The Badgers had slowly inched back into the game after the Buckeyes led 31-14, the game clock trending toward the fourth quarter. A back James White 17-yard touchdown run and Kyle French 42-yard field goal gave them a fighter’s chance. They were on the brink of a special comeback.
However, that drive was thwarted by an Ohio State hurry and a James White fumble, and as Joel Stave was unable to find Jeff Duckworth on fourth down and four yards to go, the Badgers fell a few plays short at Ohio Stadium. That familiar situation Wisconsin found itself in ended much like it has for the Badgers the last few seasons.
The opening minutes and the series of mistakes to follow were different but the final scene looked much the same as Wisconsin teetered off the wrong edge of achievement.
It happened three times in the Rose Bowl. It happened in overtime in 2012 and on backbreaking Hail Mary passes a season before. Saturday night was no different for the cardinal and white. With each chapter, Wisconsin football shows it is perpetually on the brink of something special. They just haven’t shown that “special” is something they might actually achieve.
Each time Wisconsin has had the opportunity to stand at the top, something slips. Redshirt senior wide reciever Jared Abbrederis fumbles on the sideline in Pasadena. Former quarterback Danny O’Brien botches a handoff to former running back Montee Ball in Lincoln. Braxton Miller fires a long touchdown in the last few minutes, and redshirt senior defense back Shelton Johnson is left speechless.
Déjà vu occurred Saturday night at the end of the first half. Miller took a prayer-filled snap, launching a pass into the end zone. Once again, Wisconsin fans saw their safety in retreat form, the back of his jersey in empty pursuit as the Buckeyes stole seven points before halftime.
That safety, senior Dezmen Southward, continually referred to it as “just a bad play” that really bit the Badgers. It was one of the plays that change the ultimate complexion of a game and one that ultimately cost Wisconsin in a hard-fought loss.
“That’s been the story of my career, honestly since I’ve been here,” Southward said. Since he made his first tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2010, Wisconsin has lost 13 times. Only once have the Badgers lost by more than one score (at Michigan State in 2010). It’s been an epidemic where Wisconsin plays well enough to win, but just a small percentage of plays leave them in peril.
“And that 10 percent can burn you,” Southward said. “If you’re good on defense 95 percent of the time, you can still lose the game. At the end of the day, you have to strive for those five plays, get it up to 100 percent some way … Striving to get there is the only way you can win some games like this.”
His all-Big Ten teammate echoed the same idea.
“We have the ability,” redshirt senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “It’s just a matter of those five or six plays. Every close game has them. We didn’t make them tonight and Ohio State did.”
Game-changing plays are an understood staple of football, but the game-changing plays witnessed at Camp Randall, Pasadena and across the Big Ten have remained largely out of the Badgers’ favor (Russell Wilson and Duckworth would argue differently). The amount of similar occurrences has turned mere flukes into an ugly trend.
But for Wisconsin, it wasn’t just game-changing scores keeping them on edge. Discipline was another wound in the Badgers’ side Saturday.
Wisconsin was flagged a season-high eight times for 54 yards against OSU. The yardage may not have been ultra-costly, but the moments were crippling. Yards gained on first and second down were drawn back with five false starts while holding call eliminated a Wisconsin first down early on.
Stave was pretty special finding Abbrederis throughout the night, but six penalties on the guys lined up in front of him made each of his drives unnecessarily adventurous.
Just two plays later one of those discipline errors showed its ugliest face in the second quarter. Wisconsin appeared blessed with its first break of the game when Leo Musso recovered a muffed punt by Buckeye receiver Corey Brown. However, the yellow laundry found the green grass in the Wisconsin backfield.
The Badgers didn’t have enough men on the line of scrimmage, leaving five in the backfield, negating the fumble recovery in OSU territory. Wisconsin punted again, and the Buckeyes started their field goal-scoring drive at the UW 47.
“It’s another huge play in the football game,” head coach Gary Andersen said in his postgame press conference. “It’s inexcusable.”
For a team holding Big Ten championship aspirations, playing its greatest competitor on the road for a virtual two-game lead in the Leaders division, he’s probably right. It is probably inexcusable to not be properly lined up the same way they would be for a punt play they’ve certainly rehearsed hundreds of times at Camp Randall or the McClain Center.
But maybe that’s just part of the enigma with Wisconsin football over the past few years. The bad breaks seem to tally one after the other, and while there seems to be an echelon of special within the Badgers’ grasp, who knows if they’ll ever reach it.
Sean is a senior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Does it feel like Wisconsin is on the verge of something special? Is it too late already in the 2013 season? Let him know on Twitter @sean_zak or with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.