PASADENA — Asked how tough a two-point loss in the Rose Bowl was to deal with, J.J. Watt took a moment before answering, trying to collect himself and his thoughts.
“We know how much this means,” Watt began before his emotions got the best of him.
Teary-eyed, Watt attempted to regain his composure and finish his answer.
“To everybody. To everybody involved,” Watt continued, his voice now audibly revealing the fact that he could not stop from crying. Another deep breath, as some sniffles now accompany the tears.
“We work 365 days a year for this,” Watt said, powering through the emotions, tears and sniffles. “And then we come out here and don’t execute, and we…”
Finally, it was all too much for the junior defensive end. Watt sat back, and covered his face, attempting to hide the tears streaming down from his eyes. For seven seconds, everyone in the room sat silent, watching the display of emotion from Watt, and waiting for him to finish his answer.
Watt did not, and could not finish his thought at that time. But he didn’t have to.
If there were any question about how devastating a two-point loss was after working so hard to get to the Rose Bowl for the first time in more than a decade, Watt’s tears made it clear.
The Wisconsin Badgers didn’t come to the Rose Bowl just for the experience, they came to win, and fell short of their goal.
“It’s pretty tough,” left guard John Moffitt said. “It’s not really something you can describe that easy. I mean, I don’t know. It’s tough.”
Moffitt, having played his final game in a Wisconsin uniform, summed the loss up pretty well, by not summing it up. How can you put into words the disappointment that comes from such a heartbreaking loss on such a big stage?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Despite TCU’s status as the three-point favorites, the Badgers were billed as big, bad BCS team ready to end the Horned Frogs’ run.
Cinderella stories, by definition, are supposed to end when the clock strikes midnight, not make the game-winning play on the two-point conversion well into the early morning hours.
But therein lies the problem, TCU is no Cinderella.
“Give all the credit in the world to TCU, that is not just lip service,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said in his opening statement. “That is a very good football team. They’re undefeated for a reason.”
Even so, that hardly takes the sting out of the loss for Wisconsin. They put together one of the best seasons in program history, but came up short when it mattered most.
They’ll always own a share of the 2010 Big Ten title, but the 2011 Rose Bowl belonged to the TCU Horned Frogs.
But through the disappointment and frustration, the tears and the anger, the Badgers remain focused, and focused on the same thing that got them to the Rose Bowl in the first place. Wisconsin is prepared to take this loss, evaluate it, learn from it, and get better heading into next season because of it.
Even Watt, who had broken down just moments earlier, was not going to sit and sulk.
“The Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl,” Watt said definitively. “I haven’t made my decision, but if I’m back [or] if I go, the Wisconsin Badgers will be back to the Rose Bowl. 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, and when they come back, they’ll win.”
PASADENA — Many times, in talking about what his team did to get to a share of the Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl bid, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema went back to their Oct. 2 loss at Michigan State.
As he saw it, Bielema’s team managed an 11-1 record with big wins over then No. 1 Ohio State and on the road at Iowa because of what they learned from the Badgers’ loss to the Spartans. Had it not been for that game, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
Ironically enough, nearly three months later, the issues that cost Wisconsin in its only regular season loss were much the same problems they had in the Rose Bowl against TCU. The Badgers couldn’t get off the field on third down and left plenty of points on the board through missed opportunities in the close loss.
“I don’t think anybody can beat us but ourselves,” said left guard John Moffitt. “I think we beat ourselves today. We didn’t do what we needed to do.”
From the beginning — literally as Montee Ball ripped off a 40-yard run on the first play from scrimmage — the TCU defense struggled to stop the potent Wisconsin offense. It was the Badgers themselves that did most of the work in keeping points off the scoreboard.
Unfortunately for the Big Ten champions, they followed Ball’s big run — which brought them form their own 32-yard line to the TCU 28 — with a false start penalty on Nick Toon. When the drive came to an end, the Badgers put three points on the board on a 30-yard Philip Welch field goal, which came on 4th-and-8 at the 13-yard line.
On the previous play, Toon added a second mistake, dropping a pass over the middle. Had he not been called for the false start penalty, however, the Badgers would have been in a 1st-and-Goal situation on that series, rather than 1st-and-10 at the 15.
“What got us here was clean execution and clean disciplined football,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “We didn’t do that today all around, myself included.”
Tolzien, normally as efficient a quarterback as you’ll find, went just 12-of-21 for the game, passing for 159 yards while getting sacked twice.
