PASADENA, Calif.—Since Montee Ball announced he would return for his senior season 360 days ago, almost nothing has been predictable for the University of Wisconsin football program.
In the midst of two coaching staff overhauls, off-the-field adversity for the star senior running back in the offseason, the in-season firing of an offensive line coach, quarterback changes and the abrupt departure of head coach Bret Bielema Dec. 4, almost nothing stayed the same.
Among the few constants in 2012—and now the first day of 2013—for the Badgers on the field: competitive games and close losses.
That trend struck again here Tuesday evening, when UW fell behind Stanford early in the Rose Bowl and mounted a second-quarter comeback, only to be stymied in the second half by Stanford’s ferocious front seven. The Badgers had a chance late, but an interception with just over two minutes remaining preserved a 20-14 Stanford win in the 99th Rose Bowl game.
It is the third consecutive year Wisconsin has lost here and the sixth loss of the season. Those six losses have come by a combined 26 points and none have been by more than one possession.
“It's kind of been a microcosm of our whole season,” redshirt junior linebacker Chris Borland (nine tackles) said. “We've faced some adversity, fought back, and came up short. So [it’s] just very disappointing.”
Trailing 20-14 after Stanford redshirt sophomore kicker Jordan Williamson made a 22-yard field goal, the Badgers started from their own 25-yard line with 4:23 and two timeouts. UW picked up first downs on runs from redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon (nine carries, 51 yards) and junior James White (six carries, four yards).
Then, with Wisconsin in rhythm on second-and-five from its 49-yard line, Phillips stepped up in the pocket and tried to find redshirt junior tight end Jacob Pedersen over the middle. It appeared to be tipped by Stanford redshirt junior defensive end Josh Mauro and was intercepted by redshirt junior defensive back Usua Amanam. One first down later, the Cardinal celebrated.
“It started with an out-route to the left and they did a good job of covering that,” Phillips (10-16, 83 yards, TD, INT, 64 rushing yards) said. “We had a crossing route to [sophomore] Kenzel Doe and that wasn’t there. We had kind of an option route for ‘Ped’ and he made a curl. There was a little bit of a miscommunication, but I saw him and I’ve got to put it on him. It just wasn’t a good throw.”
After the first six minutes of game action, it did not appear that the Badgers would be anywhere near a victory. Stanford started the game on offense, and wasted no time mounting touchdown drives of 80 and 79 yards, respectively, sandwiched around a short, ineffective drive from the Wisconsin offense.
The first was set up by a reverse pass, as senior wide receiver Drew Terrell found fellow senior receiver Jamal-Rashard Patterson for 34 yards. The second was set up more conventionally, with redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan (12-19, 123) finding star redshirt junior tight end Zach Ertz for 43 yards to the Wisconsin three-yard line.
“There’s always going to be new things thrown at you in a bowl game as a defense, and they had a few of them that worked,” Borland said. “A lot of times, offenses will put in certain plays for the bowl game and once they use them, the cat’s out of the bag.”
Through 12 plays in those first six minutes, Stanford racked up 159 yards of offense (13.3 yards per play). Then the Badgers defense clamped down. The Cardinal mustered 181 yards on 43 plays in its final 24:08 of possession (4.3 yards per play).
As the defense found its stride in the first half, so did the offense. The Badgers responded to Stanford’s second touchdown with a methodical 14-play, 77-yard drive that lasted 8:12 across the first and second quarter. Still, that yielded nothing when White was stuffed from the one-yard line on fourth-and-goal. That came one play after Pedersen originally was awarded a touchdown reception before a video review led the officials to rule he was down at the one.
The Badgers got second quarter touchdowns from senior running back Montee Ball (24 carries, 100 yards, TD) and redshirt freshman receiver Jordan Fredrick. The latter came with just 19 seconds left in the first half, after Phillips engineered a 10-play, 85-yard drive over 2:04. He completed all four passes for 30 yards and tacked on a nifty 38-yard run down the left sideline on the drive.
Trailing 17-14 at half but set to get the ball to start the third quarter, momentum seemed to be on the Badgers’ side. Instead, they did not sniff another scoring opportunity.
“Coming into the game I thought we had a great plan,” Phillips said. “Hats off to our coaches … it’s been very difficult for them. I have a lot of respect for how they handled it and were able to put together a good plan even with all the crazy things going on. We trusted it and it just didn’t come out the way we wanted.”
In six second-half possessions, the Badgers managed just 82 yards of offense and punted five times before Phillips’ late interception.
“We made some plays, but they were jamming the middle up pretty good,” said Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez, who took over coaching duties after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas Dec. 4 and saw his career Rose Bowl record fall to 3-1. “It seemed like when somebody was coming up free, we weren't picking up the back side linebacker or the lineman on the stunt was coming up free. They clogged the holes up.”
Wisconsin’s defense went toe-to-toe with Stanford’s. The third quarter featured 75 yards, six first downs and eight punts.
The Badgers nearly got interceptions from redshirt senior defensive backs Devin Smith and Shelton Johnson in the second half but ran just three offensive plays in Stanford territory in the second half. The first was a four-yard loss from White that pushed UW back across midfield, the second a punt from the Stanford 46 and the other was Phillips’ interception.
In addition to the tip by Maruo on the interception—which is not reflected in the official stats packet—the Cardinal defense was credited with three passes broken up. Phillips also had three tipped passes that turned into completions, meaning the defense got its hands on at least seven of his 16 attempts on the night. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave played two snaps and attempted one pass, a deep ball that redshirt junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis could not haul in for a touchdown in the second quarter.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Phillips said. “There was no doubt in my mind we were going to win that game. It’s tough, but it’s been a hell of a ride the whole time. I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m hoping I get another chance to come back and play next year.”
The Kingsport, Tenn., native will soon find out whether the NCAA grants him a sixth year of eligibility due to medical hardship.
Others on the Wisconsin sideline have been part of their last game. Ball finishes his career as the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time touchdown leader with 83 and Tuesday became the first player in history to score a touchdown in three different Rose Bowls. Left tackle Rick Wagner and cornerback Marcus Cromartie each had their struggles Tuesday, but leave Madison as the only group to win three-straight Big Ten titles.
“This is not the way I want to be remembered, speaking for the entire senior group, this is not the way we wanted to go out,” Ball said.