Wisconsin football fans are used to their share of close-game heartbreak in recent years, and they can add another epic defeat to the list following Saturday night’s stunning 32-30 loss against Arizona State.
Badgers quarterback Joel Stave took a 2-yard loss to help his team line up a potential 32-yard game-winning field goal in the middle of the field. But in a bizarre series of circumstances, Wisconsin never had the opportunity to kick that field goal. Stave put the ball on the field after taking the knee and referees made no attempt to set the ball back down quickly as time ran out. By the time Stave tried a spike, time had expired.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday night’s game:
1. Melvin Gordon deserves more carries.
When the season began, James White was the starting running back — or at least the opening series tailback — with Gordon serving as the second option. Though we knew the carries would be about even, it’s becoming clear Gordon deserves more touches. How can you argue with a yards-per-carry average of 12.9 on Saturday?
Gordon finished the game with 193 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 15 carries. He broke off an 80-yard touchdown run to put Wisconsin ahead 21-13 on the first play of the third quarter. Later in the game, Gordon bowled over Sun Devils defensive back Robert Nelson on a sweep around the left side, showing his raw power and strength for a gain of eight yards. He also scored Wisconsin’s last touchdown of the game, which cut the Badgers’ deficit to 32-30.
Curiously, Gordon was not in the game for Wisconsin’s two-point conversion attempt. He was clearly the Badgers’ best offensive player on the field Saturday. And we should expect to see more of him, even if it comes at the expense of White.
2. Wisconsin’s secondary has plenty to learn.
We heard an awful lot about the inexperience of the Badgers’ secondary before the season. And we learned why Arizona State was a considerable step up from UMass and Tennessee Tech. The Sun Devils tested freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton and benefited from a holding call and two pass interference calls. Arizona State also picked up a first down on cornerback Darius Hillary’s pass interference early in the game.
Safety Dezmen Southward came up with a clutch interception after the Badgers gave the ball up on a botched punt return, but his experience couldn’t mask the mistakes made by his cohorts.
Arizona State beat Hillary on back shoulder throws in man coverage on consecutive plays while trailing 24-19. Later on the drive, quarterback Taylor Kelly hit D.J. Foster on a back-shoulder throw in man coverage on safety Michael Caputo. ASU tried a fourth back shoulder throw, and Hillary was flagged for a pass interference at the 2-yard line. Sun Devils running back Marion Grice capped the drive with a 2-yard score.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, their issues in the secondary weren’t done. One drive later, Kelly found Jaelen Strong on yet another back shoulder throw, this time on cornerback Peniel Jean. Arizona State clung to a 25-24 lead, and Grice followed with his fourth touchdown run to give the Sun Devils an eight-point lead.
3. The passing game needs work
Quarterback Joel Stave was in position to be one of Wisconsin’s heroes Saturday night after guiding the Badgers down the field in the most important two-minute drive of his career. But that scenario fizzled into the Tempe air after the Badgers ran out of time in their attempt to set up the potential game-winning field goal attempt.
All in all, Stave produced a pretty uneven game. He completed 15 of 30 passes for 187 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. His longest completion was a 51-yarder to receiver Jeff Duckworth that set up the bizarre finish. He did make some nice heads up decisions to keep drives alive — one on a shovel pass and another when he escaped the pocket to complete a third-down pass to James White at the Arizona State 3-yard line.
Still, Stave seemed out of sorts. On a third-and-3 with 11 minutes left, Stave’s throw underneath bounced off the facemask of an Arizona State lineman at the line of scrimmage. Poor throws like that in big moments are especially magnified.
Stave connected with Jared Abbrederis six times for 87 yards. Duckworth and Jordan Fredrick were the only other receivers to catch passes, and the Badgers need to have more diversity in the passing game.
Hey, most fans expect their kickers to make 34-yard field goals every time. At Wisconsin, they have been anything but gimmes. But for French to coolly hit his lone field goal attempt is a big deal, if only because of all his struggles in the past. French’s field goal gave Wisconsin a 24-19 lead with 13:30 remaining in the game, and he also hit all three of his extra point attempts.
Last week, French missed an extra-point try off the right upright against Tennessee Tech, which resulted in him being benched in favor of backup Jack Russell. French also was 1 for 2 on field-goal attempts in his first two games. But he regained his starting spot in practice with a strong showing this week. And his ability to handle tasks that most deem as automatic is a big step for French and the Badgers moving forward.
5. Wisconsin is perhaps the most snake-bitten big-time college football program in close games.
If you didn’t get this sense before Saturday, it seems a whole lot clearer now. Dating to the 2011 Rose Bowl against TCU, Wisconsin’s last 11 losses have come by a combined 46 points — an average of 4.2 points per loss. None of those games have been decided by more than seven points. And the wacky ways the Badgers have lost have been nothing short of spectacular.
Two losses occurred in overtime (Ohio State, Penn State last season), two came on last-minute (or second) Hail Marys against Ohio State and Michigan State in 2011 and two came when Wisconsin was driving in the final seconds and failed to spike the ball on controversial plays involving referees (Oregon in the Rose Bowl and now Saturday against Arizona State).
The good news for Wisconsin fans is the Badgers can still win the Big Ten if they play well because Saturday was just a non-conference opponent. But that probably won’t ease the pain of a loss many feel shouldn’t have happened.