Obviously this game will be remembered for what happened, or didn't happen, in the final 18 seconds, but there were plenty of plays on both sides of the ball leading up to the conclusion that weren't made that wouldn't have put Wisconsin in the situation it was in. On offense, a lot of that burden falls on sophomore quarterback Joel Stave.
Stave's numbers appear respectable on the surface (15 of 30 for 187 yards, a touchdown, no turnovers), but they're misleading in the fact that 120 of those yards came on Wisconsin's final two drives. Yes, admirable that he was able to bounce back and put the Badgers in position to win, but porous in the fact that he didn't handle the pass rush well and missed some golden opportunities.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen acknowledged that Stave missing a wide-open Jacob Pedersen on a wheel route would have been a huge play for the offense, likely a 30-yard gain deep into ASU territory, in the third quarter. Instead, Wisconsin was forced to punt two plays later.
"In a game like this there's going to be 50 plays that are going to make you or break you," said Andersen. "Like I told the kids, the difference between a good team and a great team is going to be 10 plays. We missed one of those opportunities in this game."
Stave did have a couple Brett Favresque throws when he was wrapped up by a Arizona State defenseman on his way down to the turf; a 10-yard throw to Jordan Fredrick on third-and-8 and a 9-yard pass to James White on third-and-6. UW ended up scoring touchdowns on both drives.
"Joel made some plays when he was under duress," said Andersen. "He made some big plays for us, so it was good to see that."
While the officials get the obvious blame in the situation for failing to call multiple infractions that occurred, spot the ball in a timely fashion or really do anything correctly during that sequence, Stave deserves some of the blame for putting the officials in position to fail.
By taking a quick knee (yes, replays show that his knee was on the ground) and slamming down the ball, he brought in an extra element of having a loose ball on the grass with confusion. Had Stave emphatically taken a knee and handled the ball to one of the officials so it could be spotted, Arizona State's players never would have pounced on what they thought was a live ball, causing pressure seconds to tick off the clock. Of course, that should have been a penalty, and that Pac-12 should acknowledge mistakes were made.
"If I was a little more demonstrative in my knee, holding on to the ball, making sure everyone knows I am down, things might have worked out differently," said Stave.
Stave deserves credit for what he did late, but was very ineffective and inconsistent early, which was one of the reasons Wisconsin lost.
If it isn't obvious by now, it was obvious Saturday that Melvin Gordon is the team's most dynamic running back and warrants a bigger role in the offense. Gordon rushed for 193 yards on 15 carries (12.9 per carry) and two scores, including an 80-yard sprint to start the second half.
He now has a 60+ yard run in four of his last five games, and has seven career runs of longer than 45 yards.
"Melvin is a tremendous player, a great competitor and tough to deal with," Andersen said of Gordon, who is second in the NCAA in rushing. "He had some physical runs along with some great speed runs. He's a terrific, terrific player."
White is a hard runner that will get the tough yards for Wisconsin, much like he did with his 45 yards on 12 carries. Corey Clement will be a star down the road, but his brief cameo in the first half (two caries for one yard) and him watching from the sidelines in the second half show that he's just not ready to contribute in tight games.
Derek Watt (hamstring) played after missing last week's game, but didn't register any yards or catches.
Wisconsin rushed for 231 yards on 32 carries, a 7.2 average, exactly what many expected going against a Sun Devils' defense that struggled mightily stopping the run last season.
Wisconsin's pass catchers didn't have any blatant drops and Stave targeted Jared Abbrederis heavily once again, as the senior led the team in receptions (six) and yards (87).
Senior tight end Jacob Pedersen's 2-yard touchdown reception was his first of the season and the 15th of his career, a bobbling juggle in the back of the end zone that got UW on the scoreboard in the second quarter.
Jeff Duckworth made his traditional make-a-big-catch-when-UW-is-trailing appearance when he hauled in a pass near the UW 40-yard line on third-and-four, turned up field after cornerback Robert Nelson whiffed and managed to get all the way down to the 26-yard line with 61 seconds left, as his 51-yard gain ignited hope on the UW sideline.
"Another huge play," said Pedersen. "That's all the kid does for us."
While the catches were good, the downfield blocking was even better, especially on Gordon's 80-yard touchdown run. Tight ends Brian Wozniak and Pedersen were on the left side of the UW line and sealed off their assignments as Gordon waited, cutting inside Pedersen's block and turning up field.
Abbrederis was split wide to the left, saw the play developed and sealed off his defender as Gordon ran right by both of them on the way to the end zone. It was just one of many examples on how UW's receivers contributed.
"We like to take pride in our blocking," said Abbrederis. "We left a few out there that could have been some big plays. You always look at the bad things you do, but we had a couple nice ones that allowed him to turn the corner and get a long run."
Wisconsin's starting group knew it was going to have its hands full with a defensive line that included All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. While UW was able to neutralize Sutton, the Badgers struggled with Bradford, who had four tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup.
Stave was under pressure frequently during the first three quarters, partly his own doing and partly the fault of his offensive line, as pressures came from different areas than UW had planned for.
"That's a vicious pass rush and that's an aggressive defense," said Andersen. "They play hard. They give you a lot of different looks and they changed up their looks quite a bit. That was an adjustment that we had to make."
After Wisconsin pulled within two points at 32-30 after Gordon's short fourth-quarter touchdown run, the Badgers were unable to convert on the two-point conversion after Tyler Marz was beaten badly, causing a hit on Stave that forced an incompletion. As we know now, those two points were critical.
