The last laugh
Fletcher's late interception seals win for Badgers
Updated: Saturday December 30, 2000 4:11 AM
EL PASO, Texas (AP) -- Humbled, injured, taunted and tired, Jamar Fletcher still got in the last word on UCLA star wide receiver Freddie Mitchell.
"We got the win, so we all got the last laugh," Wisconsin's star cornerback said after his midfield interception with a minute left preserved the Badgers' 21-20 victory over the battered Bruins in the Sun Bowl.
Never mind, Fletcher said, that Mitchell walked away with the MVP award after catching nine passes for a Sun Bowl-record 180 yards, including a 64-yard TD reception.
Fletcher, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation's top defensive back, stepped in front of Brian Poli-Dixon at midfield for his seventh interception of the season and his first big play in an afternoon filled with frustration.
Fletcher, who injured his left shoulder in the first half and needed postgame X-rays, was in the middle of a pregame scuffle that cost the Bruins a 15-yard penalty at kickoff and he also was the object of two taunting penalties by Mitchell.
The Badgers (9-4) also beat the Bruins (6-6) in the 1994 and '99 Rose Bowls, and the teams didn't even wait for the kickoff in the game sponsored by Wells Fargo to show their dislike for each other.
UCLA tight end Bryan Fletcher, punter/kicker Nate Fikse and cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. scuffled with Jamar Fletcher during warmups.
"Their guy Fletcher was mouthing off quite a bit. And we got the penalty," fumed Bruins coach Bob Toledo, who said the Badgers were warming up on UCLA's side of the field.
"That's not right," Toledo said. "We're supposed to have 50 yards and we didn't."
Fletcher, who had called the Bruins soft after the '99 Rose Bowl, admitted he got away with that one: "I was doing the pushing. They got the penalty."
Mitchell mocked Fletcher at the end of his 64-yard TD catch from Cory Paus in the first quarter, drawing another 15-yard penalty.
"I told him, 'You can't stop me! Bye-bye!'" Mitchell recounted.
It was the first touchdown Fletcher had allowed in man coverage in his college career, although the Badgers swore it was actually in zone coverage and coach Barry Alvarez accepted the blame for a bad call.
"He's a good receiver," Fletcher said. "But every time he catches a pass it doesn't mean it's on Jamar Fletcher. Look at his stats. He had two little catches on me in zone coverage. He got his touchdown. That was cool. We got our win."
Mitchell also whacked Fletcher across the helmet on the Bruins' next possession, and the Bruins, backed up another 15 yards by the personal foul, settled for Chris Griffith's 31-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead.
DeShaun Foster, who had 100 of his 112 yards rushing in the first half, scored on a 7-yard burst for a 17-7 Bruins' halftime lead.
But UCLA lost Paus (shoulder), and starting cornerbacks Manning (concussion) and Jason Bell (ankle) in the first half.
Chris Chambers' 3-yard TD catch from Brooks Bollinger that made it 20-14 in the third quarter following a 25-yarder by Griffith. Then, Michael Bennett's 6-yard run with 8:55 left capped a 12-play, 70-yard drive.
That gave the Badgers their first lead since the opening minutes, when they took a 7-0 lead on Bollinger's 54-yard TD toss to Lee Evans.
"We played extremely hard early but injuries just decimated our team," Toledo said.
The Badgers also struggled without right tackle Brian Lamont (knee) and suspended kick returner Nick Davis.
Mitchell's nine catches tied the Sun Bowl record and his 180 yards receiving were 15 more than North Carolina's Octavus Barnes had against Texas in 1984.
"If that's the best defensive back in the country, then this is the best receiver in the country," Toledo said. "Freddie got the best of the battle."
Mitchell concurred: "There's been a lot of talk this week about the battle between Fletcher and me, and I think it's obvious who won this one.
"For four quarters, I physically beat him down."
Not so, insisted Fletcher: "Freddie's big plays came in zone coverage."
Fletcher and Mitchell, both juniors, are expected to declare for the NFL draft by the Jan. 12 deadline.
"After the game he had today," Mitchell said, "he'd better stay."
Thanks for the advice, Fletcher said, but look at the scoreboard.
"We got the win, whether he thinks he got the best of me or not."