Not because the defeats knocked Wisconsin off the doorstep of its first BCS national championship appearance, but because the games never really seemed to knock the University of Wisconsin off its path of success.
"To face some of the adversity we faced and to continue to reinforce the fact that we were doing things right, we stuck to the process," Ewing said.
Because of it, Wisconsin persevered when adversity reared its ugly head down the stretch and now finds itself with the ultimate opportunity – a chance to redeem last season's postseason loss when it takes on No.6 Oregon here in the 98th Rose Bowl Monday.
"The Rose Bowl is a special place," said junior center Peter Konz. "It's very traditional and here at Wisconsin we're very traditional. There's a sign here before we go out to the field that says ‘The Road to the Rose Bowl Starts Here.' Growing up in Wisconsin, you knew the number one goal was to win the Big Ten and go to the Rose Bowl, just like Barry Alvarez did.
"After last year, we didn't know if we ever get back. It's one of those things where your heart just stops because you might not be able to come here again. It's a great experience. It's one-of-a-kind and to be able to right those wrongs, knowing we left some things on the field, that's one-of-a-kind too."
The last three defeats Wisconsin (11-2) has suffered have left a deep pit in the players' stomachs. Against No.3 TCU on the same Rose Bowl field, Wisconsin came out sluggish in the first quarter, struggled as the game progressed and didn't find its rhythm until it was too late, losing 21-19.
It was Wisconsin first loss in Pasadena since 1968 and it became the driving force to starting better. The results have been Wisconsin outscoring its opponents 149-38 in the first quarter, but still recognize that momentum can be easily shifted, like getting outscored a combined 45-0 in two second quarters against Michigan State this season.
"We need a fast start, no question about it," said senior defensive tackle and captain Patrick Butrym. "We played well in second halves, but we can't give the game away in the first half."
Junior running back Montee Ball said rebounding from those two losses – at Michigan State Oct.22 and at Ohio State Oct.29 - showed character, showed how the Wisconsin program will keep fighting, no matter how much the odds are stacked against them. He believed that because of what he saw in training camp.
Looking around at his teammates in August, Ball saw a hard working group of dedicated players with no thrills or attitudes. He also saw how the team's offseason free agent acquisition blended it naturally with the guys.
"When Russell got here and I saw how hard he worked and how he threw the ball, I knew we could be pretty good this year," Ball said. "After the first game of the season, going back and watching film, I saw that we were doing what we were coached."
The evidence has come through. When Wisconsin was trailing 17-7 at Illinois, the Badgers scored 21 unanswered points in the second half and forced four turnovers. After the Spartans rolled up 317 yards and 29 first half points in the Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin held Michigan State to just 154 yards and 10 points in the second half.
"They are arguably two plays away from playing in the national championship right now," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who is looking for his first bowl win after two straight BCS losses. "What Bret has done with that program from the outside, you kind of admire it and there's a consistency to it."
"We always knew we were tough, but the games at Illinois and against Michigan State (in Indianapolis) gave us an opportunity to show it," added sophomore Chris Borland. "We have a pretty good track record in resiliency."
Knowing that, the Rose Bowl could be considered the redemption bowl for a number of players. Again challenged by his head coach to have a breakout game, Nick Toon is looking to bounce back from a number of plays he didn't make last year in the bowl game. Ball is looking to make bigger runs after he felt his weight slowed him down last season. Aaron Henry is looking to get his hands on a couple more opponent passes after missing multiple interception opportunities.
More importantly, Wisconsin is looking to avenge TCU, two primetime losses and take its next step as a program.
"That's why we are good, because we are so obsessive," said Konz. "We are obsessive about winning this game. It's something special. We want to put an exclamation mark at the end of our season, and last year we didn't get a chance to do that. This year, we have a great opportunity to do that."
No.9/No.10 (AP/BCS) Wisconsin (11-2, 7-2 Big Ten - Leaders) vs. No.6/No.5 Oregon (11-2, 8-1 Pac 12 - North)
Date/Time - Monday, January 2 at 4:10 p.m. CT
Stadium –Rose Bowl (88,450/Natural Grass)
Television - ESPN (Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit and Erin Andrews)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)
Series – Wisconsin leads 3-1-0 (First meeting on neutral site)
Last Meeting – Oregon won, 31-28, on Sept. 1, 2001 in Eugene, Ore.
UW and Oregon squared off in an entertaining home-and-home series in 2000 and 2001, with the home team winning each game.
In 2000 in Madison, Badger RB Michael Bennet ran for 290 yards and CB Jamar Fletcher picked off Oregon's Joey Harrington three times. QB Brooks Bollinger scored the game-winning TD with 5:25 left in the game.
The next year, in Eugene, Harrington got his revenge, scoring the game-winning TD with 4:03 left in the game. The lead changed hands six times in the second half.
The Badgers are 6-3 against teams currently in the Pac-12 in bowl games, including 3-3 in the Rose Bowl. The last UW loss to a Pac-12 team in a bowl game was a 42-37 defeat by USC in the 1963 Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin's last game against a Pac-12 team was a 35-0 win over Oregon State on in Madison on Sept. 10 of this season. Oregon defeated OSU, 49-21, on Nov. 26.
