January 4, 2013

Same limitations haunt Badgers



As the 2013 Rose Bowl Game unfolded, it became clear that we'd seen this story before, not unlike one of those deja vu moments when you could swear you've already had the same conversation with someone. But that head-shaking familiarity wasn't because the Badgers walked off the field in Pasadena without a trophy for the third time in three years. That was pretty familiar too.

Wisconsin's 20-14 loss to the Stanford Cardinal rang a bell because in the end it played out a lot like the Badgers' whole season. There were early struggles and a few bounce back performances where the team showed signs of life, but in the end their same crippling limitations kept them from sealing the deal and coming all the way back.

Looking back on it, there's no way you could have predicted the twists and turns that the Badgers would endure on this rollercoaster of a season. Many people, myself included, predicted the Badgers would win the Big Ten again and go back to Pasadena for the third year in a row. As you can tell, that prediction ended up being right- despite all odds. It was how the Badgers went about booking that charter plane to Los Angeles that caught so many of us off guard.

It started with an offseason full of distractions. Six assistant coaches left in the offseason. Montee Ball was assaulted just before the start of fall camp, and the after effects of a concussion held him out of a lot of practices. The Badgers also struggled early and often once the real games started, and stumbled their way through a non-conference schedule that should have produced just two wins instead of three.

Former head coach Bret Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games, after it became clear the Badgers weren't dominating the line of scrimmage like they used to. Starting quarterback Danny O'Brien was also yanked two-and-a-half games into his Wisconsin career; when the Badgers were trying almost anything to get themselves back on track and save their season.

But after those first few games and a rough first quarter of the Rose Bowl, the Badgers found a way to bounce back. After spotting Stanford 14 early points, Wisconsin's defense held the Cardinal to just two field goals the rest of the way, and the offense responded with two touchdowns of their own to cut Stanford's lead to just three points.

And even though pulling the plug on Markuson and O'Brien smelled a little like desperation, Bielema's moves worked. Bart Miller was a revelation as Wisconsin's new offensive line coach, and the Badgers showed that they hadn't completely flat lined with an impressive fourth quarter against UTEP and when they steamrolled over Purdue to nearly clinch their postseason berth.

New starting quarterback Joel Stave also showed signs of promise as the starting quarterback. He had his ups and downs, like most freshmen and first-time starters are prone to do, but impressive performances in the first half against Nebraska, and against Illinois and Purdue gave the sense that the Badgers were back on track for another double-digit win season, if a little worse for the wear than people expected.

But perhaps the strangest season in Badger football history was still unfolding, as Stave broke the collarbone in his non-throwing shoulder against Michigan State, just as he was having what looked like his best game yet as the starting quarterback. Curt Phillips emerged as the starter the week after against Indiana, but Wisconsin's offense was never really the same.

It showed in the Rose Bowl. After halftime the Badgers gained just 82 yards of total offense against Stanford's defense, and advanced for just four first downs in the second half. That includes just 15 yards of passing offense on three completions. It should have been all-too familiar to Wisconsin fans, since the Badgers scored just twice in the second half in overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State.

Without Stave the Badgers became too one-dimensional. Phillips performed admirably in a tough situation, but the Badgers' passing game crumpled without the threat of a deep pass or two. It didn't help that the Badgers turned over every stone they could to find a consistent second option at wide receiver and ended up empty handed, but the fact remains that Wisconsin's lone big-play threat, Jared Abbrederis, was limited to relatively short catches after the injury. After Stave's injury, Abbrederis' longest catch came for 22 yards in the Rose Bowl.

And among other reasons, that's why the Badgers lost the 2013 Rose Bowl. They had their chances, including two passes that were nearly picked off in Stanford territory, but at the end of the day the Badgers couldn't move the ball downfield when they needed to. Ball, James White, and Melvin Gordon could only do so much to keep the offense afloat. Stanford stuffed the run in the second half, and the Badgers just didn't have enough weapons to punch back a second time.

It takes a lot of character to battle back from adversity like the Badgers faced early in the season, and they should certainly be commended for not giving up and making it to the Rose Bowl for a third-straight season. But even after the Badgers exploded for 70 points against Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game, Stanford provided a rude reminder that that performance was an exception to the rule.

One of my favorite quotes is that "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." And just like that conversation you could've sworn you already had or a store that seems as though you've already been in it, in the end we already knew what the 2012 Badgers were before they doubled down on their season in Pasadena: a good but unlucky team that found themselves several times just a play or two removed from having a drastically different season.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.



 

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