INDIANAPOLIS – The University of Wisconsin football team failed to do exactly what the Badgers have been chasing all season in Indianapolis Saturday night: win the big game.
The Badgers competed pound-for-pound with yet another top-10 foe in Pennsylvania State University in the Big Ten Championship Game, but came up just short again.
Let me make one thing clear, this is not to take even a single ounce away from the level of competition the Badgers proved they had in 2016 as they earned their way from an unranked Cinderella against a then-No. 6 Louisiana State University to a top-10 force competing for the Big Ten Championship.
“We had a lot of big games, we had 12 big games,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said. “And we had a chance to play this game. We won a lot of those and it wasn’t easy. You gotta go play the game, and this team plays it.”
No one saw this Wisconsin team storming to Indianapolis – as the favored team heading into the conference title game no less – to compete for the Big Ten Championship, but there they were.
Saturday’s championship game against Penn State was the sixth top-10 opponent Wisconsin had faced this season, and the results don’t lie. The Badgers fell to 3-3 against the top-10 with the loss, but upon closer examination of each of the three losses and wins, Wisconsin’s luster loses some it’s shine.
While it may be hard to swallow for Badger fans, Wisconsin simply hasn’t had what it takes to win their biggest games of the season against teams that went on to prove themselves as the most legitimate contenders.
Wisconsin’s three wins came against then-No. 6 LSU, then-No. 8 Michigan State and then-No. 10 Nebraska. The sobering truth about these three wins lies in a “Where are they now?” reminder. The Tigers finished the season with a lackluster 7-4 record, Michigan State finished year 3-9, and the Cornhuskers’ 7-0 explosion fell to 2-3 crawl to the finish line.
On the other hand, Wisconsin’s three top-10 losses are what tell the bigger story. All three of their stumbles came to teams who weathered the storm for an entire season, and proved themselves not only top-10 material come conference championship week, but also as playoff contenders in the conversation down to the last minute.
UW handled its business in convincing against every unranked team the Badgers were supposed to beat over the course of the regular season, and that’s something even the best teams struggle to do. But all three of the Badgers’ losses against then, and current top-10 teams Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State came by the exact same margin: one touchdown.
It was no secret that Penn State was a second half team, it was something that the Lions prided themselves on. Wisconsin had a good idea of what was coming in the third and fourth quarters and there was simply nothing they could do to stop it.
The Nittany Lions overcame a 28-14 halftime deficit, outscoring the Badgers 24-3 in the second half to win the program’s first Big Ten Championship Game in school history. Including Saturday night’s performance, Penn State has outscored its opponents in the second half 106-3 since the Lions’ last second-half touchdown allowed, which came on Nov. 12 against Indiana University.
“We didn’t show up,” junior safety D’Cota Dixon said. “It’s no particular player’s fault, we just didn’t show up like we were supposed to. We did not finish.”
There is no shame in losing a close one a team like a Michigan or an Ohio State, but regardless of how close the Badgers came to knocking these teams off, they left with losses all three times.
As easy as it is to chalk these up as respectable losses to great teams, going toe-to-toe and competing with the best is nothing but a consolation prize at the end of the day if it’s still a loss. Saturday’s result against Penn State was no different to players like Dixon either.
“We just came up short. When the game is close, it hurt, because all it takes is one play. It’s a 60-minute football game but all it takes is just one play.”
Wisconsin had a phenomenal season and a 10-3 finish that included three wins over top-10 teams proved they were a good team, but great teams win the big game.
“You work so hard, you set a goal out for you and your brothers and you play your heart out,” Dixon said. “And it’s just the best man that day wins, we were the best man on Saturdays for a lot of weeks.”