(photo courtesy M.P. King - Wisconsin State Journal)
As painful as it was to sit back and watch Wisconsin lose 21-14 in overtime to hated rivals Ohio State yesterday, it was even more painful to put myself through watching it a 2nd time on the good ole DVR. After watching things over once again there's only one conclusion that you can come to: Coming so close, yet losing in the end is getting really old, really fast.
I don't want to dredge up the past and make your start to Sunday even worse so I won't do so completely. I think we are all well aware of the fact that Wisconsin has become the masters of finding ways to lose games by a touchdown or less. The last two seasons should tell you all you need to know.
However, it would be completely negligent of me if I didn't mention the fact that in the past 33 games Wisconsin is now 25-8 with all 8 of those losses coming by 7 points or less. In fact it's been a total of 35 points in those 8 losses and an average of 4.3 points a game. That's how frustrating it's been and frankly it's getting very old to constantly watch a team come up so close, yet not get the job done in the end.
Once or twice, o.k., that's on players missing opportunities, but 8 times in 33 games? Sorry, that's more than just a coincidence and that's on coaching. No, I'm not talking about game day decision making, though it's certainly part of it, but what I mean is that's on teaching how to be great, a.k.a.. leadership.
Just look at our opponent on Saturday. As much as I can't stand Urban Meyer and how he goes about business in recruiting and some other aspects, what he does do well is understand true leadership and he instills that in his players. That more than just pure talent is what has made him and his teams successful no matter where he goes. It's why his teams have always found ways to win close games, not lose them.
(As a side note, may I recommend picking up and reading a book that was a major influence on Meyer & one that's in my own house as well... Lead for God'Sake. You'll get a good idea of what I'm talking about and possilbly learn a thing or two.)
Despite all of that and despite all of the frustration and heartbreak we, as Badger fans, have experienced over the past few seasons this is the loss that's the most difficult to swallow in my opinion. Why?
Let's do some checking on the anatomy of a Wisconsin victory, shall we?
First off, they needed to run the football well. Against Ohio State Montee Ball ran for 191 yards a a touchdown. Those are good numbers period, but coming into the game the Buckeyes were giving up just 107 yards a game as a TEAM. Wisconsin ran for 200 yards plus as a team on Saturday. So, check that box off.
Secondly, Wisconsin needed to keep Braxton Miller off of the field by winning time of possession. Wisconsin had the ball for nearly an entire quarter more than the Buckeyes did, winning the time of possession battle 37:14-22:43 on the day. So, check that box off.
Thirdly, don't let Braxton Miller beat you on the ground. Pretty sure holding Miller to 78 yards on 23 carries for a 2.1 yards a carry average qualifies as doing just that. He was averaging 116.6 yards a game on the ground and his average dropped to 110.4 after that performance. Add in the fact that he passed for just 97 yards and you really did hold him in check in all aspects. So, check that box off.
Lastly, Wisconsin needed to show that their starting quarterback could throw the football. Curt Phillips ended the game 14-25 for 154 yards and 1 touchdown. He completed a respectable 56% of his passes on the night and averaged 11 yards a completion. Both of those numbers were very good and should've been more that enough to help Wisconsin to victory. So, check that box off as well.
So, what went wrong on Saturday? Well, for starters the Badgers allowed 4 sacks on the day and most of them killed drives. Those 4 sacks were for 36 yards total, nearly driving Wisconsin 10 yards back every time. That alone will kill off any forward momentum you were building that that's exactly what happened to Wisconsin.
Then, finally, we come to what seems to be the biggest Achilles heel for Wisconsin when they lose games.... Special teams play. On Saturday it cost Wisconsin a ten point swing that would've made this game vastly different. Interestingly it was a play from the one steady force in the Badgers special teams, Drew Meyer, that cost Wisconsin dearly as his 3rd punt of the day was a low driving punt directly at Ohio State returner Corey "Philly" Brown.
That kick hung out his coverage to dry and there was zero chance to even touch Brown on his way to a 68 yard TD return that opened up the scoring. Kick the ball like he normally does, mainly with hang time of any sort, and Wisconsin simply doesn't allow a touchdown return there.
Of course it would also be the field goal kicking unit that cost Wisconsin once again. With the Badgers down 14-7 early in the 4th quarter Kyle French had a chance to put points on the board, instead he completely shanked a 40 yard field goal try and instead of being down 14-10 the Badgers now needed a touchdown late in the game to tie, not win it.
We could debate till we're blue in the face about how things went down at the end of the game, and don't get me wrong we will (tune in to Badgers Power Hour on Tuesday at 8:30pm CT for that), but the fact remains, you make the field goal and the touchdown in the final seconds doesn't force overtime it makes Wisconsin a winner.
As painful as that may have been to read, it's even more painful to think that this is a growing pattern for the Badgers and the answers as to how to correct this problem have to come from within. The coaching staff and players need to take some time in the offseason and figure out how to change the culture so that these losses become wins. As frustrating as it is for us, it's got to be even more so for those actually involved in the games on Saturday and there's no doubting it has nothing to do with a lack of effort or want to win.
However, a pattern is a pattern for a reason and something within the Badgers leadership style needs to affect the change this team needs to get from a very good football team to a team capable of competing on the national scale if it ever wants to move forward.