Hope everyone had a good New Year's weekend. Back in the grind we go, I guess.
After back-to-back losses on Hail Mary throws derailed Wisconsin's BCS title hopes before October was over, there was still a chance for the Badgers to finish the season on a high note. The Big Ten title was within their grasp -- thanks in large part to the numerous flaws shown by division foes Ohio State and Penn State throughout the season -- and therefore the Rose Bowl was still a possibility.
By winning out, Wisconsin was able to earn the Big Ten championship, and they got that Rose Bowl slot against Oregon Monday.
It was there that Wisconsin's inability to manage the clock and close a game again bit them hard. This time, Oregon found a way to win the highest-scoring Rose Bowl ever, 45-38. Both teams led, but neither ever led by more than seven points.
Turnovers were a factor, with Wisconsin getting a touchdown off an Oregon fumble, and Oregon getting a huge touchdown off a Wisconsin interception. But it was a turnover that only led to a punt that turned the game for good.
Wisconsin sophomore receiver Jared Abbrederis caught a long pass from Russell Wilson. As he was being tackled near the sideline, he lost the ball. Inexplicably, the ball died on the grass and didn't bounce out of bounds. Oregon recovered. Abbrederis has to secure the ball more effectively, but it was a great strip and a hell of a lucky break for Oregon, because the ball totally should have bounced out of bounds.
The other big play in the game was a Wisconsin kickoff that went for a touchback.
The Oregon returner fielded the kick in the end zone, took a couple steps, then thought better of it and dropped to a knee. The rules say the ball must be completely out of the end zone to be out of it (just like the tip of the ball just has to cross the goal line for a touchdown to stand). The ball was clearly not out of the end zone. Only half of it (maybe) was.
Badgers coach Bret Bielema protested the call, then burned a timeout to try to get the officials to review it. That left Wisconsin with only one timeout later, and instead of getting the ball back with 50 seconds left, Wisconsin didn't even have 20.
Then came the spike at the end of the game. Wilson tried to kill the clock, but there wasn't enough time for that. I don't know if that call came from Wilson or Bielema, but it was a poor decision. Along with the unnecessarily burned timeout, it was another example of Bielema struggling with clock management.
To recap, Wisconsin lost three games this season. The first came on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the game where three Badgers watched a Michigan State player catch an already-tipped pass before any of them tried to tackle the receiver (on a tipped pass, there can be no pass interference ... everyone is fair game). The second came on a glorified Hail Mary pass in which Wisconsin let an Ohio State player run down the field without bothering to do much about it.
Then came the Rose Bowl.
Bielema is getting shredded for his clock/timeout management. He should. It's not getting better.
However, the big picture dictates that Bielema is doing a pretty good job. Yeah, he's 2-4 in bowl games (Barry Alvarez was 8-3). Yeah, he's 0-2 at the Rose Bowl (Alvarez was 3-0). But this is not a program that tasted a ton of success before Alvarez arrived. The transition wasn't perfect, but Bielema did well taking over and keeping things going with at least a solid rate of success on the field.
He doesn't strike me as a threat to win a national championship, but neither did Gene Chizik, either. And Les Miles is potentially crazy, yet is going for another title on Monday. Chip Kelly is nuts, too, and he could have won last year.
Bielema is flawed, but is he more flawed than others who have caught lightning in a bottle and won? I don't know.
It's frustrating to be sunk by similar circumstances in losses, but it's also easy to lose sight of all the good Bielema has done. The Badgers had a great power running game this season, but Wilson's presence allowed them to form a formidable passing game that consistently took pressure off Montee Ball. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst will be missed as he makes his way to Pittsburgh to become head coach, but there is talent, and if Bielema can solve the inconsistency at quarterback that forced him to recruit Wilson in the first place, Wisconsin will be back in Pasadena soon.
As Bielema himself said Monday, hopefully a future trip is accompanied by tears of joy, not tears of sorrow.