The Wisconsin Badgers overcame a scoreless second half to defeat the Arizona State Sun Devils 20-13 to win the 2021 Las Vegas Bowl.
"Certainly really proud of this group,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said after the win. “Tonight was a good night. It took a lot of guys to get us that victory. It's really what this season's been. It's a special team because it's made of a special group of individuals.”
Leading 20-13 with 9:57 to go in the game, Wisconsin pieced together an 18 play, 90-yard drive that took up the remaining time and did not allow Arizona State to tie the game.
"I think it attests to the work we put in the summer and throughout the season,” Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen said of the final drive. “To put together a big drive at the end, you've got to put your trust in each other and be confident in the play calls and confidence that you're going to execute and get it done. I think we did that.”
Allen, a 17-year old freshman, led the Badgers with 159 rushing yards on 29 carries and picked up 50 yards on the final drive. Allen was also named the most valuable player of the Las Vegas Bowl.
Wisconsin capitalized early after Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels’ pass was intercepted by John Tochio. Badger quarterback Graham Mertz kept their drive alive with a 31-yard pass to Markus Allen on 3rd-and-12.
On the next play, John Chenal rushed it in from eight yards out to put Wisconsin on the board first, 7-0.
Daniels made up for his earlier mistake by converting on two 3rd down plays with his feet to keep the Arizona State drive alive. The Sun Devils could not capitalize in the red zone, settling for a field goal.
Allen made his first impact in the first quarter with a 43-yard rush to set up a first and goal for the Badgers. Mertz found a wide-open Jake Ferguson in the back of the end zone to put Wisconsin ahead 14-3 at the end of the first quarter.
But Mertz made a mistake early in the second quarter, throwing an interception to Timarcus Davis and giving Arizona State the ball at the Wisconsin 35-yard line.
Inside the red zone again, the Sun Devils could not find the end zone. They settled for another field goal to cut the deficit to 14-6 in the second quarter.
Wisconsin answered on the ensuing drive with a 48-yard field goal. They forced an Arizona State three-and-out to get the ball back before halftime.
Mertz converted on a 3rd-and-9 with a 15-yard pass to Skyler Bell to keep Wisconsin’s drive alive. The Badgers settled for another field goal when they were in the red zone to take a 20-6 lead at halftime.
Arizona State came out in the second half with a sense of urgency, trailing by two touchdowns. Sun Devil defensive end B.J. Green sacked Mertz for a loss of 13-yards to force a Wisconsin punt.
The Sun Devils wasted no time getting their first touchdown of the game. Daniels hit Ricky Perarsall for 38-yards down the middle of the field to set Arizona State with a 1st-and-goal.
Two plays later Daniyel Ngata rushed up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown run that cut the deficit to 20-13 and pumped life into the Arizona State fans midway through the second half.
Arizona State had a chance later in the quarter to put up more points as they converted on two 3rd down plays to keep its drive alive. But, Daniels was sacked for a loss of 12-yards and committed an intentional grounding penalty that knocked the Sun Devils out of field goal range and stalled the drive.
The Sun Devils got one more possession early in the fourth quarter but the drive stalled near midfield after Daniels was sacked on 3rd-and-8 before the Badgers ran out the clock on their final drive.
"I thought we played really well defensively,” Chryst said. “Their quarterback is a really good player; we knew that coming in. Second half, we struggled offensively, but guys kept finding ways to come up and give us a chance. It was a heck of a drive to finish it off.”
Arizona State was down nine of its regular rotation players, due to opt-outs, injuries, and transfers. Its leading rusher Rachaad White opted out of the bowl game to get ready for the upcoming NFL Draft.
"We know this always happens with bowl games,” Daniels said. “It's the next guy up, it's a chance for the young guys to showcase their talents. Kudos to all the young guys that were hungry and played.”
Daniels finished with 199 total yards of offense, 159 through the air on 11-of-21 passing, and 40 rushing yards on 19 attempts. Wisconsin managed to sack Daniels four times for a net loss of 28 yards.
"We knew coming in it was going to be tough,” Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn said of defending Daniels. “I liked the plan. It just came down to us not making those plays when we had to, but credit to him. He's a great player. When it mattered, we got it done.”
After starting 1-3, Wisconsin won eight of its last nine games to finish with a 9-4 record. The Badgers are now 6-1 in bowl games under head coach Paul Chryst.
The Sun Devils fell to 8-5 to close their 2021 season. They are now 0-3 all-time in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Next year’s Las Vegas Bowl will feature another PAC-12 team going up against an opponent from the SEC.