This will be UW's eighth appearance in the Rose Bowl and the second time in school history it has played in Pasadena two-straight seasons. Wisconsin also played in the Rose Bowl in 1953, 1960, 1963, 1994, 1999, 2000 and 2010.
The Badgers will make their fourth appearance in the Rose Bowl during the BCS era (since 1998). That is the second-most in the country during that span, trailing only USC's five appearances.
This is UW's 10th-straight bowl appearance, tied for the ninth-longest active streak in the country. Wisconsin has made a bowl game and an NCAA tournament men's basketball appearance in every season since the 2002-03 academic year. The Badgers are the only school in Division I that can make that claim.
Oregon is 4-3 against the top 10 under chip Kelly, with two defeats coming in BCS bowl games.
Of Oregon's 75 offensive drive resulting in touchdowns, 41 have taken two minutes or less and 13 have lasted 60 seconds of less. UO's longest drive of the season, in terms of yards, lasted 37 seconds as the Ducks drove 93 yards in three plays.
The Ducks still have one game remaining, but are averaging 6.53 yards per rushing attempt (589 attempts for 3,844 yards). That mark is currently the highest by a Pac-12 school in a seingle season in conference history.
After having missed out on the Rose Bowl for 10 years, Wisconsin finally got a celebrate New Years in Southern California in 2011. One year after being happy to be there and celebrating its season, Wisconsin is back at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and it has set the bar higher.
"We approached this year as a three step process: win the Leaders Division, win the Big Ten Championship and now we're going to the Rose Bowl," said senior captain Patrick Butrym. "Just to win the last game and be Rose Bowl champs is the most important thing. We've got to win this one."
Not only does No.9 Wisconsin have to beat No.6 Oregon tomorrow to officially turn the page from 1999 and 2000 and start a new chapter of Pasadena successes, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema needs to win to cement himself as a head coach.
Bielema has won a ton of games in six seasons – 60 out of 78 to be exact – to rank third in school history for wins but in order to appreciate your greatest accomplishments, you must first recognize your greatest failures.
Peter Konz redshirted during the 2008 season, and he almost started to question if he made the right decision to come to a program that was full of egos, clichés and internal issues that were kept internal … but carried over to the field.
Wisconsin was 7-6 four seasons ago, losing its opening four conference games, needed three missed extra points to beat FCS opponent Cal Poly at home and were crushed by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, suffering its worst bowl defeat in 48 years.
People questioned whether Bielema was the right coach for the job after back-to-back disappointing seasons and some of the players were questioning the program's direction. Konz was one of them until a meeting soon after the bowl game.
"He sat us all down and was straight and honest with us," said Konz. "He said, ‘We're going to do things the right way. It's not going to be easy.'"
Bielema laid it all out in front of his returning players. Wisconsin was going to become tougher by stepping up the strength program. The Badgers were going to be more discipline and the players were going to be more accountable, meaning they were going to be early for meetings, not miss a class and not make a mistake on the field.
Since that meeting, Wisconsin is 32-7 and is going for its fourth Rose Bowl win since 1994.
"The transformation here has been amazing," said Konz. "He built it up the right way and the way he wanted to. A win would show that we're doing things the right way."
Bielema knows what's at stake. Growing up in tiny Prophetstown, Illinois, Bielema grew up around the Big Ten and recognized what the natural grass of the Rose Bowl means. He also recognized how tough it could be to walk away from it in second place. Although playing in the 1991 Rose Bowl as a reserve, Bielema reacted like a starter when he got his runner-up ring. He threw it in a drawer and forgot about it
. He did the same last year after losing by two points to one of two undefeated football teams in Division 1, a tough defeat that was Wisconsin's first in Pasadena since 1963 and dropped his postseason coaching record to 2-3.
"As far as national prowess, it would be great to get a Rose Bowl win," said Konz. "A win would put us at a different status. If you want to be an elite program and get that respect that some people don't think Wisconsin has, you have to win the big games."
After being maligned for failing to win the big games away from the comforts at home, Bielema has another opportunity to put his program on the map … and get a piece of jewelry he can wear.
"The biggest thing is (a win) would leave a very good taste in your mouth from this point moving forward," said Bielema.
Oregon is favored by six points to win tomorrow but here's the thing: the last four nonconference opponents that have had a top 20 defense and at least 20 days to prepare have slowed Oregon's no-huddle offense to a crawl. Wisconsin is ranked eighth. Until a team with those credentials doesn't slow the Ducks, I will go with the defense.
Throw in Montee Ball's 38 touchdowns, Russell Wilson's dual-threat abilities and a motivated group of Duck hunters, I think this season ends with the ultimate reward for staying the course despite the amount of adversity. Good things happen to those who overcome, which is why Wisconsin wins the 2012 Rose Bowl.
Wisconsin 34, Oregon 32
Straight up: 10-3
Against the Spread: 6-7
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