MADISON, Wis. – Losing three Big Ten championship games over the past four seasons, the University of Wisconsin always found a way to stomach the disappointment of losing a conference title to beat a ranked opponent in a top-tier bowl game.
In a downtrodden interview room Saturday night, Wisconsin’s seniors maintained this year would be no different, although the circumstances were not. Instead of giving those answers while a quality opponent hoisted a conference championship trophy, the Badgers tried to make sense of an average football team kicking in their teeth in UW’s own stadium.
“This will fade away,” senior lineman Michael Deiter said Saturday, shortly after UW’s regular season ended with a 37-15 thumping to Minnesota. “You’ve got to be ready to go win a bowl game. As a senior class, we’ve never lost one. So that’s kind of cool. It’s a little added thing. As a senior, you want to go out and go 5-0 in bowl games. That’s the plan. We’ll regroup, we’ll find out where we’re going and we’ll be excited to go play. We’re going to prepare to win.”
Few schools in the country have had the kind of recent success in bowl games Wisconsin has. The Badgers have won four straight bowls, tied for the longest current streak in the country. The Badgers have beaten three Power-Five Schools – Auburn, USC and Miami – over that stretch and won New Year’s Six bowls the last two years, games reserved for the best teams in the country.
But while UW will play a 13th game in a little over a month, the Badgers (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten) have fallen from elite-level status this season. Finishing in a three-way tie for second in the Big Ten West, three games behind division champion Northwestern, Wisconsin went from being preseason No.4 to alternating wins and losses the final eight weeks of the season.
Having a chance for its first two-game win streak since early October, the Badgers’ massively underwhelming season finished with the program’s first loss to the Gophers since 2003 and the worst loss to them at home since 1936. That Minnesota team was ranked second in the country. This one was fighting to make a bowl game after firing its defensive coordinator earlier this month.
“You’ve got to play good football,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “The next chance we get to play, we’ve got to play better football. We all have a hand in that and own that. We need to get ourselves a chance.”
Losing at least five games for the first time since 2012, Wisconsin’s problems affected all three units. On defense, the Badgers were bitten by the injury bug from summer conditioning to the end of the year, forcing to play young players on the defensive line and in the secondary that struggled with consistency.
On special teams, UW kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed chip-shot field goals late in the year, punt returner Jack Dunn struggled with when and when not to catch kicks and the staff switched punters in November with no noticeable results.
But the biggest gaffes were on offense from a unit that returned nearly every key piece from last year’s 13-win team. The offensive line struggled with pre-snap penalties, wide receivers dropped passes and UW’s quarterback play was well below average.
“Our margin for error this year is much less,” Chryst said. “Drops, we had a number of them. I don’t think any kid wants to go out and drop the ball. They aren’t trying to do that. The same could be said with some of the pass interference (penalties) that we’ve had. Guys who coach it got to own it. We’ve got to do a better job of coaching and making sure the kids understand it and help them.
“Playing in this league, you’re going to play good teams. (They’re) tough to beat and then when you have to beat yourself, you have to be a great team to overcome those. We’re not right now.”
The frustrating thing for UW players is they know they can be great. In the second half and overtime of Wisconsin’s 47-44 triple-overtime win at Purdue, the Badgers scored 44 points, registered 426 total yards, held Purdue to 48 rushing yards and played turnover-free on offense.
One week later and it was a comedy of errors from start to finish. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook committed four turnovers, missed tackles surrendered a 69-yard punt return touchdown, receivers dropped passes, the defensive front couldn’t stop the run and the secondary broke down in coverage.
“All we’ve got to do is execute,” tight end Jake Ferguson said, stating the obvious. “(It’s) little plays here and there that don’t go our way. It just comes down to execution.”
The Badgers will find out their bowl destination on Dec.2 but appear like they’ll be headed for either the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., or the Pinstripe Bowl in New York. Both bowls have yet to host the Badgers and both have sent representatives to watch UW play this year, including the Pinstripe Bowl Saturday.
Two things are certain after that, Wisconsin will be playing an average Power-Five team like themselves and will have one final chance to figure out a year’s worth of inconsistency.
“You don’t play for your own personal recognition and value,” senior safety D’Cota Dixon said. “You got guys who are playing with you, so I don’t think it will be hard to rally back because we’ve got each other. No one is alone in losing this football game. I’m not alone, even as a senior. Those young guys are hurtin’ because they feel they let us down, and they did not. It’s a football game. We lost as a team, we lost as a unit and we’ll be better. I think it’ll make us stronger for this bowl game.”