After seven straight wins to close out the Big Ten season brought the red-hot Badgers to Pasadena, a talented TCU team got in the way of one final victory, handing Wisconsin a 21-19 defeat in a hard-fought battle in the Rose Bowl.
Despite junior running back John Clay's performance in a dramatic 77-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, an unsuccessful two-point conversion proved to be the Badgers' undoing as they fell one play shy of Rose Bowl victory. All night long, UW avoided the big mistake as they have all year but didn't execute the little things, with that poor execution accounting for the close defeat.
Although they would falter later, on their first play from scrimmage the Badgers did not appear to show any rust from their five-week layoff between Saturday's game and their regular season finale. Sophomore running back Montee Ball bounced outside, bursting down the field for a 40-yard gain. But after a penalty on the next snap and a third-down drop by junior wide receiver Nick Toon, the Badgers stalled and were forced to settle for a 30-yard Philip Welch field goal.
The 3-0 lead didn't last long as the teams traded blows through the first quarter, which was the highest-scoring opening frame in Rose Bowl history. The Horned Frogs responded with their first touchdown drive, taking the 7-3 lead on a 23-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Andy Dalton to senior wide receiver Bart Johnson.
On the Badgers' next possession, Clay capped off the Wisconsin drive with a one-yard TD rush. Dalton countered with a rushing touchdown of his own, a four-yard conversion on third and goal, giving TCU a 14-10 lead after the first 15 minutes of the game.
"Third down stops were critical in the first half, and I don't think our defense got off the field on third down," head coach Bret Bielema said. "That was a big part of the game. Bottom line, two big pass, play action plays in the first half were critical.
"They were able to execute and we weren't."
The second quarter was perhaps the best execution of game plan by the Badgers all afternoon. After a long drive to start the quarter faded after Philip Welch missed a 39-yard field goal—his first miss under 40 this season—the defense responded by forcing TCU into a three-and-out.
The Wisconsin offense then rammed the ball down TCU's throat (with the help of a successful Brad Nortman fake punt conversion) running out the final 7:04 and finishing off the half with a 37-yard Welch field goal.
Despite controlling the ball for 13:30 in the second quarter alone, however, the Badgers trailed 14-13 at the half.
TCU went on perhaps its signature drive of the game to start the third quarter, completing a 71-yard drive that bumped the Horned Frogs' lead up to 8.
"We knew we had to take advantage of our opportunities because Wisconsin's got such a great run," Dalton said. "That's kind of the attitude we took in the second half. We have to take advantage, keep moving the ball."
For the next quarter of play, both teams put their "bend and don't break" philosophy on display, trading key third-down stops as each defense battled to keep the score where it was.
So the stage was set as the Badger offense took the field with 7:32 remaining in the game and the score still 21-13 in favor of TCU. A touchdown and 2-point conversion would tie the game, anything else and it would become desperation time.
After being quiet for much of the game, this final drive was a wakeup of sorts for Clay. Having gained just 12 yards on five carries coming through thre quarters, Clay led the Badgers on the final touchdown drive with six carries rushed for 59 yards, pushing him over 1000 yards for the season and setting the stage for sophomore running back Montee Ball's 4-yard TD run to put UW within two.
Despite having been successful at pounding the ball up the middle for much of the drive, Wisconsin chose to go out of the shotgun and attempt the two-point conversion through the air. Though Jacob Pederson was open in the end zone, TCU linebacker Tank Carder capped off his memorable Rose Bowl performance by batting down senior quarterback Scott Tolzien's pass attempt and putting TCU an onside kick away from victory.
"I felt real confident with the play call," Tolzien said. "It looked like man coverage with zero pressure. I thought we had a guy open. You give credit to them. They batted the ball down, and that's what good football teams do: They find a way to make plays when the game is on the line and they were able to do that."
In a game that saw Wisconsin out-gain TCU 385-301, the crucial details of execution proved the difference as drops, penalties and missed tackles surfaced more than they seemed to in the regular season.
"What got us here was clean execution and clean disciplined football, and we didn't do that today all around, myself included," Tolzien said. "That's why it's the greatest game, because you don't execute and you're on edges."
After a year that the Badger faithful will not soon forget, Saturday's defeat is tough to stomach for players, coaches, and fans alike. Still, the sting of defeat is accompanied by a burning desire to work even harder to get back on top.
"The Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl," junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. "I don't know if it will be next year, but coach Bielema is an outstanding football coach. The Wisconsin football program does things the right way and Coach Alvarez leads the athletic department the right way. No doubt about it, the Badgers will be back.
"They'll be back better than ever. When they come back, they'll win."
Let's hope the Badgers can build on this season and return to Pasadena next year. GO BUCKY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!