INDIANAPOLIS — For the second time in as many years, I found myself in the annals of Lucas Oil Stadium preparing for post-game interviews with University of Wisconsin football players in the moments following a devastating Big Ten Championship Game loss.
The losses were both equally painful, but different, in the sense that a 59-0 loss and a 38-31 loss in which UW had a 21-point lead at one point incite a set of emotions on a separate spectrum.
The reaction in 2014 reeked more of pure defeat. Saturday night, it was shock that permeated the interview room.
I watched former Badger defensive back Peniel Jean weep following that Ohio State loss two years ago. This time, I held my recorder and jotted notes while D’Cota Dixon, Sojourn Shelton and Corey Clement fought back tears. Being a student-athlete is hard to begin with. Adding pressures from the media exacerbates that hardship, so let me say I respect the hell out of every Wisconsin player that answered our questions Saturday night, given the state of mind they must have been in.
It was déjà vu all over again for me and this program, in the sense that it was another opportunity for UW to elevate into the national spotlight. Instead, it will retreat to the fringe, with a Cotton Bowl date set for Jan. 2 against Western Michigan University.
That is the biggest regret, in my mind, of Saturday night. Forget the 28-7 lead. Forget the dreadful secondary performance and the absent pass rush in the second half. Forget the inability to move the ball when it mattered most. What Wisconsin lost, for the umpteenth time in the last few years, was the opportunity to let the college football universe know this team, this program, deserves to be respected on a national level.
Until this team wins a big time game, be it a Rose Bowl, a conference championship, or a regular season game against a top five opponent, that recognition will not come. Yes, UW has gone to 14 straight bowl games, yet the disrespect directed toward the Badgers in the national conversation will continue — until they win the big game. I’m not talking about Nebraska at home in overtime during the regular season. I’m talking No. 2 Ohio State at home or No. 4 Michigan on the road when you’re ranked eighth. I’m talking No. 7 Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game when you’re ranked sixth.
Of course, you could subscribe to the fact that Wisconsin was predicted to go 7-5 and play in a mediocre bowl. Then, this season would be a success in your mind. But I don’t think that’s what this team believed, or wanted. This team and this program desperately want to take the next step to national contention, and 21 points across three losses kept them from reaching that recognition this year.
Lots of people will be OK with that, and that’s fine. It means those Wisconsin fans are content with perpetual above-averageness.
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I just think this program could be so much more than that. It’s time to take the next step.