LOS ANGELES – They have been through just about every emotional hoop they could possibly jump through.
They have been to three Rose Bowls in three consecutive years but left California with as many close losses.
They have seen a host of coaches leave their team and welcomed two transfer quarterbacks into their fold.
They have experienced the highest of expectations only to fall in five close games, each by a touchdown or less – and that was just in 2012. They have also handled multiple last-second losses – whether coming as the result of a Hail Mary or a mismanaged clock – but also showed they’re capable of upsets on the some of the biggest stages.
The senior class has seen it all.
They took a five-loss season and shocked everyone with a 70-31 victory in the Big Ten Championship game over Nebraska to play in a Rose Bowl game in which no one thought they deserved to be.
Linebacker Chris Borland summed it up best after the 20-14 loss on New Year’s Day.
“You’d like to send out guys … the right way and we couldn’t get it done today,” the redshirt junior said. “Like Coach (Alvarez) said earlier, it’s kind of been a microcosm of our whole season. We’ve faced some adversity, fought back and came up short.”
Those “guys,” that form the senior class are few. So few you don’t even need a full set of fingers to count them. But they can’t possibly say their time at UW was uneventful.
“We’ve been in every game this year, losses and wins,” senior linebacker Mike Taylor said just before the Rose Bowl. “They’ve all been good games. It’s definitely been a fun year. Playing with all these guys, it’s just been fun.”
At the forefront of that class sits none other than Montee Ball.
The star running back announced his decision to return for his senior season on Jan. 5, 2012, just three days after losing a second Rose Bowl to Oregon 45-38. It was a largely unexpected move after he posted a season worthy of earning a spot as a Heisman Trophy finalist. But Ball almost wasn’t in that position in the first place.
During his sophomore campaign, Ball faded into Badger oblivion behind senior John Clay and then-freshman James White. Clay was a typical Wisconsin power running back while White used surprising speed to spring around the edge and find the end zone – and he was just a freshman at the time.
Ball was a non-factor. He didn’t even see the field during Wisconsin’s iconic win over then-No.1 Ohio State 31-18. But a week later he carried the ground attack against Iowa in a come-from-behind win that helped propel the Badgers to their first Rose Bowl appearance in a decade.
Ball’s resume is certainly impressive – on the ground alone he has 5,140 yards and 77 touchdowns on 924 carries in 49 games. Add in his six receiving touchdowns and his 83 career touchdowns are the most of anyone in FBS history.
But he’s just one of a handful of seniors who weathered the storm.
Taylor stood as one of the most consistent defensive players at his position in Wisconsin history and he developed into one of its most influential leaders in his successful attempt to get Barry Alvarez back on the sideline after Bret Bielema left for Arkansas days after winning the 2012 Big Ten Championship.
Over his career Taylor made 378 tackles, 38.5 of which were for a loss of a combined 120 yards and seven sacks for 53 yards. He also reeled in five interceptions and four fumbles. The Ashwaubenon native will end his UW career as the No. 7 all-time tackler in Wisconsin football history.
With so few seniors, Taylor noted the importance of the leadership and camaraderie on the team and between classes.
“[It was] very important being seniors and showing everyone, leading the way,” Taylor said. “But then again, we’ve got a lot of juniors that are leaders and can lead by example. Had a lot of playing time, can play big roles on this team. I think that’s just the way it is here. There’s not necessarily one guy that everyone follows or one leader. It’s a group of guys.”
That group also included the likes of offensive linemen Rick Wagener and Robby Burge, as well as defensive backs Marcus Cromartie, Devin Smith and Shelton Johnson, who together comprised one of the toughest secondaries Wisconsin has fielded in recent memory.
With a tougher defense rooted in a stronger secondary, the Badgers had generous levels of positive expectations at the beginning of the season. While reaching a third consecutive Rose Bowl eventually met those expectations, it wasn’t exactly the expected storybook season that got them there.
“It’s kind of just crazy the way everything has just happened this year,” Johnson said. “We always had our goals toward the end of the season to make it [to the Rose Bowl], but the winding road that it took to get here was unforeseen. It was a great team effort.”
Maybe this class just wasn’t meant to win a Rose Bowl in the end, but either way, it brought Wisconsin back to The Granddaddy of Them All. It helped put the Badgers back on the national scene in a stronger way than it had been previously for a class that did so much more than earn the program a trio of Rose Bowl losses.
“Hopefully they’ll remember us for all the things that we accomplished,” Ball said. “But I’m always going to be honest, it’s hard to not remember the class that lost three Rose Bowls.”