Uncharacteristic mistakes cost Badgers a Rose Bowl win, extending Wisconsin's Rose Bowl losing streak

Jonathan Taylor's illustrious Wisconsin career ended at the hands of Oregon in the Rose Bowl, marking the fourth straight Rose Bowl the Badgers have lost.
Jonathan Taylor's illustrious Wisconsin career ended at the hands of Oregon in the Rose Bowl, marking the fourth straight Rose Bowl the Badgers have lost. Image By: Taylor Wolfram

They really should have won. 

On a beautiful 66-degree, clear-skied afternoon in Pasadena, California, everything felt right in the world for a couple of hours. But now, coupled with a Rose Bowl Game loss, this New Years Day celebration has become a recurring nightmare for the Wisconsin Football program--one filled with excitement, flashes of greatness, and ultimately, disappointment. 

In what was eventually a one-point loss to No. 6 Oregon, there were many opportunities for No. 8 Wisconsin to pull away from the Ducks and end their Rose Bowl drought. Obviously, that did not happen.  Jonathan Taylor put it best while speaking to the media postgame.

“It put[s] you in a tough position when you have self-inflicted penalties, special teams problems, turnovers,” Taylor said.  “When you’re playing an elite team like Oregon, a great team like that, they’ll capitalize on those mistakes...not playing clean Wisconsin football.”

The number of penalties committed by the Badgers Wednesday was startling. Wisconsin averaged just 4.6 penalties per-game during the regular season, but were flagged a season-high nine times against Oregon.  The Badgers jumped offside three times in the first quarter alone, aiding in Oregon’s 75-yard touchdown drive to open the ballgame. 

“They were doing some fake claps and things like that,” UW linebacker Jack Sanborn said of Oregon’s snap count that had the Wisconsin edge rushers off balance.  “We really shot ourselves in the foot with those [penalties].”

After that initial 12-play, 5:07-minute touchdown drive by the Ducks, though, Wisconsin’s defense really stepped up. Sanborn intercepted Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert on the first play of the second drive, beginning a string of five consecutive empty Oregon drives. 

The Ducks amassed just 204 yards of total offense in the entire game, and went 3/11 on third and fourth down attempts. Wisconsin, on the other hand, compiled 322 yards and converted four times on fourth down en route to five scoring drives.  According to The Athletic’s Jesse Temple, Wisconsin is now 32-2 under head coach Paul Chryst when outgaining their opponents by 100+ yards.  Both losses came this season, at Illinois in Week 8, and again Wednesday at the Rose Bowl. 

They really should have won. And yet, a couple of huge Wisconsin fumbles let Oregon hang around and eventually win their fourth Rose Bowl in program history. 

The Badgers stalled on offense to begin the second half, and were set to punt from their own 41 yard line when punter Anthony Lotti dropped the snap before getting crushed by multiple defenders.  Oregon’s Brady Breeze used one hand to get off Lotti, palm the loose fumble, and take it back 31 yards for an Oregon touchdown. 

“I’m thinking to myself, wow, this is just like when Washington scored that touchdown against Florida State,” Breeze said of his touchdown recovery.  “I’m looking--when I scored the touchdown--I went and looked at the section I was sitting when I was at the game as a fan, and now I’m scoring that touchdown in the Rose Bowl.”

So that’s pretty cool, I guess. But--back to Lotti, whose fumble was eerily similar to the one he lost just a few weeks prior in the Big Ten Championship game, which fueled an Ohio State comeback en route to the Buckeyes’ thirteenth win of a 13-0 regular season.  Lotti’s fumbles were the type of mistakes that were completely preventable, but cost the Badgers both points and momentum in a highly emotional sport. 

Danny Davis’ fumble was more...normal than Lotti’s drop, for lack of a better adjective. Leading by six points late in the fourth, Wisconsin had just used the strength of Jonathan Taylor on back-to-back carries to get off their own three yard line and out to the 25.  Davis took an end-around snap on second-and-six, where he burst around the outside and upfield before getting hit by recent menace Brady Breeze, jarring the bar loose and into Oregon hands at the Wisconsin 30 yard line. One play later, Justin Herbert took the snap and weaved his way for thirty yards into the endzone, putting Oregon ahead 28-27, a lead they would never relinquish. 

“No matter what the defense is doing, if you’re taking care of the football, then turnovers won’t happen,” Taylor said.  “You’ve got to understand you have the fight and the passion in you, but at the same time you have to use great technique with the ball.”

And Wisconsin’s offense definitely showed that fight and passion all night long, which makes the loss all the more frustrating for this team and the Badger faithful. Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph drew up four beautiful fourth-down play calls, and spread the ball around to three running backs, two full backs, a tight end, and three wide receivers.  The coaching staff threw everything out on the field in the season finale, and it really did work, despite what the scoreboard might show. 

For a program renowned for its discipline and execution, the little things cost Wisconsin an 11-win season and the title of Rose Bowl Champions on Wednesday afternoon.  The team will head into the offseason with its two strongest recruiting classes in school history, preparing for bigger things in the upcoming 2020 season.  But the sting of this loss might never truly subside for the Badgers, knowing what we know about the 106th edition of the Rose Bowl Game: 

They really should have won. 

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