For a class of seniors and team that has achieved so much, it’s tough to watch the 2019-20’ Badgers fall short of putting the ultimate icing on the cake and coming away with a win in the Rose Bowl. The script that was followed was familiar for Wisconsin, and one that spelled trouble for them earlier in the season as well.
The No. 8 Badgers (10-4 overall, 7-3 Big Ten) were set to meet the Pac-12 Champion N0. 6 Oregon Ducks (12-2 overall, 8-1 Pac 12) in the 2020 Rose Bowl, the 106th installment of the ‘Granddaddy of them all.’
Losers of their last three appearances in the iconic Rose Bowl, this Wisconsin squad had a chance to cap off a season where they were once ranked as high as sixth. The Badgers, 4-0 in Bowl games under head coach Paul Chryst, were in line to win yet another one and bring a trophy back to Madison that had been gone for twenty years, but unforced errors were too much to overcome.
The second half was all Wisconsin, and if they would have been able to punch it in from nine yards out to extend the lead to 10 over the Ducks in the fourth quarter, it may have sealed the victory. But, pressure forced quarterback Jack Coan to throw it away on third and fourth down, leading to a field goal that kept it a one score game.
The Badgers stout defense forced a stop on the next drive, and gave the ball back to the offense with 9:16 to go and the opportunity to, essentially, close out the game.
A perfectly placed punt set the Badgers up at their own four, but brilliant running by Jonathan Taylor left the door open for a vintage ‘pound the rock’ Wisconsin-like drive to close out the game. The offense opened the series with back to back looks to Taylor, going for an 18 yards in which he dragged just about everyone on the Oregon defense along with him.
Danny Davis took the next handoff on a jet sweep and looked well on his way for what would have been at least a first down. A breakdown between tight end Jake Ferguson and tackle Logan Bruss allowed safety Brady Breeze to cut through and attack Davis and jar the ball loose. Herbert and the offense wasted little time in capitalizing on the mistake, and cashed in on the next play, a thirty-yard option play that Herbert kept and went for a score that would ultimately be the cap on a 28-27 final for the Ducks.
“I thought we were playing well but it came down to the turnovers, and that sucks but that’s the truth and we have to limit them,” junior wide receiver Danny Davis said. “ When you’re with the ball, you have it hold it high and tight and finish into the ground. I thought we played good, other than the turnovers and some unforced errors.”
Throughout the game, Wisconsin was the better team but costly mistakes made the difference.
The Badgers turned it over four times over the course of the game, only the second time all year where they turned it over four times. The only other games they turned the ball over three or more times were against Illinois, where the Badgers turned it over twice in the final eight minutes and were upset, and against the Boilermakers in late November. Their meeting with Purdue in Camp Randall was the only other time Wisconsin had coughed the ball up four times but the defense held Purdue to just seven points off of those turnovers while the Badger offense churned out a 606 yard day on the way to a 45 point day.
“Throughout the season we have done a good job of not hurting ourselves on offense,” wide receiver Quintez Cephus said. “Their defense is one of the top defenses in the country and they made those plays… They made more plays than we did.”
Wisconsin had only one turnover in the last two games of the season before the Rose Bowl.
Not only had UW turned it over four times but the team made a ton of uncharacteristic mistakes, which resulted in nine penalties which tied their season high.
One of the most crucial penalities came on a holding call on the tenth play of what would be a 14-play drive that came up empty with a missed field goal. The holding call came when the Badgers had driven to the Oregon 29 and set up a 1st and 20 hole that it ultimately could not make up, which set up a long 44-yard field goal for Collin Larsh who has struggled throughout the year and he could not connect.
That special teams blunder would not be the last of the day. Following a seven play, 36-yard drive, Anthony Lotti was brought in to punt. Reminiscent of the Big Ten championship, Lotti simply dropped the ball was he was snapped, which the Ducks and safety Brady Breeze pounced on for the easy 31-yard touchdown.
Much like the issues with the penalties, the Wisconsin defense could not lock in on their reads and keep Herbert contained.
“We knew coming in that he was athletic. Just we didn’t have good angles on him and had some miscommunications,” linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “It’s something we got to be better at.”
“Poor angles is all,part of that is just being in communication. A step is all it takes sometimes and then we have to finish the play and makes those tackles,” Sanborn added. “We knew it. They’ve played a lot of games, he’s played a lot of football in his career, it’s not his first game where he’s ran with the ball, used his legs. It’s something we knew he had.”
Though UW may have had Herbert’s rushing in the game prep, he hadn’t found the endzone much in his career. His three touchdowns in nine carries tied the three total rushing touchdowns he had in the last two seasons, but it took him 120 carries for those three rushing scores.
“Oregon just does a good job of maximizing on your errors. We had some misfits and we had an opportunity to get them down in the backfield and we didn’t do that,” Zach Baun said on the runs from Herbert and Oregon. “Most of his runs weren’t spectacular, they were just misfits.”
Through all their miscues, UW and their offense had one more chance to win it with 3:56 left in the game. An incompletion followed by a four yard carry set up a third and six. A completion to Jake Ferguson seemed to keep the drive alive but Danny Davis would be called for a puzzling offensive pass interference for pushing off on a block, but what simply seemed like mutual hand fighting between the wide receiver and defensive back.
“I just wanted to try to work my release and get up the field. He kind of pushed into my shoulder pads and I just kept running so I am not sure if they thought I was pushing off or setting a pick but I was confused as to what the call was. Refs make calls and you have to live with it.” Davis said about the call and what he tried to do on the play.
The offense couldn’t recover to convert a third and 20 and Oregon effectively ended the game on the next drive.
The brutal call made the difference for the Badgers but they had themselves in position to handily win the game long before that call. They held the ball for a total of 38:03, converted four of five fourth down attempts, and held Oregon’s offense to just 204 yards, their worst output of the season.
At the end of the day though, the Badgers could not win the program’s first Rose Bowl in twenty years and make it 5-0 for Paul Chryst in bowl games. Now the illustrious senior class and potentially talented guys Quintez Cephus, Tyler Biadasz, Jonathan Taylor, and Cole Van Lanen end their Badger careers with a loss.
“Just sucks for those guys that are leaving. You never want to leave a bad taste for the guys that have been here for so long,” a dejected Quintez Cephus said in the postgame locker room. “You put it all out there for guys like Zach (Baun) and Chris (Orr), our seniors, our captains, and our leaders. For those of us who will be back we take this feeling and go back.”