PASADENA, Calif. — Russell Wilson incredulously tossed his hands in the air, completely helpless as the final seconds on the clock and a season unexpectedly died out.
A sea of sparkling confetti swallowed Wilson, Wisconsin’s star quarterback, in the middle of the field. Soon after, so did the entire Oregon football team, storming from the sidelines with delight in the wake of a 45-38 last-second Rose Bowl victory for the ages.
In the midst of the Ducks’ merriment, the beautiful backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains hanging high over Rose Bowl Stadium faded behind Wilson in the night sky. Perhaps it was fitting. For all the star power that Wisconsin’s football program possessed — Wilson included — the Badgers never quite saw the mountaintop on a season that began with so much promise.
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A wacky, roller-coaster campaign unique for the marquee offensive talent finally bestowed upon Wisconsin ended in exactly the same fashion as it had a year earlier — with a tantalizingly close loss in Pasadena.
“It’s something that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives, an entire coaching career for me,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “It’s never easy. I’m not saying I’d rather lose by 40 points. It just makes it that much more gut-wrenching.”
A team with all the necessary pieces to achieve greatness — two top-10 Heisman Trophy finalists in Wilson and running back Montee Ball, as well as a top-10 scoring defense — lost for the third time this season, with each game decided in the final minute.
Now, players will be left to wonder when or whether they’ll make it back to the big stage.
“We lost three games basically by a total of maybe 40 seconds,” Wilson said. “Pretty wild. All those situations were all unfortunate. It’s pretty crazy how each one of them panned out.”
Monday’s result might rank right up there in the all-time craziness department given what was at stake and the way it was lost for the Badgers, who finished 11-3 with defeats to Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon by an average of six points.
The Badgers’ defense entered the game allowing just 17 points per contest — the sixth-best mark in the country. But Oregon easily surpassed that number with its spread attack, tying the game at 21-21 after less than 20 minutes of play. That left Wisconsin’s offense to either keep pace or be left behind.
Wisconsin led the game on five separate occasions, the last of which came on Wilson’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Nick Toon at the 4:44 mark of the third quarter. The score put the Badgers ahead, 38-35, although it proved short-lived.
Oregon scored the next 10 points, leaving Wilson in charge for one final drive with just 16 seconds remaining, and with the potential to define his lone season at Wisconsin.
Wilson completed two passes for 62 yards, reaching Oregon’s 25-yard line with two seconds left. Because the Badgers were out of timeouts, Wilson quickly rushed the team up to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball.
When he looked up at the clock, it read all zeroes. A replay review later confirmed that the clock ran out before Wilson’s spike, ending the game as Wilson stood paralyzed on the field.
“I didn’t think there was any way that two full seconds ran off the clock there,” said Wilson, who threw for 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. “It would have been nice to have a chance there. With one second left, I think we could have capitalized there. Based on my perspective right now, I snapped it as soon as he blew the whistle, and I didn’t think that two seconds ran off.”
Bielema said he didn’t have another play in mind as Wilson went to spike the ball, which led to the controversial finish.
Oregon offensive lineman Mark Asper added a little extra salt to the Badgers’ already-gaping wound afterward, openly questioning Wisconsin’s decision not to run a play.
“I thought that was kind of stupid, but I’m not a quarterback,” Asper said. “I’m not an offensive coordinator. I don’t sit in their meetings. I didn’t know if he would have enough time to spike the ball. When we run our end-of-the-half, end-of-the-game scenarios, that’s never one that we do. If there’s that much time left, we have a play ready to go.”
The spike brought an end to the highest-scoring game in Rose Bowl history, which was of little consolation to Wisconsin, which lost in Pasadena for a second straight year.
A year ago, it was TCU that shook up Wisconsin, 21-19, and Badgers players openly admitted that they used that defeat as motivation moving into this season. When Wilson joined the program in August after three impressive seasons quarterbacking at North Carolina State, the sky seemed the limit for Wisconsin.
But a 6-0 start and national championship aspirations were squashed by back-to-back defeats against Michigan State on a last-second Hail Mary and Ohio State on a last-minute heave.
The only choice Badgers players had was to readjust their goals: toward winning the Big Ten championship and making amends for last season’s Rose Bowl loss.
It didn’t happen.
“Any time you’re here for a second year in a row and you have an opportunity to take advantage of something and you miss it, it hurts,” Badgers safety Aaron Henry said. “Being a senior, it’s devastating. I can’t really put it into words right now. To have something so special out there in front of you and to miss it, it just stings.”
What remains of Wisconsin’s team will be forced to regroup after a devastating postseason loss once again. Wilson has used up his eligibility, and Ball likely is headed for the NFL draft after a spectacular junior season in which he tied Barry Sanders’ single-season FBS record of 39 touchdowns.
It was a combination that should have been good enough for Bielema and his team to change its recent past.
“I’m tired of tears of sadness,” Bielema said. “I want to come out here and experience tears of joy at some point.”
Whether the Badgers will be granted that opportunity in the future is as up in the air as the San Gabriel mountaintops.