On their first drive of the game, Wisconsin left a potential touchdown drive out there, but managed to salvage it with a field goal. When they opened the second quarter with another long drive, they weren’t so lucky.
After moving the ball down the field from their own 23-yard-line to just outside the red zone, Wisconsin faced 4th-and-3 at the TCU 22-yard line. Trailing 14-10, Bielema sent Welch out once again for the 39-yard attempt. He missed it, wide left, for another three points left on the board.
“I just think we missed out on a lot of opportunities that we had,” left tackle Gabe Carimi said. “It’s really just missed opportunities through and through.”
The missed opportunities and sloppy play were not limited to the offense, either.
A pass interference call on Devin Smith played a role in TCU matching Wisconsin’s early field goal with a 10-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that took less than 4 1/2 minutes off the clock.
On the first play following Welch’s missed field goal, a pass intended for Jeremy Kerley went through Henry’s hands over the middle. While he broke up the pass effectively, it was a very catchable ball for Henry.
Whereas the Badgers continually missed out on opportunities and left plenty of points on the board, the Horned Frogs always seemed to make the right plays at the right time. In the end, that made a big difference in a game decided by just two points.
“It is definitely unfortunate man, but sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces,” Henry said of the loss. “They made a few more plays than we did. But this team fought hard every step of the way, and hats off to my teammates. But TCU, they did a tremendous job and unfortunately, they just made a few more plays than we did.”
MADISON – It was national news this week that John Clay would sit out Saturday against Indiana with a sprained knee.
But those stories forgot to mention one thing: it didn’t matter.
With the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year watching from the sideline, Wisconsin rushed for 338 yards against Indiana, picking up an average of 7.2 yards on 47 attempts. The Badgers added six touchdowns, one shy of the school record.
“That just speaks to the talent that we have at running back,” John Moffitt said. “It’s great to have those guys.”
On 22 carries – 20 of which came before halftime – Ball rushed for a career-high 167 yards and three touchdowns. Taking on much of the load in the second half, White carried the ball 19 times, picking up 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Not only did Ball pick up 167 yards, he never once lost yardage on the day. Afterward, he credited his success to the impressive play up front.
“I worked hard in practice and I’m glad to see that I carried it over to the game,” Ball said. “Those holes were huge, anybody could’ve ran through them. So I give credit to them for working hard up there.
Ball made his first career start Saturday against the Hoosiers, and for the second straight year, he put up big numbers against Indiana. Last year in Bloomington, Ball rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries in Wisconsin’s 31-28 victory over Indiana.
Three touchdowns for Ball on the day also marked a career high, while his 167 rushing yards was a season high for a Wisconsin running back. Ball also marked his best rushing performance at home by more than 100 yards, with his previous best being an 11-carry, 64-yard day in the Badgers’ rout of Austin Peay.
“Today was his first start of the year, that’s what’s amazing,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “I really do think Montee understands the schemes.
“He chose us because of the way we play and obviously it’s working very well for him.”
After missing the Purdue game last week with a knee injury, White returned in his usual role as the Badgers’ No. 2 back and put together an impressive performance.
While it took him a few carries to get back to his usual self, White eventually looked as good as he has all season. In the fourth quarter, White rushed for 44 yards on his final play of the game before sitting out the final two minutes.
The Badgers’ third touchdown drive of the game, which followed a missed field goal by Indiana, epitomized the performance Saturday by the Wisconsin rushing attack.
On first down, Ball ripped off a 36-yard run down to the Indiana 30-yard line. As Ball took himself out, White stepped in and took the next play 30 yards for the score. A two-play, 66-yard drive, the Badgers needed just 50 seconds to score the game-changing touchdown.
“I don’t know if Montee would have went right back and had that same burst,” Bielema said. “That’s the part that [running backs coach John Settle] has done a nice job ingraining in the running backs. You need to be fresh to go, and obviously they’re doing that.”
MADISON – While they all may line up together, the differences between the guard, center and tight end positions are many. That hasn’t stopped Bill Nagy from transitioning seamlessly between the three spots this season.
Nagy, a fifth year senior from Hudson, Ohio, started the first four games of the season for the Badgers at right guard with Kevin Zeitler out with an injury. When the opportunity arose for him to fill in at tight end, Nagy jumped at that opportunity as well.
Now, with Peter Konz aggravating his right ankle injury, Nagy is set to start at center for the first time in his career Saturday against Indiana. As a senior, and one who missed all but three games last year, Nagy is savoring every chance he gets to put on the Wisconsin uniform, whether it be No. 76 or No. 89.
