Football is often said to be a game of turnovers, and if this is true, Wisconsin followers need look no further for the key to the Badgers' 21-16 Rose Bowl victory over UCLA on Saturday.
UCLA took the field with the best turnover ratio in the nation, plus 19, compared with Wisconsin's 14th-place ratio of plus nine. When the game was over, the teams were tied at plus 14. The Bruins committed six turnovers, five on fumbles; and the Badgers committed only one.
"Our mind set is geared to force turnovers," said cornerback Jeff Messenger, who had the Badgers' interception. "We pride ourselves on being able to smack them hard, smack them in the mouth. That's how you get turnovers."
Said Linebacker Yusef Burgess: "It's what defense is all about."
Coach Barry Alvarez noted that the six turnovers saved the day for a defensive unit that gave up 500 yards, 212 rushing and 288 passing.
"Our guys play hard and they hit hard," Alvarez said. "Our defense isn't as good as we want it to be, but when you keep getting the ball back, that yardage doesn't mean as much."
Second quarter--UCLA took over on its 32-yard line. On the first play, Wayne Cook's pass was intercepted by Messenger on the 44.
On UCLA's next possession, Cook passed to J.J. Stokes, who fumbled at the Bruin 32, and nose guard Lamark Shackeford recovered for Wisconsin.
Third quarter--UCLA drove from its 20 to Wisconsin's eight, then Cook fumbled while scrambling and tackle Mike Thompson recovered for Wisconsin.
On the Bruins' next possession, they drove from their 10 to Wisconsin's 33, then Cook was sacked and fumbled, and cornerback Henry Searcy recovered for Wisconsin.
Fourth quarter--After scoring a touchdown that cut Wisconsin's lead to 14-10, UCLA started from its 23 and Ricky Davis fumbled on the first play. Thompson again recovered for Wisconsin, and the Badgers turned the turnover into what was to be their winning touchdown, a 21-yard run by quarterback Darrell Bevell.
After taking the next kickoff, UCLA moved from its 23 to its 41, then Kevin Jordan caught a pass from Cook and fumbled after a 12-yard gain. Safety Scott Nelson recovered for Wisconsin.
Burgess was asked which of the Badgers' six takeaways had been the biggest.
"Unfortunately, they got the ball back with two minutes left," he said. "If we had taken the ball away on their last drive, that would have been \o7 the \f7 turnover. As it is, I don't know if there was a crucial turnover."
Nelson cited the fumble by Cook that ended the UCLA drive inside Wisconsin's 10 in the third quarter.
"That came at a key time," Nelson said. "They were getting on a roll, and we needed it badly."
Chances are, though, that no turnover was as big as the one on Davis' fumble that gave Wisconsin position for the touchdown that made it 21-10.
Wisconsin's offense was struggling at the time, the result of a fracas in the third quarter that led to the ejection of two members of each team. The Badgers lost their outstanding blocking fullback, Mark Montgomery, and their best wide receiver, Lee DeRamus.
Without Montgomery to lead the way for tailbacks Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher and DeRamus to serve as Bevell's prime target, the Badgers were hurting.
"After Montgomery and DeRamus went out, both of their backups dropped passes," Alvarez said. "It was definitely a big loss for us."
The backups Alvarez left unnamed were fullback Jeff Wirth and wide receiver Michael London.
To Wirth's credit, though, he made some good blocks for Moss when the Badgers needed first downs down the stretch.
Obviously, Wisconsin's defense is of the bend-but-don't-break variety, and Alvarez was asked what had gone through his mind when UCLA drove all the way to the Badgers' 15 before time ran out.
"I felt all along that we could stop them somehow," Alvarez said.