After a turbulent month, Wisconsin ended the 2014 season on a high note. The Badgers escaped Auburn, 34-31, in the Outback Bowl after Tigers kicker Daniel Carlson missed a game-tying 45-yard field goal in overtime. Here are three thoughts from Wisconsin’s bowl win.
1. Breaking: Melvin Gordon is still good
No one is surprised by Wisconsin’s star running back anymore. He rushed for 2,336 yards in the regular season and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. Gordon continued his stellar run against Auburn as the Badgers ran all over coach Gus Malzahn’s squad.
Gordon reeled off an Outback Bowl-record 251 rushing yards (7.4 yards per carry) Thursday, adding three touchdowns. The running back spearheaded a Wisconsin rushing attack that compiled 400 total yards on the Tigers’ defense. Gordon’s day included touchdown runs of 25 and 53 yards.
On the year Gordon produced 2,587 rushing yards, second in FBS history behind former Oklahoma State star Barry Sanders (2,628). Gordon is the kind of player that will be missed in college football, and he certainly went out with a bang. His performance also helped the Badgers bounce back from the surprising loss of head coach Gary Andersen, who took the Oregon State job earlier this month.
Luckily for Wisconsin, the running back cupboard is far from empty as sophomore Corey Clement, who rushed 132 times for 844 yards and nine touchdowns this season, is poised to step into the lead role. Clement gained 105 yards on 15 carries against Auburn on Thursday.
2. Auburn needs serious help on defense
The Tigers faced an obvious challenge in trying to stop Gordon and Wisconsin’s efficient running game. But Auburn’s performance in the Outback Bowl only proved what most on the Plains already knew: This team needs major improvement on defense in 2015. Wisconsin ran for 7.4 yards per carry against Auburn on Thursday, and in the Tigers’ last three losses (Georgia, Alabama, Wisconsin), they’ve allowed 916 total rushing yards.
But the run game wasn't the Tigers' only problem Thursday. Wisconsin’s turnover-prone quarterback Joel Stave also managed to engineer a game-tying drive at the end of regulation. Stave, who’d already thrown three interceptions on the day, pushed his offense into field-goal territory down 31-28 late in the fourth quarter. His pass to Sam Arneson on fourth-and-five kept the drive alive and allowed Rafael Gaglianone’s kick to send the game to overtime. During the extra period, Stave’s conversion on third-and-eight gave Wisconsin a shorter field goal, which ended up being the game-winner.
Between Stave’s late performance and Gordon’s running power, the Badgers finished with 521 yards of offense and 6.4 yards per play. Next year, Auburn’s defense will be looking for a transformation under newly hired coordinator Will Muschamp, who was in attendance in Tampa. Muschamp’s tenure as Florida’s head coach was marked by limited overall success, but his defenses were exceptional. That’s good news for Tigers fans, who can’t expect to bounce back in the SEC with a defense like this.
3. The SEC’s bowl struggles continue
The SEC’s reputation as the best conference in football has taken a major hit this postseason. The league is currently 4-4 overall in bowl games. After Wisconsin’s win over Auburn, ranked SEC teams are 1-4 this postseason, while teams hailing from the vaunted SEC West are 2-4.
The SEC has also lost its biggest bowl games of the season thus far in its New Year’s Six matchups. TCU kicked Ole Miss out of the building Wednesday in the Chick-fl-A Peach Bowl with a 42-3 rout before Georgia Tech topped Mississippi State 49-34 in the Orange Bowl. Top-ranked Alabama still must tango with Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday, but the SEC is hardly looking as dominant in December as it did during the regular season.