The first rule of Wisconsin sports: Never underestimate the team’s ability to build your hopes up and then proceed to shred your soul to smithereens in new and creative ways.
Thus was the case on Saturday night in Indianapolis, when the Badgers built up a 28-7 lead, only to see it slowly dissipate as their secondary seemed to forget how to football. The vaunted Wisconsin defense, which hadn’t given up more than 23 points in regulation all season, looked helpless as seemingly every pass Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley hoisted deep ended up in the hands of one of his receivers.
For Wisconsin fans, it was just the latest in a long line of big-game flops by the Badgers.
Any complaints from the UW faithful about their football program would fall on mostly deaf ears, as most fan bases would love to root for someone as consistently solid as the Badgers. Wisconsin is headed to its 15th consecutive bowl game this season, a streak surpassed by only five FBS programs (Florida State, Virginia Tech, Georgia, Oklahoma and LSU). That said, it’s hard to blame Badgers fans for being frustrated with their team’s propensity to come up short on the biggest stages.
There was the recent stretch where Wisconsin won three consecutive Big Ten titles, only to follow each one up with a close loss in the Rose Bowl. In 2011, the coaching staff waited a possession or two too late to unleash John Clay and the Badgers fell a two-point conversion short of forcing overtime in their loss to TCU. The next year, Wisconsin and Oregon combined for a Rose Bowl record 83 points. But the Badgers fell 45-38 when their final, desperation drive ended with Russell Wilson spiking the ball with no time left. And the 2013 Rose Bowl saw 8-5 Wisconsin lose by only six in its bid to upset Stanford.
On top of those Pasadena shortcomings, there have been a whole slew of other agonizing losses in recent years for the Badgers.
In 2011, they saw any hopes of contending for a national title disappear in late October with losses to Michigan State and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks on late Hail Marys. The following year, Wisconsin lost five games during the regular season by a combined 19 points, including three in overtime. The 2013 season had the Arizona State debacle; 2014 saw Wisconsin squander a 10-point halftime lead to fall to LSU in its season opener and the 59-0 thrashing at the hands of Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game; 2015 featured the controversial Jazz Peavy non-catch on Senior Day at Camp Randall; and this year has seen a trio of heartbreaking losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State, with each coming by seven points.
Despite the Badgers consistently contending for Big Ten titles, they never seem to be able get over the hump and get to the point where they’re a player in the national title picture. They’ve carved out a nice niche for themselves as a Big Ten powerhouse built on smash-mouth football.
However, the downside is that, other than Russell Wilson’s grad transfer season, the Badgers never seem to have a quarterback that can light up a defense like Trace McSorley did on Saturday. It’s a rare occurrence when Wisconsin isn’t at a disadvantage under center in a marquee matchup. As good as the Badgers’ rushing attack can be, it’s hard to imagine them taking that next step without finding a quarterback that can be counted on to lead drives in crunch time. This weekend was a reminder of that.
Now, all that is the “glass half empty” view of Wisconsin football. There is still a whole hell of a lot to be happy about if you’re a Badgers fan.
Though Wisconsin hasn’t yet been able to break through into the national championship picture, the fact that they’re just a stone’s throw away from it is the envy of roughly 100 other fan bases across the country. The fact that Wisconsin has had this much success in the face of unprecedented turnover at head coach over the last five years is really quite remarkable.
Paul Chryst has done an outstanding job in his first two years in Madison getting the most out of what he’s had; there’s good reason to be optimistic about what the program could do once his recruits start to become upperclassmen. Who knows, maybe he and the coaching staff can even tap into Alex Hornibrook’s potential and give the Badgers what they’ve been missing under center.
For the time being, the Badgers will head to Jerry World to take on Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. It’s not as satisfying for fans as a trip to Pasadena and a chance to redeem those three straight Rose Bowl losses, but a New Year’s Six bowl is nothing to turn your nose up at.
Heading into the year, 8-4 seemed like an optimistic prediction of Wisconsin’s record. This has still been an incredible season for the Badgers, even with the gut-wrenching defeats.
The best news of all for Wisconsin fans is that the Badgers don’t lose many players from this year’s team and will face a more reasonable schedule next season. Frankly, being in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff come November 2017 is a reasonable expectation for UW.
Now perhaps high expectations for next season will only result in a triple overtime loss to Ohio State in next year’s Big Ten Championship Game. But what’s the fun in being a sports fan if you don’t keep believing that next year is the year things finally change? Just ask Cubs fans.
Saturday’s collapse was agonizing for the Badger faithful, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the present and future of Wisconsin football. No amount of McSorley bombs can change that.