Wisconsin's 20-14 victory in the Champs Sports Bowl marked a fitting end to a season where the program reclaimed its identity.
In 2008, the Badgers got away from the things that made them a respected upper-tier Big Ten program for the better part of the past 15 years. They lacked discipline and consistency, and they didn't just lose games, but got thrashed by Penn State, Iowa and Florida State.
The 2009 campaign will be remembered as the season Wisconsin got back on track. Everything seemed to stabilize, from the quarterback to the head coach to the defensive leadership.
Many of the reasons for UW's turnaround showed up Tuesday night against No. 15 Miami. An aggressive defense shut down Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes offense. A balanced offense found gaps in Miami's defense and should have scored at least 30 points. Quarterback Scott Tolzien made good decisions and tough throws. Tight ends Lance Kendricks and Garrett Graham torched Miami for 13 receptions and 205 receiving yards (107 after the catch). The offensive line imposed its will for backs John Clay (121 rush yards, 2 TDs) and Montee Ball (61 rush yards).
Keep in mind, Miami is the type of team that supposedly gives the Big Ten trouble, but Wisconsin faced very little adversity aside from the opening minute and the final two.
Wisconsin had a fairly watered-down 9-3 record entering the Champs Sports Bowl, but a signature win against Miami changes things. And raises the bar for 2010.
The Badgers lose only one offensive starter in Graham. Clay likely will enter the fall as a Heisman Trophy candidate. There are some significant departures on defense, namely end O'Brien Schofield, linebacker Jaevery McFadden and safety Chris Maragos. But Wisconsin boasts a lot of young talent on defense, including linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year this fall, as well as end J.J. Watt, linebacker Mike Taylor and cornerback Devin Smith.
For the most part, Wisconsin remains a young team. And a good one.
Expectations will be higher for Wisconsin in 2010, and they should be. The Badgers should challenge both Ohio State and Iowa for the Big Ten title. Wisconsin proved Tuesday it can win a big game on a big stage, and the bowl victory could signal bigger things ahead for Bielema's crew.