Shortly after the Wisconsin football team lost its second consecutive Rose Bowl – this time to Oregon in a 45-38 blur of offensive prowess – one thing racked my patience more than anything else.
It wasn’t that, for the second year in a row, I had driven more than 2,000 miles to ultimately watch the players of some other team sandwich a rose between their teeth and dance in a storm of confetti not cardinal and white.
Instead, what upset me so much was the fans who took to the social networking feeds to blame head coach Bret Bielema for the loss and proclaim a desire for him to be fired.
Despite the fact Bielema currently has the nation’s fourth-best winning percentage (.759 and, by the way, he’s .688 in the Big Ten) and despite the fact that he brought two more Big Ten title banners to Madison all on his own, there is at least a faction of Badger fans that does not like Bielema and does not appreciate his accomplishments.
Unfortunately, that makes it all the easier to (undeservedly) assign blame on him when the team loses games such as the Rose Bowl.
For the wolves who surrounded Bielema in the game’s after-hours: Back off. Bielema made a mistake in that game, yes, but the loss wasn’t entirely his fault. Not by a long shot. And the very notion of him being fired right now is entirely foolhardy.
So first, let’s put to rest one inflammatory misconception first – that the Rose Bowl was lost thanks to Bielema.
Bielema put a course of events into motion early in the third quarter that resulted in Wisconsin being charged its second timeout of the half – still with just over 25 minutes of football to be played. It was one of those moments where, unanimously, every onlooker said to him or herself “that could come back to haunt them later.”
And it most certainly did. Wisconsin’s comeback effort ended on the Oregon 25-yard line as time expired. The Badgers never had a chance to shoot for the endzone. A timeout would’ve helped.
People can chew Bielema out for that all they want; they are more than welcome to. But don’t act like it was the game’s deal breaker.
Two timeouts in the first five minutes of the second half is a big mistake, but I’d argue that allowing an obnoxious 621 yards of offense and a devastatingly late fumble by wide receiver Jared Abbrederis were bigger.
Oregon’s offense ran unrestrained all game. The Ducks were just unambiguously better and made Badger defenders look overwhelmed. They made mistake after mistake and couldn’t keep up.
You can’t coach speed. If you want to get on Bielema for not recruiting more speed, that’s fine. But right now we’re talking about one specific game, so I think in that regard it’s splitting hairs.
And Abbrederis, who otherwise had a superb game (four catches, 119 yards, one touchdown, 201 kickoff yards), made one of the biggest mental mistakes of UW’s season. With four minutes remaining, Abbrederis hauled in a pass that would have situated Wisconsin inside the Oregon 30-yard line.
After securing the ball, Abbrederis turned upfield. The sideline rested two yards to his left, and he had four Duck defenders closing in from literally all other directions. He was cornered and had little hope of gaining a substantial addition of yards.
Down seven points with four minutes remaining, ball security is the priority and you elect to go out of bounds in that situation. Instead, Abbrederis unnecessarily rammed into the first defender that greeted him, and the ball jostled loose.
Then a Duck dived on it like it was bread in the water.
You can encapsulate the Badgers’ loss by including all three of those mishaps – Bielema’s timeout, the ruinous defense and Abbrederis’ fumble. Singling one out is unfair and doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
On to Bielema’s job security.
Losing the big one two years a row has made at least a part of Badger Nation forget that Bielema brought together an exceptional coaching staff and group of players that won two consecutive Big Ten titles. They don’t understand that he’s the architect behind UW’s recent success (need I say again the winning percentage and conference titles?).
Critics have again found fertilizer for the assertion that Bielema cannot win a big game, though that argument, used against many a sports figure, is just fallacious to begin with and an inaccurate one in the case of Bielema.
Bielema has dethroned a No. 1-ranked opponent, blasted away Nebraska in its first Big Ten game and won the inaugural conference title game. But fans want a Rose Bowl victory.
It can obviously still be achieved.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly supposedly couldn’t win a BCS big game after he lost a Rose Bowl and then a national championship game. But then he won this year’s Rose Bowl.
John Elway apparently would never win a Super Bowl after he whiffed his first two chances to do so. But he ultimately retired with two rings.
Certain coaching decisions made by Bielema have gone under the microscope, like the timeouts he used in the first meeting against Michigan State that only aided the Spartans’ efforts to send off a last-second Hail Mary.
But what Bielema has proven over his tenure at Wisconsin is that he’s willing to be aggressive in going for the win, something I admire greatly in a football coach. Rather than act conservatively in crunch time and make decisions geared more toward keeping post-game controversy at bay, Bielema goes for the win.
You can call it reckless, but it has its benefits like Brad Nortman’s fake punt versus Iowa.
Perhaps it was just the heat of the moment for these salty fans. After all, nobody enjoys losing the Rose Bowl. But Bielema has some serious credentials that warrant job security. Talk of him being fired is foolish. Anyone who thinks he bears 100 percent responsibility for the loss probably just has issues with his coaching style, even though his style has proven to be fruitful.
In the media room after the Rose Bowl, I watched Bielema hold back tears as he offered a public apology to Badger fans, while calling them the “best fans in the world.”
And then he quite rightly said: “I’m not going to apologize for a group that [won] the division title, won a Big Ten title and earned a chance to come out here and play a quality football team and unfortunately came up a little bit short.”
Neither should any of the fans.
Elliot is a senior majoring in journalism. You can tweet your thoughts of Bielema @elliothughes12.