MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The disappointment wore off gradually after Wisconsin’s national championship dreams vanished into the Indianapolis night at the Big Ten championship. With the undefeated campaign, the greatest season in program history gone, players needed a week to simply get away and think about anything but football.
When they reconvened, the Badgers recognized there was still plenty for which to play. Yes, they had been on the precipice of something magical. But a bowl game outside the College Football Playoff didn’t have to feel like nothing more than a glorified exhibition.
On Saturday night, the Badgers played with poise and purpose in their first game since that crushing loss against Ohio State four weeks earlier. No. 6 Wisconsin battled back from an early deficit to defeat No. 10 Miami 34-24 in the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium, capping the first 13-win season in school history.
Afterward, players hugged on the field, donned black Orange Bowl champions T-shirts over their jerseys and then stepped on a makeshift stage to celebrate. Badgers coach Paul Chryst and quarterback Alex Hornibrook, the game’s most valuable player, took turns tossing oranges out of the trophy to teammates and fans in the stands.
So while this wasn’t the playoff berth the Badgers envisioned when fall camp began, it was quite meaningful nonetheless.
“It’s awesome,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “That’s a record. No one’s done that. And that’s something we all have to be proud of, and we are. Winning 13 games in a season is not easy. It’s very hard, and there’s a ton that went into it. A ton of different ways to win games, and it just makes it that much more sweet. Because you know stuff that didn’t go well, and we just battled through it and still found a way to win 13 games. We’ve just got to be proud.”
Wisconsin demonstrated grit and determination after falling behind 14-3 in the first quarter in front of a heavily pro-Hurricanes crowd. The game took place in Miami’s home stadium, where the Hurricanes were 7-0 this season, and the venue felt every bit like a true road contest.
But Badgers outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel provided the spark Wisconsin needed when he intercepted Miami quarterback Malik Rosier at the Hurricanes’ 23-yard line on the first play of the second quarter. Wisconsin needed only three plays before Hornibrook connected with receiver Danny Davis for the first of 3 touchdowns to him. The Badgers scored 21 unanswered points to take a 24-14 halftime lead and help suck the life out of the stadium.
“I hate losing,” Van Ginkel said. “I’m going to try to show up every play. We’re a team. We love each other. We knew we couldn’t have 2 straight losses. We had to come out, prove ourselves and really show that we’re a great team.”
Throughout the season, national pundits hammered Wisconsin’s team for its perceived lack of quality wins, even as the Badgers bludgeoned opponents each week. Wisconsin finished the regular season 12-0, which included victories against Iowa and Michigan.
Yet when Wisconsin lost 27-21 to Ohio State in the conference title game, it seemingly validated naysayers who suggested Wisconsin had no business being in the national championship conversation. But if the Ohio State loss was an indictment on Wisconsin as a viable playoff team, the Miami victory promptly turned the tables and represented a swift kick to the backside of those who claimed the Badgers didn’t belong in the elite class of college football.
“It’s special,” Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “We wanted to set a new standard here. We’ve always been able to get 10 wins, but to get 13, that was huge. Some of those guys that are coming back can carry the torch and continue an upward trend on our success.”
This was a group that certainly believed before the season it was every bit as good as any team in the country. And the Badgers (13-1) showed how good they could be in one of the biggest bowl games that can be played. Wisconsin’s confidence overflowed against Miami (10-3). The Badgers’ young wide receivers celebrated touchdowns by mocking Miami’s turnover chain celebration, placing and ripping off an invisible chain after Wisconsin’s first two scores. Even Chryst was caught by television cameras on the sideline near the end of the game with a humorous derision aimed at Miami: “Turnover chain, my [expletive] ass.”
“This group has confidence in themselves and I think in each other,” Chryst said. “One thing you feel good about as a coach is they’re going to go play, they’re going to compete, and they kept doing that.”
Wisconsin was praised this season for possessing one of the top defenses in the country. But on Saturday night, the Badgers put together an offensive performance that will be remembered for some time. Hornibrook, maligned all season for his high interception rate, delivered an absolute gem.
He completed 23 of 34 passes for 258 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. Davis caught 5 passes for 56 yards with 3 touchdowns, while A.J. Taylor added 8 catches for 105 yards and 1 touchdown. Hornibrook closed the season with 25 touchdown passes, the second most in a single season in school history.
“Obviously, we wanted to be in the playoff,” Hornibrook said. “That was our goal from the start. We didn’t get there. We were in the Orange Bowl. We made the most of it, and it was awesome to play with these guys one more time.”
Wisconsin won its fourth consecutive bowl game and has now beaten Auburn, USC, undefeated Western Michigan and Miami. The only other time Wisconsin won four consecutive bowl games came from 1998-2002. Wisconsin also joined Ohio State (2002, 2014) and Michigan State (2013) as the only Big Ten teams to win 13 games in a season.
The Badgers dared to dream this could be the team to finally push the program over the hump. Wisconsin didn’t reach the playoff, but Badgers players had little doubt the season will be remembered as one of the finest in program history.
“This is definitely something I’m going to talk about to my kids one day when I’m all washed up and bald and everything,” Badgers defensive end Alec James said. “It was a lot of fun.”