Missed Opportunities Haunt Wisconsin As Tennessee Captures Outback Bowl Win
TAMPA, Fla. - With less than a minute to play, and his No. 18 Wisconsin team trailing No. 16 Tennessee, 21-17, Tyler Donovan couldn't have been happier if he was sitting in front of a platter of steak instead of in a bowl named for a steakhouse.
"Those kind of situations, it's fun," the senior signal-caller said. "Players thrive in those kinds of situations, and I was loving it."
With 28 seconds left, however, he was devastated.
That was when Antonio Wardlow picked off Donovan's would-be touchdown pass to win the game. If he had connected with, Donovan would have been the hero of the 2007 Outback Bowl. Instead, the Volunteers held on for the 21-17 win.
"With the amount of time left on the clock," Donovan said, "we knew we had to rush it down the field pretty quick. Give credit to Tennessee for making the play."
That the Badgers needed a touchdown rather than a field goal goes back to the game's key play, a fourth-down play around the six-minute mark in the fourth quarter. The Badgers had driven deep into Tennessee territory with P.J. Hill doing most of the damage with a 50-yard run that got him to the Volunteers' 18-yard line. After two Lance Smith runs resulted in a loss of one yard, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema made a decision on third-and-11.
"The biggest thing was on third down we had made the decision that if it was fourth and two or less, we were going for it," the second-year head coach said. "We made the call accordingly."
Donovan's pass to Travis Beckum was complete for nine yards - one of only two catches for the star tight end on Tuesday, as he finished with 22 yards - and sure enough, Bielema stuck to his guns on fourth down. The gamble did not pay off, as Donovan's pass sailed high and out of the end zone.
"It's a flood route," Donovan said. "We try to put Travis in motion, where he's in the flat and then he kind of hovers in a corner route. They did a good job of flowing through it and staying outside of the route. It's a play where it could go either way, but they did a good job defending it."
"We weren't able to execute and Tennessee did a good job," Bielema said. "There's a lot of things that went into it, but we only hand one timeout."
The combination of missed opportunities spoiled a tremendous second half for the Wisconsin defense, which held the Volunteers to 135 yards and did not allow a single point after Tennessee gained 296 yards in the first half en route to a 21-14 halftime lead.
"We knew if we kept on playing the way we were playing, we wouldn't be on the field much longer," said linebacker Jonathan Casillas. "We would have been on the sideline looking at the scoreboard as they keep racking up points. We just had that passion in the second half. We should have started the game like that."
However, while the Wisconsin redoubled its efforts after a slow start, the Volunteers defense did an excellent job under pressure, allowing just three second-half points - despite the Badgers gaining 203 yards after halftime - to preserve Tennessee's 25th all-time bowl win.
"As long as we had the lead at halftime," Wardlow said, "I knew that there was a good chance of us winning."
The win improves Tennessee's record to 10-4 on the year, the 20th 10-win season in UT history, and a vindication of sorts for head coach Phil Fulmer and his team.
"This has been a very challenging season, to say the least," Fulmer said, "and to finish with 10 wins is a real honor. I also think it kicks of 2008 for us in a very positive manner"
The game also served as a fitting end to the career of Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge, who was named the game's MVP after completing 25 of his 43 pass attempts for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He finishes his Volunteer career with a 27-10 record as a starter, and those 43 attempts set a new school record with 519 this season. The previous record-holder was Peyton Manning, who attempted 477 throws in 1997.
"He knows where to go with the football," Bielema said. "There was one occasion, a big play there towards the end when they had an unblocked man, the protection wasn't there. We had designed a blitz that they were unable to pick up, and he was able to find a man and deliver before we were able to get there. It was an unblocked rusher right in his face. I turned away from that play and realized that was a pretty good player right there."
The last of Ainge's touchdowns was one of those great "only in college" moments, as Ainge found senior tight end Brad Cottam for a 31-yard score. The touchdown was the first of Cottam's career, and came in his last collegiate game to provide the winning points.
"I just started running and got open," Cottam said. "I knew [Ainge] would make a great pass. It was an amazing feeling."
Cottam's younger brother, sophomore tight end Jeff Cottam, caught his first career TD pass against Kentucky earlier this season, so the elder Cottam's catch gets a significant monkey off his back.
"He was giving me a little bit of stuff about that," Brad Cottam said of his younger brother, "but he came up afterwards and told me that mine was a little bit cooler than his was."
All things considered, it proved a pretty "cool" way for the Volunteer seniors to go out.
"I want to say thank you - as I did in the locker room, to the seniors," Fulmer said. "There's four or five of them that are really special - they've been outstanding players - but the whole group has been really outstanding as leaders this year on the field and off the field."
And now, "off the field" for the last time in the 2007 season, both the Volunteers and Badgers will turn around and get ready for 2008.