pass to fullback Mason Stokke to give the Badgers their first lead.
The defense’s work helped UW score 28 unanswered points in the second half. A big factor in the defense finding its footing was the work it did on third down. Wake Forest started the game 4 of 4 on third down, but the Badgers stopped 9 of the next 10 third-down tries as they built a lead.
UW tallied just 267 yards, but scored the third-most points it has all season. Mertz was 11 of 17 for 130 yards, with six of those catches and 60 of those yards going to senior receiver Jack Dunn.
Jaquarii Roberson had 131 yards and three touchdowns on eight catches for the Demon Deacons, while Donavon Greene had six catches for 122 yards.
Wake Forest jumped out to a 14-0 lead less than 9 minutes into the first quarter, as Hartman attacked the UW secondary down the field and the Badgers compounded their mistakes by missing tackles. After the disastrous start, UW settled in and was able to play its game from the second quarter on.
Fullback John Chenal got them on the board three plays into the second quarter with a run from 3 yards out. That halved the Demon Deacons’ lead and seemed to energize a UW team that was flat to open the game.
“For me, it was just trying to rally the troops and say, ‘All right, let’s just get a first down and from that point start building off of that,’” Mertz said. “I thought the offensive did a great job executing today.”
Later in the quarter, Wake Forest’s Ivan Mora had trouble fielding a low snap, allowing Jaylan Franklin to work around the edge, get to the ball and block the punt. Franklin — a sophomore who moved from outside linebacker to tight end this season — recovered the ball at the Wake Forest 9.
Helped by a defensive holding call on third down, the Badgers punched in the tying score on Mertz’s QB sneak from the 1.
For the kind of year that the Badgers have had, a comeback win in which they had to stare down adversity once again was par for the course.
“Throughout the year we’ve all had to learn just (to) bounce back, keep on pushing,” Sanborn said. “We got ourselves in a really bad position there. … But everyone was calm. We all understood, ‘Hey, one play.’ … There was a ton of football left to play.”
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