Luke Fickell received his first win as head coach for the Badgers on December 27 against Oklahoma State in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. This was also Jim Leonhard’s last game as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. UW capped a tumultuous 2022 season with a 24-17 victory in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl Tuesday night at Chase Field. The Fickell era as UW’s head coach is starting strong and will undoubtedly continue to see success in the upcoming 2023 season. Fans have already seen a change in Wisconsin’s football atmosphere, including recruitment and coaching changes.
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The Badgers did not have a strong start, as starting quarterback Chase Wolf threw an interception in the end zone to Oklahoma State’s defense. Oklahoma State turned that possession turnover into an 84-yard score on the next play. Wolf is a senior and has been living in former Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz’s shadow for his entirety at Wisconsin.
Despite this rocky start for the Badgers, Wolf started leading his offense and connecting passes, and Wisconsin’s ground game started to get going with Braelon Allen at the helm. Wisconsin’s defense also contained Oklahoma State’s offense for most of the game.
“I’m excited, really proud to be a part of this,” Fickell said. “These guys have accepted me in the last 3½ weeks, and this was an incredible night. I’m going, to be honest with you, I didn’t know exactly what to expect.”
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The Badgers finished a season full of changes, losses, and difficulties and played in this bowl game without their starting quarterback and other key players. Wisconsin finished 7-6. They avoided the first losing season since 2001, and won its eighth bowl game in the last nine seasons. Oklahoma State finished 7-6, suffering its third consecutive loss. Their bowl record under head coach Mike Gundy fell to 11-6.
Mertz entered the portal and quickly got grabbed by Florida State. Wolf came into the night 17 of 31 for 176 yards, with four interceptions and two touchdowns, in a combined 12 games throughout his four years at Wisconsin. During the bowl game, he completed 16 of 26 passes for 116 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, fewer interceptions than Mertz was known for throwing during a singular game this season.
Allen and Chez Mellusi carried the ball 38 times against Oklahoma State’s defense, ranked 96th nationally against the run. However, Oklahoma State is also missing some key players thanks to the draft and the portal. Allen finished with 116 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Wisconsin should feel lucky not losing Allen to the draft because while Allen is only a sophomore, his stats and talent measure up to the infamous Jonathon Taylor, who also took Wisconsin’s running game to new heights during the 2019 football season. Mellusi added 77 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
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Allen missed the regular-season finale against Minnesota due to an ankle injury – Wisconsin lost against Minnesota and felt Allen’s absence. Despite his injuries, Allen looked fresh and fast during the Oklahoma State game. The Badgers finished with 258 rushing yards on 47 attempts. Oklahoma State came in without their No. 1 quarterback and without their No. 1 tailback, who combined had 3,796 total yards during the regular season.
“We had a chance at the end,” Gundy said, “and we threw an interception. We had a shot. We had the ball, had a chance to go down and make it interesting.”
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UW’s defense was impressive while also missing key players. The Badgers were without nose tackle Keeanu Benton and outside linebacker Nick Herbig, both strong and consistent players that always showed up. Despite these losses, the Badger’s defense held the Cowboys to 121 yards on 22 plays in the first half. Oklahoma State finished with 52 rushing yards on 26 carries and 281 yards on 57 plays. A total of 166 yards came on three pass plays. The Cowboys held 115 yards on the other 54 plays.
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UW led at halftime 17-7 after putting together 68-yard and 65-yard touchdown drives in the second quarter. In the third quarter, Wisconsin pushed their lead to 24-7 with a two-play, 32-yard drive set up by Jay Shaw’s interception. Despite the challenges of coaching changes, the Badgers also had to fight through the death of former running back coach Gary Brown and the shooting death of former teammate Devin Chandler. Allen earned player-of-the-game honors. Everyone is excited to see where Fickell takes this team in the next few seasons. I believe that Fickell will take Wisconsin from a mediocre season to a winning season next year.