On December 2nd, 2018, just over a year ago, Wisconsin had been announced as participants in the Pinstripe Bowl following a disappointing 7-5 regular season.
The Badgers would go on to handle Miami for a second straight year to improve to 8-5, but the Pinstripe bowl berth had come just a year removed from a 13-1 season where they were 43-yards away from a College Football Playoff berth.
Now fast forward to 2019, where a Rose Bowl berth was announced just hours after a hard-fought loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
UW finished the year ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff poll and No.11 in the final AP Poll. Coming off of a rough 8-5 year and back to back losses to close out October, the Badgers bounced back and now find themselves with a matchup versus top-ten Oregon in the ‘granddaddy of them all’ and what is heavily considered the most important, heralded game in college football outside of the Playoff.
The Badgers had come into the year only ranked No. 19 in the country after a disappointing 2018 season but UW opened up the year red hot. Wisconsin had shut out four of their first six opponents and jumped up as high as No.6 and were playoff hopefuls halfway into the regular season.
The Badgers then traveled to Champaign for a matchup where they were favored by 30 points and hit a roadblock right before a heavily anticipated battle with undefeated Ohio State.
“No. Not at all. We just flat out got outplayed,” senior Chris Orr asserted when asked if there was any sense that the team was looking ahead to Ohio State.
“I trust the guys on this team to bounce back,” linebacker Zack Baun added.
The team went on to do a brilliant job of saving its season and winning games but the bounceback would not come the next week against Ohio State. That trip to Columbus entailed a 38-7 outing before a much needed bye.
“The bye week gave us an opportunity to reset, regroup, recuperate,” Baun said.
The bye week was the precursor for a November filled with four Big Ten West matchups, where the Badgers found themselves down two games to the rival Minnesota Golden Gophers.
“We understand that there are opportunities out there but to get to those opportunities, you have to win the West. It starts with Iowa,” Taylor said at the time. “Especially at this time every game matters. In November, every game matters.”
The team understood what they needed to do and they did just that.
Taylor rattled off three straight games with over 200 yards on the ground while the defense stood tall and never broke. Their marquee moment came on a stop on a two-point conversion which would have tied the game against the Hawkeyes.
The biggest game of the year came in Minneapolis against their border rivals in Minnesota with the Axe, Big Ten West, and most likely a Rose Bowl bid on the line.
In brutal conditions, Jack Coan had the game of his life, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns. Quintez Cephus was huge with five catches, 114 yards and a touchdown which was instrumental in creating separation while the defense played their part in making it tough on Tanner Morgan and the talented group of receivers that the Gophers have.
“Great. No better feeling,” Orr said. “The worst feeling in the world was losing on our home field and having them take it and the best feeling is beating them on their home field, on senior day and taking it from them so it’s a great feeling.”
The performance brought the Axe back to Madison and put the Badgers ahead of both the Penn State Nittany Lions and Gophers in the College Football Playoff rankings. All that was left to do to secure the bid was a solid performance in the Big Ten Championship to secure the Rose Bowl bid and they did just that.
UW proclaimed that they were a better team from the first matchup in Columbus and they went out and proved it when they opened up a 21-7 lead by halftime. Wisconsin could not match that performance in the second half and were outscored 27-0, ultimately losing 34-21.
“I definitely do. We were up pretty well in the second half,” cornerback Caesar Williams affirmed when asked if he thought the team had made its strong case for a Rose Bowl bid. “Pasadena, Texas, Florida it doesn’t matter. I’m ready to go to war with these guys again.”
Just a few short hours later it would be confirmed that their destination would indeed be Pasadena for a matchup with the Pac-12 champion Oregon Ducks. The appearance will mark their return for the first time since 2012, which was the third of three straight appearances for Wisconsin. They lost all three of those appearances from 2010-2012.
“We had a mission. We set a goal in the beginning of November to win the last four games after the bye week and we did,” Baun said.
“The goal is to try to maximize your season. I am always grateful when a team, especially this team, earns the right to play more games,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “But none of that is possible unless you live in the moment and the moment is each week. That was the message.”
Just a year removed from a difficult season which ultimately resulted in a berth in the lowly Pinstripe bowl, the Badgers have responded with a remarkable 10-3 season. Though UW may have fallen short of the Playoff for another year, what they have been able to do is nothing short of great.
They have set themselves up to be the first Badgers team to win a Rose Bowl in 20 years and much like Ron Dayne did, Jonathan Taylor has a chance to cement his outstanding career at Wisconsin with a win and signature performance in the “Granddaddy of them all.”