When Wisconsin got the ball back with 31 seconds left, only down by seven after a missed Penn State field goal attempt, it almost seemed like for once Wisconsin’s senior class might have a bit of luck on its side.
But then redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Stave threw his third interception of the game in the end zone with one second on the clock.
It was over.
Wisconsin’s dreams were dashed at the last second once again — this time meaning no BCS bowl for the Badgers in 2014.
When you look back, besides three-straight Rose Bowl appearances, this ability to implode at the most inopportune times may be what this senior class will be remembered for best — or worst, I suppose.
After all, they have built up quite a bit of evidence supporting that assumption.
There was the Rose Bowl loss to TCU in 2011, where the Badgers’ offensive line was supposed to dominate a much smaller TCU defensive line, but on a last-minute pass on a two-point conversion by then-Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien to tie the game the pass was incomplete. The mighty Badgers fell short 21-19.
In 2011, things seemed even brighter, the expectations even higher, but this time Wisconsin dreams were crushed by a last-second Hail Mary 44-yard pass from Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol in the end zone.
Then against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, they fell short again after Russell Wilson couldn’t spike the ball quick enough to give Wisconsin one last chance at a game-tying touchdown from the Oregon 25-yard line.
Then in 2012, it was three overtime losses in three tries before an intercepted Curt Phillips pass in the waning minutes of the game against Stanford in the Rose Bowl sealed Wisconsin’s 20-14 fate as loser for a third-straight time.
This year it was “the call” by the Pac-12 refs that didn’t allow Wisconsin to get off one final potentially game-winning field goal in Tempe, Ariz., and then a game-ending interception in the waning seconds against Penn State that sealed Wisconsin’s fate.
Looking at all of those mistakes, it’s hard to argue that this core of seniors should be remembered down the line as one of the greats. “Almost” seems the only word to describe their entire career.
And yet they’ve done more for this program than so many Wisconsin teams have done before them. In fact, down the line when this crop of Wisconsin sports fans are old and gray and Wisconsin is vying for a National Championship, they may be giving a salute to this core of seniors as a part of the ascension of Wisconsin football into the ranks of the most famous programs.
Maybe the fact that Wisconsin fans will look at this 9-3 season as a failure and an appearance in the Capital One Bowl — or a similar bowl — as a disappointment is a testament to that.
Wisconsin’s senior class sits at 39 wins over the past four years, a feat that sits them just one win short of the all-time record for a senior class at Wisconsin — a record they can match should Wisconsin win its bowl game.
In a tough Big Ten conference, that mark puts them right up there with some of the most storied programs in the country. LSU’s senior class won 43 games so far, and Alabama’s senior class led by AJ McCarron will have won 46 games.
Not only that, this senior class went 6-0 in rivalry games against Minnesota and Iowa. They tied a Wisconsin record for Big Ten wins over the last four years set by the 1997-2000 seniors with 23. And when their coach abandoned them at the end of the 2012-2013 season, they didn’t give up on the next season and new coach, rather they quickly found their way into new head coach Gary Andersen’s heart:
“I love this group of kids, unbelievably proud of them. You know, they had nine wins again, very tough to do. Their ability to walk in and allow us to be involved in their lives. There’s a lot of great memories there for me, and there always will be,” Andersen said. “This team is going to go down in a special place in my heart forever.”
Sure it’s easy to remember the could-have-beens, but maybe that isn’t fair for these 26 players. Maybe this team should be judged instead for all of the times they accomplished the improbable to make all of those high expectations possible.
In 2010, there was the shocking touchdown run by David Gilreath on the opening kick of the game as Wisconsin went on to beat No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 — the first time Wisconsin had beat a team with a No. 1 ranking since 1981.
Then in 2012, after a mediocre 4-4 conference record including a 30-27 loss against Nebraska, Wisconsin’s running game broke out for a 70-31 win against the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Championship to carve their place in a third-straight Rose Bowl that they otherwise had no business being a part of.
For much of the past four years, this senior class has, quite frankly, punched above its weight to put the program where it is. And for that Wisconsin fans can be thankful. It’s certainly been a heck of a ride.
Nick is a senior majoring in journalism and political science. What are your thoughts on the senior class this year? Let Nick know via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send him a tweet @np_daniels.