The University of Wisconsin football team will still go bowling in Florida, it’s just that the game will probably be a few hundred miles north of the desired destination.
A berth in a prestigious BCS bowl — likely the Orange Bowl in Miami — was the goal for the 14th-ranked Badgers during what had turned into a fairy-tale season under first-year coach Gary Andersen.
But after a never-saw-it-coming, 31-24 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Conference finale Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, UW now seems destined for the Capital One Bowl in Orlando or the Outback Bowl in Tampa. There’s nothing wrong with those bowls; they’re just not where this fairy tale was supposed to end.
Instead, UW’s late-season lovefest came to a crashing halt when a mediocre Nittany Lions team outplayed and outcoached the Badgers, staying one step ahead of them all day on the field and on the sideline. UW rallied from 17 points down and didn’t succumb until Joel Stave’s Hail Mary pass was intercepted in the end zone, but that didn’t ease the pain they felt from missing out on a potential season-validating BCS bowl bid.
“We don’t deserve one after that performance,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “It is disappointing. That’s really all I can say about it.”
Perhaps the toughest part was the Badgers removed themselves from BCS consideration, dropping to 9-3 on the season. They might not have made a BCS bowl anyway depending on what happens in the Big Ten Championship Game between Ohio State and Michigan State, but they wanted to at least put themselves in position to get a bid.
“It’s tough,” Andersen said. “I think it meant a lot to those kids to be in that spot and have an opportunity to play in the BCS. That puts you in the elite of the elite if you get into that scenario. That’s not going to happen. So we’ll move forward. Such is life. The way we played today and the way I coached them, obviously we don’t deserve to have that opportunity.”
Give the Badgers credit for one thing, no one was deflecting any blame afterward. The players knew they hadn’t capitalized on multiple big-play opportunities and Andersen admitted he and his coaches could never quite catch up to the strategies employed by Penn State coach Bill O’Brien.
The Nittany Lions had the Badgers guessing from the start, especially on defense. Indeed, there were times when UW’s defense looked downright confused.
On one play, UW was penalized for having 12 men on the field. On the next, it only had nine and only avoided giving up a touchdown when safety Tanner McEvoy made a great play to break up a pass. Andersen said Penn State uncharacteristically sped up the tempo, causing UW problems getting different personnel groups on the field.
Another time, Penn State’s Eugene Lewis lined up wide left on second-and-goal and wasn’t even covered by the Badgers, who had never seen Penn State split a receiver out in that personnel group. Andersen raced down the field trying to call a timeout, but the officials didn’t hear him and the Nittany Lions scored a gimme touchdown.
And after forcing Penn State into a third-and-9 with about 4 minutes left, UW guessed the Nittany Lions would pass and called a defense with one down lineman and a heavy pass rush on the edges. Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a freshman, saw that and checked to a draw play that went for 61 back-breaking yards.
“It was very obvious that they were pretty well schooled-up,” Andersen said. “They were pretty schooled-up on how to attack us on some things that have seemed to be a little less successful for us the last few weeks. Got us on our toes a couple times on defense and we did not react well to that. The key to that whole situation is it starts with the coaches and (we) didn’t handle it good enough. That wasn’t acceptable.”
While it was encouraging to find out Andersen is a stand-up guy, UW also was plagued by performance problems that have been there all season. Mostly, it was their inability to complete big plays that were there for the taking on offense.
Stave’s accuracy has been inconsistent all season and, with the Nittany Lions massing at the line of scrimmage to stop game-breaking tailbacks James White and Melvin Gordon, there were plays to be made down the field. Despite 53 pass attempts, Stave simply couldn’t make enough of them to change the game.
“When you don’t have those explosive (running) plays, football gets very hard,” Andersen said. “We’ve got to be able to throw the football with consistency with play-calling, consistency with the guy delivering the ball and consistency catching it. We got in a position where we had to throw the ball late today and did some good things, but that’s not who we are. We need to play better.”
Some might think the Badgers were due for a letdown game, but that wasn’t the case Saturday. Unlike many of UW’s recent opponents, Penn State was able to exploit what few weaknesses the Badgers have shown.
Hopefully, UW will learn from that when it goes to central Florida.