PASADENA, Calif. — It was the perfect scenario for the most perfect setting in college football: Barry Alvarez coaching an underdog team against a highly ranked opponent in the Rose Bowl.
Alvarez constructed a coaching legend out of that exact situation, leading upstart University of Wisconsin teams to three victories in three trips to the Rose Bowl in the 1990s.
So when he came down from the athletic director’s office to replace the fleeing Bret Bielema as coach of the unranked Badgers against eighth-ranked Stanford in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism among Badgers players and fans. Most thought Alvarez would be just what UW needed to win a Rose Bowl after losing the last two, and finally win a close game after dropping five of them this season.
“It was a perfect storm,” UW guard Ryan Groy said. “We got super hyped-up before the game. It was exactly what we thought it would be.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t end exactly how they thought it would end. Not even the presence of Alvarez, the undisputed king of the Rose Bowl, could mask the deficiencies that plagued UW this season. Despite the energy Alvarez brought to the locker room and the sense of confidence he engendered on the sideline, the Badgers were the same team they had been all year.
In a game that was similar to so many others in this turbulent and disappointing season, UW dropped a 20-14 decision to Stanford. The Badgers fell behind early, then battled their way back to make a game of it only to be betrayed by a lack of firepower on offense.
“He provided that spark we needed,” tailback Melvin Gordon said of Alvarez, the winningest coach in program history, whose all-time mark fell to 118-74-4. “He had us so hyped; he had us so ready to go. He means everything to this team, with how great of a coach he is. He did everything right. We still had faith we could get it done. We just came up short.”
Just like they had so many times this season. The Badgers finished with an unsightly 8-6 record, with those six losses coming by a total of 25 points. They were 2-6 in games decided by seven points or less. Stanford, on the other hand, was 8-2 in such games and 12-2 overall.
Despite their records, the difference between the two teams on the field was negligible. As usual, the Badgers were physical and resilient. And as usual, they had too many limitations on offense — especially in the passing game — to beat a good team.
If anyone thought Alvarez was going to wave a magic wand and give quarterback Curt Phillips experience or suddenly develop a second wide receiving threat to pair with Jared Abbrederis, they were fooling themselves. The Badgers were plagued all season by inexperience at those positions, along with some spots on the offensive line. It cost them again in the Rose Bowl, even with Alvarez calling the shots.
“Bringing him in is not going to change the team,” Groy said. “It’ll get us hyped up and get us excited and motivate us, and that’s what we did. We played well. It’s not like we absolutely came out and just got demolished. But you can’t change personnel. You can’t change that much having a new coach.”
Alvarez was justifiably proud of the Badgers for battling back from a 14-0 deficit and giving themselves a chance to win at the end. That was reminiscent of the previous teams Alvarez brought to the Rose Bowl — with one exception. This one didn’t win.
Phillips had been outstanding in running 2-minute drills at the conclusion of games against Ohio State, Penn State and just before the half against Stanford, but not this time. He threw a tipped-ball interception with 2 minutes, 3 seconds to play and the Badgers near midfield that pretty much ended UW’s chances.
“Every game we had out here was very competitive,” said Alvarez, who won each of his three previous Rose Bowls by eight points or less. “We were fortunate to come out on top in my games. This game, the only thing that’s different than the other teams I coached was somehow we found a way to win, and we weren’t fortunate enough to get a win today.”
The Badgers haven’t found ways to win all season. Good teams have been able to stymie UW’s running game and dare the Badgers to beat them with the pass. That’s what Stanford did in the second half, and UW couldn’t find an answer.
Some will wonder why UW couldn’t ring up 70 points like it did in the Big Ten title game against Nebraska. But this wasn’t a matter of going conservative on offense, this was a matter of being exposed by a great defense. Unlike Nebraska, Stanford’s defense is ranked in the top five nationally.
To their credit, the Badgers never panicked. But they didn’t make the big plays needed to win a close game, either.
“I guess we kind of just fell short,” safety Shelton Johnson said. “This is a great team. Anybody that watched our film can see that. We’re resilient; we fight ’til the end. But it just seems like we just came up a little bit short each time this year.”
Not even Alvarez, a Rose Bowl miracle worker in the past, could change that.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.