INDIANAPOLIS — It’s Aug. 4, 2016, and hotter than King Kong’s armpit. You’re a Wisconsin fan, you don’t know what the heck is going to happen at quarterback or at linebacker, and the schedule is starting to give you the mother of all nervous tics.
You rub an empty bottle of Spotted Cow three times, and a magic genie appears and says a New Year’s Six bowl is in your future — but you won’t be crazy about the destination.
Do you turn up your nose?
It’s Sept. 4, the Badgers have knocked then-No.5 LSU, immediately raising the bar — and the stakes — for the next 12 or so weeks to come. Another genie turns up and says that the New Year’s Six is still on the radar — but you’re going to hate the opponent.
Do you take a pass?
It’s Oct. 16, and Wisconsin is coming off back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State, and the fate of defensive ace Vince Biegel is foggier than one of Tommy Chong’s old vans. This time, the genie promises that the New Year’s Six wants to seal the deal — but you’re going to loathe the context.
Do you refuse the gift?
There’s a pretty good chance Wisconsin (10-3), sixth in the College Football Playoff rankings, Big Ten West champions and Big Ten title game victims at the hands of No. 6 Penn State, will be presented a Cotton Bowl berth for their troubles, and a date with the only “Group of Five” program allowed a copy of the key to the CFP penthouse.
Some 10 weeks ago, that looked as if would be The University of Houston, coached by an up-and-comer (Tom Herman) whom the powers that be were going to up and come get.
Right idea, wrong mid-major. Instead, it’s likely Western Michigan (13-0), also coached by an up-and-comer in P.J. Fleck, a man who somehow manages to combine Jim Tressel’s wardrobe with Pat Fitzgerald’s desire to smother you with positivity, unabashed electricity and football aphorisms.
Four months earlier, at the start of the journey, you’d have taken that deal. Happily. If the little man in the bottle ended your July with promises of a New Year’s Six berth, you’d have signed away a small organ as part of the pact. Right then and there.
But after a late Saturday night, the body is hung over and the spirit unwilling. With no worse than a bid to the Rose Bowl on the table with a win — any type of win — over the Nittany Lions, the Badgers let a 28-7 second-quarter lead become 28-14, then 28-21, then 28-28, and then the roof on Lucas Oil Stadium threatened to fall on coach Paul Chryst’s head.
A field goal that made it 31-28, Badgers at the start of the fourth quarter was but a temporary reprieve, a sand bag with holes along the bottom, unable to stem the oncoming flood of Trace McSorley’s aerial strikes.
“This (loss) doesn’t define the season. This doesn’t change the goals.”
— Wisconsin center Michael Dieter
The Lions’ final six drives ended like a jackhammer to the thorax:
End of game
“It’s kind of frustrating when a couple of plays in there, I felt hopeless,” said Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, whose 12-yard fumble return to the end zone in the second quarter had made it a two-score Badgers cushion at 21-7. “And I felt like I could do more, but there (was) just no time to do it.”
It took the better part of two quarters — as in, better for the Badgers than for the Lions — before Penn State cracked the Wisconsin defense the way the kids crack video game cheat codes. Once Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley’s muscle memory kicked in, big targets such as wideout Saeed Blacknall (touchdown catches from 40 and 70 yards out, as well as a Big Ten title-game record 155 receiving yards) and tight end Mike Gesicki (33-yard touchdown grab, 58 receiving yards) took care of the rest.
Over the last three weeks of November, the Badgers gave up all of 40 points. In the final 31 minutes against the Lions, Wisconsin managed to surrender 31. A defense that spent months living one step ahead spent two-thirds of a humbling contest looking two steps behind.
“I can’t speak for the adjustments they made,” said Biegel, the pass-rushing hellion who notched the team lead in stops (eight) and passes broken up (one), “but they definitely did a great job keying (on) our blitzers, our creepers. They were very well-coached.”
The Big Ten team leaders in interceptions (21) went without a theft in the league title game and sacked McSorley just once. Extra seconds in the Lions’ pocket in the first half were precious and few; in the second, they seemed to be commonplace. The Badgers weren’t out-efforted so much as out-schemed.
“I think they kind of figured us out a little bit there at some point,” Connelly mused. “They did a good job picking us up, did a lot of quick passes, too. So you know, I didn’t even really (get) that chance to get home on a couple of occasions, so … they did a good job about it.”
If there’s a sliver of silver in the lining of the cloud, it’s that a Badgers victory Saturday probably wouldn’t have moved the postseason ceiling higher than a trip to Pasadena, anyway. The act of jumping No. 5 Michigan, No. 4 Washington and No. 3 Clemson was a longshot parlay, one requiring help that never came.
“This (loss) doesn’t define the season,” center Michael Dieter said. “This doesn’t change the goals.”
A January bowl. A shot at 11 wins. No offense to Fleck, who rowed the Broncos’ boat to the greatest season in modern Western Michigan history. It’s just that Badgers faithful had their oars collectively pointed someplace else.
“It is kind of frustrating, especially as a defense,” Connelly said. “But our guys are too prideful to let this one just kill us.”
It’s OK to mourn what could’ve been, to lament the destination. Just as long as you don’t forget the journey. Or the blood and sweat it took to stay on the path.