The Wisconsin Badgers slinked out of Pasadena again Tuesday, defeated for the third straight year in the Rose Bowl. The good news was, by now, they certainly know the backroads out of town.
There was distinction in their 20-14 loss, but not the sort for which they will be regaling their grandchilden. This was the 99th Rose Bowl. No other team has ever left town with a worse record than Wisconsin’s 8-6. You need to go back to the leather helmet days to even get close. Brown lost the 1916 game and departed 5-4-1; Penn State the 1923 game and headed east at 6-4-1.
Of course, if we nitpick, our own USC Trojans, who played and lost the 2006 Rose Bowl thriller to Texas and slipped to 12-1, eventually slipped to 0-13, but not at the hands of other teams. The NCAA made all of the hard tackles, and Reggie Bush all of the fumbles, in that much-later transaction.
Wisconsin, which brought its usual armada of red-clad faithful to the Arroyo to charm the Southland, as usual, with willingness to spend dollars and believe unconditionally in its football team, does not depart in shame, just in frustration.
The Badgers were right there, with a chance to win.
“You’re at midfield, close to midfield, with a chance to win the Rose Bowl,” said Badgers interim Coach Barry Alvarez. “I just felt like maybe we were a team of destiny. ... That’s what my thinking was.”
Even though the score was 20-14 and there were just over two minutes left, why he was thinking that is certainly open to question. He was coaching a team that has now lost six games by a total of 12 points, three of them in overtime.
He was also coaching a team that had made games out of the last two Rose Bowls, two years ago against Texas Christian and last year against Oregon, and then fallen short.
Against Texas Christian, the Badgers marched downfield with their always-vaunted rushing game, scored a touchdown that got them to within 21-19 and then ignored what got them there and threw a pass that was batted away by the now-legendary Horned Frog Tank Carder.
Against Oregon, Wisconsin led after the third period but folded, eventually gave up 621 yards of offense to the Ducks, and lost, 45-38.
The very presence of Alvarez along the sidelines Tuesday also contradicted that destiny theory.
He became Wisconsin’s athletic director in 2004 while he was still the Badgers’ coach, then stepped down as coach after the 2005 season and a highly successful career that included three Rose Bowl victories. He coached this game because the Badgers’ coach, Bret Bielema, left after the regular season to become Arkansas’ football coach.
Not only did Bielema leave — the first coach to ever do that heading into a Rose Bowl — but he dissed Wisconsin and its Big Ten Conference on the way out the door by making a reference to now being “in the big leagues.” That may be understandable if his reference was to the vaunted Southeastern Conference, of which Arkansas is a member. But Arkansas itself can hardly be mistaken, historically, for the Green Bay Packers.
This game gave new meaning to the term “close to the vest.” The two teams were as wild and crazy and unpredictable as a lump of mud. Also, about as compelling. Area golfers not interested in football would see this one as a waste of a sunny day, their 36 holes at Brookside ruined by parked cars.
The main drama was whether the play on first down would be handoff right, or handoff left. Same for second down. The stars were the punters, who probably were found in their respective locker rooms afterward, soaking their right feet in buckets of ice. Wisconsin’s Drew Meyer punted seven times for a 44.6 average; Stanford’s Dan Zychlinski six for 45.5.
Alvarez, asked by the team to coach this one game in Bielema’s absence, appeared to coach this one to stay close and have a shot at the end to win. He did, but destiny bit him. On second and five from the Stanford 49, his quarterback, Curt Phillips, faded back into unfamiliar territory, the passing pocket. He threw down the middle, the pass was deflected, and it drifted into the hands of Stanford’s Usua Amanam.
Stanford and Coach David Shaw, who talked freely and often in pregame media sessions about “smash-mouth football” and the joys of the power running game, ran out the last 2 minutes 3 seconds with four plays. All rushes, of course.
Shaw made no apologies afterward, nor should he.
“We wouldn’t expect it any other way,” he said. “This is the way we’ve played all year.”
In the end, despite the usual pretty Rose Bowl day and the San Gabriel Mountains glistening in the distance, this 2013 game was the granddaddy of all pains for the Badgers and Badgers fans. Adding to the scene were hundreds of “Fear the Tree” T-shirts, a reference to the Stanford mascot.
At halftime, the Tree danced amid a loosely shaped state of Wisconsin, shaped by the always delightfully weird Stanford band. The Tree had no rhythm and the band had no shape, which meant that both were perfectly on their games.
Their theme? Making fun of Wisconsin cheese. Their departing line, as voiced by their narrator on the public address system: “Time to asiago away.”
And so it went for this Wisconsin team of non-destiny and its faithful band of fans who will, after this, probably get off the plane at home and kiss a snowbank.