MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The victories came easily for the University of Wisconsin football team this season.
The respect didn't.
Despite plowing through their first 12 games without a loss, the Badgers failed to impress virtually everyone in the national media. A six-point loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference championship game only reinforced the widely held belief that UW wasn't as good as its record indicated.
Part of that was due to UW's flimsy non-conference schedule. Part was due to the perceived weakness of the Big Ten, especially the Western Division where UW resides. And part was due to the age-old stereotype that UW is a ponderous team that can't compete against highly ranked, speed-oriented opponents.
Whatever the reason, the sixth-ranked Badgers entered their Orange Bowl showdown with the 11th-ranked Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes looking for the respect that had eluded them all season. Indeed, the game was their last chance to show they are one of the country's best teams this season and that they can compete with the nation's elite programs.
Well, if this one doesn't do the trick, nothing will.
Playing a true road game, which is rare in a bowl, UW had its traditional slow start but roared back in impressive fashion for a 34-24 victory Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium. Behind razor-sharp sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who had his finest hour in a UW uniform, the Badgers controlled the ball and most of the final three quarters against a Miami team that had speed to burn.
"They're an athletic team, a really good team, maybe a team that people thought would give us trouble," safety Joe Ferguson said. "All the credit to them, they played really well, but we just made more plays today. I think everyone will recognize that."
The outcome won't convince everyone, of course, but the Badgers finally made the statement they've been trying to make all season. In addition to beating another team that contended for a spot in the College Football Playoff, UW gained its fourth consecutive bowl victory, its school-record 13th win of the season and, most important, a measure of respect that it deserved, but didn't get, all season.
"The Big Ten is the best conference in the country and I think this team is one of the top teams in the country," defensive end Alec James said. "We definitely deserve the respect."
At first, it looked like UW was exactly what the critics said it was. Miami's fast, aggressive front seven stymied tailback Jonathan Taylor and the Hurricanes were able to break out their famous turnover chain when Taylor fumbled on the game's fourth play (questionable replay decision aside). The Badgers defense was a step slow as Miami's speedy running backs repeatedly circled the flanks, causing missed tackles and gaining yards.
It looked like the Ohio State game all over again as UW fell behind 14-3, all the while looking sluggish and outclassed. Right on cue, however, the Badgers showed what made this UW team special.
Time and again this season, UW has had slow starts and time and again it showed remarkable resiliency. This time, it was Hornibrook throwing three second-quarter touchdown passes to give UW a 24-14 halftime lead.
The comeback began with one of the biggest plays of this or any UW season. Miami quarterback Malik Rosier tried to throw a slant pass, but outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel leaped high to intercept it at point-blank range on the first play of the second quarter. That set up the Badgers' first touchdown and they wouldn't be denied after that on either side of the ball.
"I think it just shows the chemistry of this team, the bond of this team, the edge of this team," safety D'Cota Dixon said. "Our edge is one another. We play for one another every snap and I think in the end it brought us back."
After that Hornibrook began to demonstrate just how good UW can be when it gets really good quarterbacking. Plagued by interceptions this season, he didn't throw a one against one of the nation's best ball-hawking defenses, allowing his teammates to mock Miami's turnover-chain celebration on the sideline. Instead, Hornibrook turned into a third-down machine and ended with four touchdown passes.
"He balled out, man," James said. "He did real well. He's grown a lot. Even throughout the season, he's grown a lot. He's matured a lot."
Once the defense got Miami's running game under control, the Badgers had an answer for every Miami score. All from a team that many thought would lack motivation because the Ohio State loss cost it a spot in the four-team national playoff.
"It's real meaningful," cornerback Derrick Tindal said of the win. "A lot of people thought we weren't going to come out here and play hard because we weren't going to the playoff. I just liked to see that everybody was focused and came out and played hard and was grounded."
UW's victory put the Big Ten's bowl record at 7-0 this year with one team (Michigan) yet to play. Perhaps the conference's showing is a sign that UW deserved its share of respect all along. But even if it didn't, the Badgers went out and earned that respect Saturday.