PASADENA, Calif. — At one time, the Rose Bowl was the University of Wisconsin football team's private playground.
Lately, however, it has become the place where UW's big-picture dreams are shattered. Or, in the case of the Badgers' 45-38 loss Monday to the track team from Oregon, spiked to the ground.
UW's second heartbreaking loss in two years at college football's most spectacular setting doesn't negate the progress made in back-to-back 11-win seasons under coach Bret Bielema, but it did show the next step in that climb is going to be the toughest one. Especially since UW was 3-for-3 in Rose Bowls under Barry Alvarez in the 1990s.
Once the replay booth ruled that UW quarterback Russell Wilson's one-year magical mystery tour wouldn't get one final second after he spiked the ball at Oregon's 25-yard line, those three Rose Bowl victories seemed a long way away.
"I'm kind of tired of tears of sadness," Bielema said. "I want to come out here and experience tears of joy at some point."
Tears of joy were well within UW's grasp in the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever despite Oregon's speed, which, it turned out, was even greater than advertised. The No. 9 Badgers matched the No. 6 Ducks touchdown for touchdown, field goal for field goal and, unfortunately, turnover for turnover, right up until they were denied one last crack at a Hail Mary pass because time had run out.
That left Bielema with an 0-2 record in Rose Bowls and the Badgers with an empty feeling after finishing 11-3 in a season that began with national title hopes. "Being here for the second time around and falling short for the second time, it hurts," safety Aaron Henry said. "It hurts that much more, man. I'm devastated along with a lot of my other comrades. We're devastated, man, because we didn't see this coming."
The Badgers probably should have seen it coming because they've seen it before. As with earlier last-second losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, it was their mistakes on the field and on the sideline that put them in a difficult position at the end.
Two second-half turnovers stymied UW just when it looked ready to take control of the see-saw game. A lack of speed and some poor angles taken by tacklers resulted in the defense giving up three touchdowns of 54 or more yards and 621 yards in all. And two wasted timeouts early in the third quarter left the Badgers with too little time to work with when they had the Ducks reeling at the end.
"It's always tough, just because you want to win a game like this," center Peter Konz said. "This has always been special, especially to Wisconsin fans. ... You always look up to the guys who have been there and won. So you just want to be a part of that legacy."
The legacy of this UW team will include missed opportunities, such as this one.
The team that came into the game with only eight turnovers all season had two in the second half, an interception by Wilson that set up an Oregon touchdown and a fumble by wide receiver Jared Abbrederis when UW was driving for a tying touchdown late in the game. That negated two turnovers forced by UW's defense, which simply didn't have the speed to keep up with the sprint-relay team that is the Ducks offense.
Despite all that, UW might've been able to send the game into overtime with just a bit more time. For that, the Badgers had only themselves to blame.
On its first drive of the second half, UW had to spend a timeout when a receiver lined up on the wrong side of the formation. On the ensuing kickoff, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas touched the goal line before taking a knee for a touchback. The Badgers wanted a safety, but the ball never crossed the goal line, so the call was correct. Bielema didn't know if the play was reviewable, so he asked the nearest official.
"I saw the return man put his foot on the line and it looked like the ball was out over the line," he said. "I was trying to ask the official on my sideline if I can challenge whether or not he came across the line. He was looking at me like (I had) three heads. Couldn't get the answer. So, called the timeout."
The officials charged UW with a timeout, not a challenge, because they hadn't given Bielema the information in time. But the damage was done. UW forced a late Oregon punt, but couldn't stop the clock and had only 16 seconds left when it got the ball back. UW could have used the time because Wilson ate up 62 yards with two passes and had the ball at the 25 with 2 seconds left when he was told to spike the ball instead of trying a pass into the end zone.
UW never got off another play and, with that, the questions began over whether the Badgers will ever win the Rose Bowl again. "Any time you go in a BCS game it's a good thing," Bielema said. "A lot of people would love to have that option."
A lot of people would have loved to have a few more seconds, too.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.