Wisconsin was backed up at its 3-yard line, the Badgers in survival mode after a fast start.
They had done little after taking an early lead, and losing tight end Jake Ferguson to an injury early in the second half did nothing to help the situation.
But when the Badgers had to put together the game’s key drive Thursday night, they came through. Wisconsin drove nearly the length of the field, sapping the final 9:57 off the clock to ensure a 20-13 victory over Arizona State and the Las Vegas Bowl title at Allegiant Stadium.
The Badgers converted two third downs on the 18-play, 90-yard drive, including a third-and-12 early in the series when Graham Mertz completed a 30-yard pass to Chimere Dike. The Sun Devils handed Wisconsin another conversion when defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott jumped offsides.
“The second half, we struggled offensively, but guys kept finding ways to come up and give us a chance,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “It was a heck of a drive to finish it off.”
An announced crowd of 32,515 watched the game, much lower than bowl officials hoped for early this month when they expected closer to a sellout. Even the day before the game, bowl executive director John Saccenti hoped to break the bowl attendance record of 44,615 set in 2006 for the Brigham Young-Oregon game.
This game instead was the lowest-attended Las Vegas Bowl since 29,286 showed up in 2016 for San Diego State-Houston. The lowest before that was in 2004 when 27,784 attended the Wyoming-UCLA game.
The current COVID-19 surge impacted ticket sales and dissuaded fans of both teams from traveling. High hotel room rates the night before New Year’s Eve also figured to be a factor.
This was the first time the game was played at Allegiant after having moved from Sam Boyd Stadium following the 2019 season. Last year’s game was not played because of COVID-19 issues.
Wisconsin (9-4) dominated early in taking a 14-3 lead and appeared in control. The Badgers didn’t keep the momentum, though.
Arizona State (8-5) cut Wisconsin’s lead to 20-13 early in the third quarter on Daniyel Ngata’s 3-yard touchdown run, but the Sun Devils’ next two drives stalled around midfield.
Then came that final Wisconsin clock-eating drive.
“I kept looking up at that clock, trust me,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “Every time they made a first down, I kept looking at the clock. I said, ‘We’re running out of time.’
“Toward the end, we were actually going to let them score, but they knew we were probably going to try and let them score, and they … prevented us from doing that. They did the right thing and took the knee.”
Game MVP Braelon Allen rushed 29 times for 159 yards, and he came up particularly big on that last drive, rushing for 45 yards on 10 attempts.
His performance capped a season in which Allen rushed for 1,268 yards, just the fourth Wisconsin freshman to gain more than 1,000 yards. It’s a list that includes Ron Dayne (1996), James White (2010) and Jonathan Taylor (2017).
Allen was a major reason the Badgers played in Las Vegas and then a key reason they won in Las Vegas. As far as partying in Las Vegas, this week wasn’t about that.
“Pretty uneventful being underage in Vegas,” Allen said. “Hopefully, the next time I come back, I’ll be of age and get to do some things.”