November 25, 2008

In words: 2008 regular season in review

MADISON, Wis. - With the regular season now over, the Wisconsin football team awaits an invitation to its bowl game after finishing its schedule 7-5. Before the season started, the Badgers were predicted by many to finish within the top three of Big Ten teams, instead, UW finished in a tie for sixth place with rival Minnesota.

Today, recaps the season from start to finish:

With the loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl not sitting well with the returning Badger players, UW kicked off the season against Akron from the Mid-American conference. Senior quarterback Allan Evridge finally took over the reigns as Wisconsin's signal caller after a roundabout process that led him from Kansas State to Madison.

In the game, Evridge did not have a great passing performance, he finished 7-of-10 for 75 yards with a touchdown and an interception, mostly because the Badger rushing attack was dominant. In total, P.J. Hill finished with 210 yards rushing and John Clay and Zach Brown helped the team rack up more than 400 yards on the ground in the 38-17 win.

"We presented a unique problem for them," Bielema said following the season opener. "There aren't people in their conference that do what we do. I'm sure it was a difficult preparation for them."

In week two, the Marshall Thundering Herd came to town and put a small scare into the Badgers, and the UW fans. But still, after falling behind 14-0 in the early stages of the game, Evridge's 308 passing yards helped UW rattle off 51 unanswered points for the 51-14 drubbing of Marshall.

"To walk off that field scoring 51-straight points without giving up any makes you want to pack our bags and head to Fresno and keep playing," Bielema said. "I really like the energy that they showed throughout the rest of the game."

The Badgers took to the Valley riding two dominant performances in its first two wins and hoped to continue its momentum at No. 21 (at the time) Fresno State. In the southern California heat, the Badgers snuck past a very physical and tough Bulldog team after FSU's three missed field goal attempts.

Nonetheless, the Badgers were heading into conference play with a perfect record and a bye week to get prepared for Michigan.

With the coaching change in Ann Arbor, many knew 2008 had the potential of being a down year for Big Blue. Heading into the game, UW had a terrible historical record in the "Big House," having not won there since 1994. In the first half of the conference opener, it seemed the No. 9 Badgers would coast to an easy win as it held a 19-0 halftime lead.

But when the teams came out for the second half, the game, and in turn, the season completely got away from Bielema and his team. The same Wolverine squad that would go on to lose a school record nine games, scored 27 unanswered points and pulled one of the biggest upsets of the college football season and held on to win 27-25.

"In my three years of being here, we've only had to endure a loss six times," Bielema said at his weekly press conference two days after the shocking loss to Michigan. "This is the sixth time, it's not easy, it's nothing that I ever want to get used to, it's a very painful experience, but it's something that you have to endure."

Unfortunately for UW, it would have to endure the early-season Big Ten gauntlet, playing at Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and at Iowa in successive weeks. As damning as the loss to Michigan way, UW had a chance to rebound and correct its season with a win against the Buckeyes.

In fact, after a Hill touchdown run with six and a half minutes to play put the Badgers up, it seemed Wisconsin would get back on the winning track.

Instead, a very composed Terrelle Pryor led a 12 play, 80-yard touchdown drive that gave OSU the lead with just over a minute left. While UW had a chance, Evridge's interception on the first play of the drive finished UW's hopes of a win and sent its Big Ten title hopes into a 0-2 hole.

"I could come out and say,'Yeah, I am satisfied with how we played,' but we lost and that is what it comes down to," senior tight end Travis Beckum said following the loss. "When deciding my goals and wanting to win Big Ten championships but then losing ball games, it's kind of taking that faith away."

It did not come as a surprise that the Badgers struggled the following week. First, UW was playing an undefeated and very talented Penn State squad and second, it had suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses.

Still, the Nittany Lions came into Camp Randall and pasted the Badgers 48-7. During the loss, Evridge played the last snap of the season to date when he was pulled in the third quarter and was replaced by Dustin Sherer.

The Sherer era officially began the following week when UW traveled to Iowa to play the Hawkeyes. Riding a three-game losing streak and conference title aspirations out of the window, the UW coaching staff decided the time was right to develop the junior Sherer against a physical Iowa defense.

In his first career start, Sherer finished 17-of-34 with 161 yards and two interceptions and proved no match for Iowa's star running back Shonn Greene. Greene rushed for 217 yards and scored four touchdowns in the Hawkeye's 38-16 rout of UW.

In had been 12 years since the Badgers had lost four-straight games, but the 2008 version of UW football had already notched that stigma when it headed back to Madison to play Illinois.

Much like UW, the Illini had been through its share of ups and downs and were in need of a win. However, even after losing Beckum to a broken leg, the Badgers held on for its first win since defeating Fresno State.

"It was just a fun game," Jay Valai said. "Going around and smacking people, you can't ask for anything better than that."

It was not nearly as much fun the following week at Michigan State as the team's nightmares in the state of Michigan continued. With just over nine minutes to play, the Badgers held an 11-point lead and looked to be on its way to defeating a very good Spartan team.

Instead, MSU stormed back and capitalized on late UW penalties, including a 15-yarder from Bielema, to set up kicker Brett Swenson's 44-yard game winning field goal to send the Badgers back to Wisconsin with another last-second loss.

"Anybody that would question whether we have anything to play for anymore," senior defensive tackle Mike Newkirk said after the loss. "It's something that they don't understand what it is to be a player."

Sitting at 4-5 and its post-season eligibility on the line, the Badgers had to go into Indiana and beat the lowly Hoosiers. And that is exactly what it did. UW rattled off 55 points, including 31 in the second half to crush IU 55-20. In the game, David Gilreath (168), Hill (126) and Clay (112) all passed the 100-yard mark on the ground.

After playing back-to-back road games, the Badgers had two home games to round off the schedule and needed to win at least one to make itself bowl eligible.

After trailing 21-7 at the break, UW stormed back in the second half and retained the axe for at least one more year by defeating the Gophers 35-32.

"The axe means a lot to everybody here," center John Moffitt said after the emotional win. "Coming up, as you get older from your freshman year to your senior year, it just becomes more and more important. So to the seniors it just probably means the most."

Finally, with a 3-5-conference mark in tact, the Badgers hoped to boost its bowl standing with a season ending win against Cal-Poly. To many of the announced 80,000 plus in attendance (although it looked to be a much smaller crowd), the Mustangs gave UW all it could handle. The Badgers snuck past Cal-Poly in overtime after the Mustangs missed its third extra point of the game 36-35.

"It is fun, it's something that you really embrace," Newkirk said following the win in regards to the final two, nail biting wins. "A lot of people get on the edge of their seats and some people may not like it, but they're games that really bring out the best in yourself. They test you and I like to be tested."

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