Under center was Russell Wilson, Wisconsin's star studded senior quarterback who wowed fans throughout the season with his ability to make plays with his arm and feet, and standing between him and the goal line was 87 yards, 16 seconds and a gashed Oregon defense.
Wilson did his part, driving 62 yards to the Oregon 25 and standing between him and another improbable comeback was two measly seconds. Unfortunately, he and the Badgers needed three for a chance at redemption. Instead, they were left with another video review and another heart-wrenching experience.
One year after Wisconsin's offense was to blame for not putting up enough points, Wisconsin's defense was whipped into submission by the speed, athleticism and huge plays that the high-octane Ducks unleashed to fly past the Badgers, 45-38, in front of 91,245 fans in the 98th Rose Bowl.
"I'm kind of tired of tears of sadness," said UW coach Bret Bielema, who dropped to 2-4 in bowl games and 0-3 in Rose Bowls as a player or coach. "I wanted to come out here and experience tear of joy at some point."
To do that this year, Wisconsin (11-3) needed to be sound on defense and to say it was gashed would be putting it mildly. Entering the game third in the country in pass defense (155.0 yards), sixth in scoring defense (17 points per game) and eighth nationally in total defense (293.0), Wisconsin allowed Oregon (12-2) to score 24 points on 341 total yards and 161 passing yards.
And that was just the first 30 minutes, as Oregon ended with 621 total yards – 12 shy of USC's 2008 total yards against Illinois – and set records with yards per rush (8.63) and yards per play (9.7), a number enlarged by the fact that Oregon had seven plays between 10 and 19 yards and had 10 plays of 20 yards or more.
"It was difficult," said sophomore linebacker Chris Borland, who finished with 12 tackles. "They didn't do anything out of the norm for them. They were successful in hitting the big strikes … They are just a good offense. It really wasn't anything mental or schematics. They just make plays."
It wasn't just one player either that gave Wisconsin fits. 2010 Doak Walker award winner LaMichael James rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown, DeAnthony Thomas rushed twice for 155 yards and two touchdowns, Lavasier Tuinei – named the game's offensive MVP – caught eight passes for 158 yards and two scores and quarterback Darron Thomas used the play action game to perfection, running it on 15 of his 23 attempts and throwing for 268 yards and three touchdowns to just one interception.
"We were respecting their run so much that (play action) kind of hurt us," said senior defensive end Louis Nzegwu. "Some guys just got by us and it hurt our pass rush, too … Some of the defensive linemen thought it was run the whole way and we have to protect that edge … They hurt us in the long run."
Still, Wisconsin was in the game in the fourth quarter after its defense registered one of its few key stops by holding Oregon to a field goal inside the red zone. Getting the ball back with 6:43 remaining, Wisconsin got inside the 30-yard line after a Jared Abbrederis 29-yard catch, but lost possession when cornerback Terrance Mitchell poked the ball out of the receivers' hands and Oregon recovered with 4:06 remaining.
"I was trying to make a move and I was loose with the ball," said Abbrederis, whose 346 all-purpose yards were the most ever for a Badger in a bowl game and second-best performance in school history behind Ron Dayne's 347 yards against Hawaii in 1996. "Nothing I can do it now but if I could go back, better ball position, high and tight, but you can't really dwell on that. You have to look forward to next year."
Oregon proceeded to run 3:50 seconds off the clock, leaving UW with only 16 seconds, because the Badgers again saw mismanaged timeouts come back to bite them. On UW's first drive of the third quarter, Bielema was forced to call timeout due to a misalignment by one of his receivers.
After Philip Welch knocked in a 29-yard field goal later that drive to make the score 35-31 Oregon, Bielema called a timeout after Thomas came close to leaving the end zone on the ensuing kickoff before kneeling for a touchback. Bielema asked for a review, which wasn't granted, and UW had to press on.
As a result, Wisconsin had to leave a third game in the hands of the replay officials, all of which have come on negative for Wisconsin.
"I didn't think there was any way that two full seconds ran off the clock there," said Wilson, who finished his remarkable UW career with 296 passing yards, two touchdowns and one interception to go along with one rushing touchdown. "They made the call and it is what it is. I think that we could have won the game in a lot of other areas too though. Obviously, with one second left, I think we could have capitalized there."
As a result, Wisconsin's high-powered scoring offense was held scoreless in the fourth quarter for the first time since the season opener.
"It stings a little bit, but we're going to approach this just like we did last year after the loss," said junior running back Montee Ball, who finished with 32 carries for 164 yards, four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. "The only way we can go with it is forward."
To say the game started with a bang wouldn't do it justice. The first three scoring drives were seven plays long but all lasted under 3:41 and involved huge plays. Oregon got a one-yard run from James while Wisconsin's first touchdown was a 38-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis and its second involved a 42-yard Ball run and a 30-yard catch and run on third-and-six. But Wisconsin helped break last year's record for most combined points in the first quarter when it let Thomas slip through the middle and blaze a 91-yard trail to the end zone, capping an opening quarter with 354 yards of total offense and set the record for the longest run in Rose Bowl history.
"Obviously a couple of mental break downs, whether it be read keys, reactions, we didn't even challenge them on two or three of their scorers, and nobody can win winning that," said Bielema. "We do know they had the speed to outrun us if they got to that point."
The teams didn't slow down either, as Wisconsin scored touchdowns off the feet of Ball – who tied Barry Sanders' 1988 NCAA scoring mark with 39 touchdowns - and Louis Nzegwu, who returned a Mike Taylor forced fumble 33 yards after UW failed on a fourth-and-1 at the UO 17, while Oregon got a 54-yard screen pass on a 14-second drive and a Tuinei 3-yard catch that capped a 10-play, 87-yard drive in just 2:56.
When both teams were able to breath, the 56 combined points surpassed the 45 points between Wisconsin and UCLA in the 1999 game as the most points ever in a first half and also besting the 53 second-half points from the 2006 game as the most scored in any half.
"I knew coming into this game that it was going to be all about scoring touchdowns and putting points up," said senior Nick Toon, as Wisconsin was 12-1 (9-1 this year) when the receiver scored a touchdown in his career. "Offensively, we didn't put enough points up win. Defensively, we didn't get enough stops for preventing them from putting points up."
And because of it the Badgers, for the second straight season, came up on the short end.
"It's never easy," Bielema said. "I'm not saying I'd rather lose by 40 points, though. I mean, it just makes it that much more gut wrenching. But on the same account, you can hold your head high knowing the perseverance, and the challenge and response that our guys showed was truly amazing.
"And a great credit to their character."