“Yeah, that’s probably the hardest part,” Nagy joked, referring to switching jerseys depending on the position. “It’s been a lot of fun, I’m just happy that I got the opportunity to play some tight end, too. It’s unfortunate what happened with Zeit at the beginning of the season and then obviously, Pete going down with his ankle and everything with that.
“I’m just trying to play hard, practice hard, and just have a next man in mentality.”
Nagy missed much of the 2009 season as a result of the events of July 16, 2009. On that night, as he rode his moped home from Camp Randall Stadium, going east on Dayton Street, a northbound car on Park Street ran a red light, hitting Nagy.
As a result of the crash, Nagy suffered a broken right wrist and torn ligaments in the arch of his right foot. Though he was able to tough it out through three games, Nagy eventually missed much of the season and was not 100 percent through spring practice.
“That was really tough and a freak thing,” said John Moffitt, Nagy’s roommate. “I was thinking about that the other day like, ‘Bill got hit by a car.’ How many people can say that? I was going to say something to him like, ‘Man, you got hit by a car, that’s crazy.’
“But just the way that he’s recovered and fought back, it’s not been easy. I don’t think people realize that, it’s a physical battle, but it’s also a mental battle, too.”
Having fought back, both mentally and physically, from those injuries, Nagy has become one of the most important members of the 2010 Badgers.
When Konz went down against Iowa, Nagy was more than capable of stepping in. He did, and helped the Badgers escape with the one-point victory. After the injury became an issue again at Purdue, Nagy stepped in and the Wisconsin offense didn’t miss a beat.
His performance at three positions this season has been impressive to say the least.
“Bill’s just the total team player and a selfless player. He’s in his fifth year now and he just wants to get on the field,” Scott Tolzien said. “That’s what makes teams special is when you’ve got a bunch of guys that are willing to just sacrifice their roles for the good of the team. Bill’s been a great example of that, and he’s been huge for us.
“He never dwindles in his confidence or what his role is. The great thing is he doesn’t pout, he doesn’t complain, he just takes it upon himself to just keep getting better every day. I admire his patience just for the way he’s approached it and it’s great to see it kind of come full circle and pay off for him.”
While playing three positions for the Badgers is one thing, Nagy’s ability to play center serves an even greater purpose. If he were unable to do so, head coach Bret Bielema would have to move Moffitt to center, forcing someone else to fill in at left guard as well.
With Nagy at center, the Badgers can maintain a stronger sense of continuity on the line, something that is especially important with Wisconsin’s power style of football.
“Me and Bill were talking about that, because he was like, ‘Why don’t they just plug you in at center?'” Moffitt recalled. “And well, one I said, I think I’m too fat for center right now, and on top of that I said, that’s just one change. Bill’s in, and then there’s still that consistency. Whereas, like Hawaii and Miami last year – Miami was a little easier because we had the time – but Hawaii, we moved me to center, we moved [Travis] Frederick into left guard, and that’s two changes, and that kind of changes half a line.”
As long as they’ve got Nagy, who can fill in anywhere on the line, the Badgers should not have to worry about such dramatic changes this season.
WEST LAFAYETTE – Talk about taking advantage of what is given to you.
After spending the first two months of the season seeing his playing time severely limited due to the emergence of freshman James White, third-string running back Montee Ball has never stopped working to help his team.
It paid off in a big way Saturday at Purdue.
Ball reemerged as an important part of the Wisconsin offense when White went down with an injury at Iowa, scoring the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
His performance at Ross-Ade Stadium was even better.
“Montee knew pretty much all week it was going to be John and Montee,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “He was snapped in and just another example of great preparation by him.”
For the first time this season, Ball knew all week he would be the No. 2 option out of the backfield, a role he played well late in his freshman season.
When Saturday’s game rolled around, Ball simply went out and rushed for 127 yards on 21 carries and two big second-half touchdowns.
“I knew that the team was going to look for me to come in strong,” Ball said. “I wasn’t going to let them down.”
Early on, the Badgers went with a heavy dose of John Clay, with less than desirable results. When Clay got banged up during the course of the game, the load was all on Ball’s shoulders.
To say he responded well would be quite the understatement.
Ball finished the first half with just nine yards rushing on four carries, eight of which came on a single carry in the Badgers’ final drive of the second quarter. Over the final 25:32 of play, Ball ran for 118 yards on 17 carries, for an average of nearly seven yards per rush.
Midway through the third quarter, Ball helped the Badgers reel off a two-play, 51-yard, 38-second scoring drive. After a 20-yard pass to Nick Toon, Ball took the ball down the left sideline 31 yards for the score, diving for the pylon and giving UW some breathing room at 20-10.
