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Tuesday, June 28, 2022
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Game column: Close to victory again, Badgers far from greatness

PASADENA, Calif.—Wisconsin has lost its third straight Rose Bowl game, now destined to being nicknamed “the Buffalo Bills of college football.” As with both the 2011 and 2012 editions, the Badgers had a chance to win a Rose Bowl title on the game’s final possession, only to see their hopes crushed when redshirt junior Stanford cornerback Usua Amanam intercepted UW redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips with just 2:03 left. 

So close. And yet so far. 

“I thought it was a microcosm of their whole season,” UW head coach Barry Alvarez said after the game. “They fought back, got in the ballgame. Again, the last possession they had themselves in a position where they had a chance to win the football game.”

Not only was Wisconsin’s 20-14 loss in the 2013 Rose Bowl a microcosm of the 2012 season, as Alvarez noted, it was a microcosm of the program’s last three years.

So close. And yet so far.

In 2011, it was a failed two-point conversion that sent UW home empty-handed, a two-point conversion that came on a pass attempt made on the heels of a 10-play, 77-yard drive with the Badgers down eight points.

In 2012 it was a late fumble by receiver Jared Abbrederis that ultimately left the Badgers 16 yards short of a game-tying score when quarterback Russell Wilson could not spike the ball after a first down with two seconds left.

And in 2013 it was the Phillips interception, capping off an 8-6 season, where the six losses came by a combined 25 points—none by more than seven.

So close. And yet so far.

In the end, the Wisconsin program failed to take the next step when the opportunity clearly presented itself. Despite having produced instant NFL stars in J.J. Watt and Wilson, and despite having the services of the nation’s all-time touchdown leader in senior running back Montee Ball, Wisconsin failed to pick up that signature bowl win needed to be considered among the elite programs in college football.

Unfortunately, the Badgers may have run out of chances with this loss. Ohio State will be coming out of NCAA sanctions next season and will be the clear favorite to steamroll through the Leaders Division and into a Bowl Championship Series berth. After having the Buckeyes in Madison this season, Wisconsin will travel to Columbus in 2013, a game UW might have a bit of trouble pulling out.

Though we’ve certainly said it before, namely last season when Wilson walked off the Rose Bowl field for the final time, this year certainly seems like the end of the road for the Badgers. They had their shot with OSU down, and now that window of opportunity seems to have closed.

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So close. And yet so far. 

What is perhaps most worrisome in the aftermath of this defeat is the growing complex within Wisconsin athletics that coming close is all well and good.

As much as I realize that players and coaches have to maintain a degree of political correctness in their postgame comments, some of the words spoken in the interview room and in the locker room Tuesday night were the words of a team no longer crushed by the agony of defeat but rather a team almost apathetic to how close they really were.

The “good enough” complex is something I know Badger fans have been frustrated with for some time, not only with the football program but with Bo Ryan’s crew as well. Badger fans have had enough of simply going to the Sweet 16 or simply playing in the Rose Bowl. Now they want titles. 

The reality is that this was the worst of Wisconsin’s three Rose Bowl teams. Obviously the 8-5 regular season record speaks to that, but it went much further than wins and losses. Nonetheless, Tuesday was Wisconsin’s best chance to finally pick up a long-overdue win in Pasadena. 

With Wisconsin having driven inside Stanford territory in the game’s final three minutes, it looked like the storybook ending was on the horizon. Phillips, a fifth-year senior who has overcome three anterior cruciate ligament tears in his career, looked poised and in control commanding the two-minute offense as the Badgers took over down six.

“You’re at midfield or close to midfield with a chance to win the Rose Bowl,” Alvarez said. “I just felt like maybe we were a team of destiny.”

From the tipped passes that went for crucial completions in the first half to the second-half defensive stands, it certainly did feel like this was that team. But as the Badgers found out once again, destiny doesn’t cut it. Execution does.

Wisconsin missed opportunity after opportunity to gain control of the game after falling in a 14-0 hole right out of the gates. From dropped passes to botched screen plays, the Badgers seemed to get in their own way each and every time the window cracked open for them to climb through.

“It stings just as much [as the last two years] because we fell short, extremely short when we had the opportunity to win,” Ball said after the game. “We had many opportunities to capitalize on big plays and we fell short.”

These are the missed opportunities Badger fans have cringed at for the past three years, knowing that the window of opportunity was oh-so-tight. From poor execution on Hail Marys to missed field goals to miscommunication in short yardage situations, UW seems to have been plagued for the past three years by that one mishap that turns sweet victory into bitter defeat. 

As Alvarez once again steps back and new head coach Gary Andersen takes the helm, Wisconsin has a much-needed opportunity to hit the reset button as a program.

With nine returning starters offensively and a core returning on the defensive side, the Badgers shouldn’t take a terribly large step back on the field come 2013. But the changing of the guard allows for a reset of the mindset this program has, a mindset that has brought UW to the brink of triumph time and time again, only to come crashing down the minute the altitude becomes too much to take. 

Over the past several seasons, Wisconsin has proven to be capable of winning championships. Contrary to what former head coach Bret Bielema might think, the Badger program can contend for not just a Big Ten title, but for a national title as well. 

Every time I went into the old Wisconsin weight room, there were posters lining the walls outlining the “Road to the Rose Bowl” for that season. Is that really the end goal for this program? Is that really all that UW wants to strive for?

If so, the Badgers have accomplished exactly what they set out to accomplish. Three seasons. Three Rose Bowl appearances. 

Yet the emptiness remains. Something about ending the season with another team celebrating at midfield just doesn’t fit within those neatly laid plans. That can mean only one thing: Wisconsin has sold itself short in setting expectations. If UW wants to win a national championship, then the “Road to the Rose Bowl” is irrelevant.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald made a few interesting comments Tuesday after his school’s first bowl victory since 1949. Clearly entitled to taking the “we made it” road, Fitzgerald instead made it very clear that he wasn’t satisfied with winning the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl.

“Obviously, it says on our goal board, and all of those in Chicago that come up every day at every press conference, it's no secret that our goal is to be champions. And this is the first step in accomplishing that mission,” Fitzgerald said. “The sky is the limit for where our program can go.” 

Northwestern hadn’t won a bowl game since 1949. Sixty-three years of futility. With the monkey finally off the back, Fitzgerald had every right to take a sigh of relief but instead chose to be very clear that this was not the end goal. 

Sometimes I wonder if Wisconsin shares Fitzgerald’s mentality.

Even had Wisconsin won the Rose Bowl this year or last or even the year before, there would still be another team celebrating with a national title. Listening to the despair in the locker room, I wonder whether this program really believes that a national title is within its grasp.

So while the Badgers were once again so close to a Rose Bowl win, they are once again far, far away from the national title that should be well within their grasp.

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