It seemed pretty unfair that the Wisconsin football team flew home from Arizona without a victory. They did just about everything they needed to do in order to beat Arizona State.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Stave commanded a late drive into ASU territory, advancing the Badgers to the Sun Devil 15-yard line. With the game clock trending toward single digits, Stave split the hash marks and took his knee. It appeared as though the Badgers would attempt a 32-yard game-winning field goal, by all means a chip shot.
But a whistle was blown, the ball left lonely on the ground, Arizona State’s defense freaked out before Wisconsin’s offense freaked out and bizarre became the only fitting adjective for how a great game came to an inexplicable close. The field goal never came, and the Sun Devils topped the Badgers 32-30.
It seemed unfair, and it probably was. Much like the Michigan State Hail Mary from 2011 and the failed spike opportunity later that season against Oregon, Wisconsin was on the brink of victory, only to have its present fate be decided on the judgment of the men wearing black and white stripes. The final 15 seconds personified the unfortunate side of sports that rears its ugly head only so often, but when it does, stomps the heart of many players and fans.
It’s unfortunate, but unfairness is, at times, a guaranteed part of sports and competition and life in general.
The night of Sept. 14 was always going to be meaningful for the 2013 Badgers, long before they took the field at Sun Devil Stadium and even Camp Randall a few weeks ago. It was going to be that point in every season where the world realized Wisconsin was either a team that coasted through a couple butterfly opponents or a team deserving of its attention.
In the end, Wisconsin went on the road, played a good team from a good conference in (what seemed on TV to be) a great atmosphere, and came up agonizingly short. This proves them worthy of attention. The Badgers left Tempe with a 2-point defeat, and as sour as the aftertaste may be, the night of Sept. 14 will still be a defining moment.
Wisconsin’s season can continue as if that judgment call never occurred — if the Badgers want to consider themselves undefeated, no one should really care — or they can treat it as a thorn in their side, constantly whispering, “What if?”
The best thing they can do is yank that thorn out, stomp it into the ground and get ready for Big Ten football, their fantastic companion during the last few years. Replacement referees stabbed a thorn into the Green Bay Packers’ side in 2012, but the Packers quickly pulled it out, forgot it ever happened and won the NFC North.
Wisconsin should — and presumably will — take a lesson from that. And it shouldn’t be a difficult lesson to take. Nor should their path be any different than it has been in the past.
The Arizona State defeat likely deserves many dishonorable references, but in the grand scheme of things, can largely be forgotten. The game had little bearing for UW’s postseason goal of playing in Pasadena again, similar to the Oregon State loss a season ago.
If Wisconsin does what it needs to do to play in the Big Ten Championship, it will once again be one victory from playing in the Rose Bowl, each step of the way far removed from the judgment of any Pac-12 referees. The world may have seemed like an unfair place Saturday night, but Wisconsin’s chances of playing in Pasadena haven’t wavered an inch.
Right now, the young 2013 Wisconsin season is sort of like a résumé. The Badgers have some great bullet points in their two shutout victories and what was a sufficient performance on the road. The résumé is also very clear — UW will hope to ground and pound it’s way toward points — but it also includes some impressive declarations like the increasingly remarkable redshirt sophomore running back Melvin Gordon and Stave’s improvement within the Wisconsin offense, notably during crucial moments.
That résumé would sit near the top of the list in the Big Ten. Right now, however, it seems to have a coffee stain on it, left by the night of Sept. 14. Maybe it’s wrinkled, too, but we’ll find that out soon enough. Wisconsin can reprint that résumé on brand new paper and add to it by moving on from ASU, refocusing on the Big Ten and setting their gaze on playing an early December game in Indianapolis.
It’s up to head coach Gary Andersen and Wisconsin in finding out what to do, and that is to forget about ASU.