“I just kept running behind the blocks, waiting for them to set up,” Ball said. “It was just there, so I just kind of leaped over them a little bit and reached the ball a little bit.”
Ball reeled off another run of 26 yards on the Badgers’ first drive of the fourth quarter before getting his second touchdown of the day when Wisconsin got the ball back for a second drive in the period.
Following Mike Taylor‘s impressive interception, Ball took the handoff twice, losing a yard on first down and finding a huge hole for his second touchdown of the day, this time from 15 yards out.
“He did a great job,” John Moffitt said of Ball. “The way he can step up, it’s so nice to have three backs that can do that. Running the football here is not easy, we put a lot of carries in your hands and it’s going to be tough, but Montee definitely stepped up.”
Ball found out just what it meant to be the Badgers’ every down back on the game’s final drive. Wisconsin ran 10 plays for 40 yards, eating up 5 minutes and 50 seconds off the clock.
Each of the 10 plays was a handoff to Ball.
“When you come here, the team’s going to put the load on your shoulders and you’ve got to be able to carry it,” Ball said. “That’s what I feel like I did. The O-line did a great job up front pushing them, and I just don’t want to let them down.”
MADISON – As stadiums go, Ross-Ade Stadium is never going to be mistaken for one of the great, historic venues in college football. Even so, Purdue has won 254 games there all-time against just 149 losses, including the Boilermakers’ 3-1 home record this year.
In fact, just last year Purdue knocked off then-No. 7 Ohio State at home, 26-18, in a stunning upset. That win came on the heels of a five-game losing streak for the Boilermakers, who have lost each of their last two games, on the road, in blowout fashion.
Add the Badgers’ recent success, and Wisconsin looks to be headed into a classic trap game.
“We’re well aware of it,” quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “I think the main thing is that it’s just another Big Ten game. You just look at last year, they knocked off Ohio State.
“Every year there seems to be that game where someone gets nipped from behind. We need to approach this game like any other game. The second you take your foot off the gas pedal and start relaxing, that’s when you start to get some adversity.”
Unfortunately for the Badgers, they don’t have any past experience to lean on against Purdue. While they shutout the Boilermakers last year, 37-0, the last time Wisconsin traveled to Purdue was in 2006, when Bret Bielema was a first-year head coach and UW’s current fifth-year seniors were in their redshirt seasons.
Junior defensive end J.J. Watt will be making his second appearance at Ross-Ade, having played there once in his career at Central Michigan.
As such, they’ll need to rely on their experiences in other Big Ten stadiums, rather than recall past games as Ross-Ade.
“I think anybody can beat anybody,” said John Moffitt, who redshirted in 2006. “You have to respect teams and you have to especially respect teams at home. I think we’re doing that with our preparation and we need to continue to do that.”
Not only has the team not played in West Lafayette in four years, they’ve also not made a bus trip as long as the one scheduled for this weekend. A 271-mile drive, the drive from Camp Randall to Ross-Ade is said to take five hours and six minutes, according to Google Maps.
On a bus, that easily translates to at least a six-hour drive. And that’s assuming the buses make it through the Chicago area without significant delay.
“That’s something that I don’t like at all,” free safety Aaron Henry said. “I understand we’ve got to do it, but six hours man, I can’t sit in a classroom for 50 minutes, let alone on a bus for six hours.
“It’s something we’ve got to do, so I don’t really have a choice in that, and we’ve just got to roll with it. I’m not really a big fan of bussing for six hours, though. Hopefully, if we take care of business, we won’t be bussing back.”
Confined to seat on the bus for the length of nearly two football games, the Badgers will need to find some ways to occupy their time. Homework, music, movies and sleep are among the most popular time-wasters for bus trips.
Of course, they’re typically more like three to four hours, such as is the case with the trip to Iowa City.
“I’m going to probably be doing a ton of things,” Henry said. “Probably on the phone listening to music, going over some of my notes, writing up some of my interests on the blog that I have. There’s no telling what I could be doing, man.
“Once you focus on one thing, that thing is going to die out eventually. And me, I’m always trying to find what’s new. But hopefully sleep will be my biggest friend on that trip.”
Running back John Clay had a simple answer to what could make the bus trip better for him.
“Having my own seat,” Clay said with a laugh. “If I can sit in the back and have my own seat, I’ll just be thinking about the plays that are going to get called and thinking about making a big play every time I get a chance.”