Kyle Costigan got the start at right guard and played the entire game, a sign that offensive line coach T.J. Woods has liked how the junior has performed compared to senior Zac Matthias, who struggled at times against Tennessee Tech.
It'll be interesting to see if Wisconsin goes back to the starting lineup that had throughout fall camp with Dan Voltz at center, Dallas Lewallen at left guard and Ryan Groy at right tackle, as that group was highly praised before Voltz went down with a hamstring pull. To Lewallen's credit, there were no quarterback-center exchange issues after there were three in the first two games of the season.
Arizona State only had 116 rushing yards, a number that was reduced by 32 yards after a poor snap on a punt, but Wisconsin allowed four rushing touchdowns to Marion Grice of 1, 1, 2 and 12. Wisconsin also had to deal with the tempo of Arizona State, who ran 28 more plays than the Badgers in the first half and 30 overall.
"That was a big part of it for the defense to have to bow up and play, especially play with the pace," said Andersen. "I think our kids made some adjustments. The halftime helped us."
Wisconsin made some big stops from its defensive line, including a senior combo of Pat Muldoon and Beau Allen making a short-yardage stop at the goal line on third-and-short, forcing a second-quarter field goal.
Wisconsin didn't generate much of a pass rush because of Arizona State's scheme, putting a lot of pressure on the secondary.
"They do a lot of read, run-pass-option stuff," said Allen. "They are also getting rid of the ball pretty quick. It was tough to get a pass rush going. I thought we had some good rushes."
Wisconsin seniors Ethan Armstrong (11 tackles) and Chris Borland (10) were the leading tacklers. Brendan Kelly struggled at times covering Grice out of the backfield on the wheel route, something Andersen said was difficult for the sixth-year senior on the wheel route.
Joe Schobert looked confidence and collected as an outside linebacker, making five tackles and one tackle for loss.
The youth was finally exposed. Dezmen Southward doesn't like to hear his secondary being called inexperienced, but the group certainly did not play up against quarterback Taylor Kelly, Southward included.
Starting cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton were called for five penalties (each with two pass interference calls, Shelton with a hold) that gave Arizona State free yardage. Questionable calls or not, they can't happen in a tight ball game, but Kelly deserves credit for making some outstanding back-shoulder throws that even a veteran cornerback would have trouble defending.
"You can't sit back and say you're ever real happy when they are completing the fades that they did for big plays," said Andersen. "The PIs (pass interferences), a couple PIs I can deal with, but it seems it's a little bit extreme. Maybe we can help them a little bit as coaches to put them in a couple different spots."
Southward recorded a vital interception after a blunder on the punt team (more on that below) on an ugly throw by Taylor Kelly, one of his only bad throws on the day, but the senior was average in coverage save for a third-down pass breakup in the end zone.
He also made a huge mental error when his late hit on Kelly, who was only going to get two yards on a third-and-13. ASU didn't score on the drive, but it could have been ugly.
Defensive coordinator Dave Arands used multiple combinations at safety, including redshirt freshman Nate Hammon, to try to spark something, but Kelly was too good.
"They're good," said Andersen of ASU's passing attack. "We knew they were good. Their quarterback has really come on since the Arizona game in the second half. He's played very, very well and they have good wide receivers. They have good skill all over the place.
"Their good receivers and there were some balls that were thrown in there very nicely."
Kelly completed 29 of 51 attempts (56.9 percent) for 352 yards and completed passes to eight different receivers, picking apart the secondary. If his receivers didn't drop so many passes, including three drops by Richard Smith and one in the end zone on fourth down, those passing numbers would have been over 400.
For the most part Wisconsin won the special teams battle, a reason the Badgers had an opportunity to win late. The big special teams play came in the second quarter with the Sun Devils punting from their 32. A low snap rolled past punter Dom Vizzare down to roughly the 1-yard line. Vizzarre tried to pick the ball up but failed because Borland was in pursuit and knocked Vizzarre off his mark.
That allowed Allen, the next player on the scene, to dive on the ball in the end zone for a touchdown to help UW take a 14-3 lead with 12:53 left in the first half.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he said, "but I'd give that away in a second for a victory."
Punter Drew Meyer was put in a couple sticky situations early after the UW offense failed to move the ball, twice punting from the back of his end zone. Meyer normal-style punt went 37 yards, but his ensuing rugby kick got a friendly bounce and went 47. He averaged 38.7 yards on his seven punts with a long of 47 and three inside the 20.
Wisconsin also executed another stellar fake punt. After a three-and-out by the offense, UW went for it on its own 30-yard line when Brian Wozniak took the snap, handed it off to Borland and bootleg out of the pocket to hit Pedersen for a 23-yard gain. UW scored seven plays later to pull within two.
"We repped it all week in practice," said Pedersen. "It worked all week in practice, so we kind of knew it was going to come. It was made just for a situation like that out there. We executed it well … It came up huge for us. It's just sad we couldn't capitalize on it."
The kickoff unit was decent, averaging 21.3 yards per return, and the punt return was as well, except for Kenzel Doe's late decision to decide against a fair catch and not warning his teammates. That resulted in the punt bouncing off Sojourn Shelton and ASU recovering it at the UW 33. As mentioned previously, an ill-advised pass from Kelly allowed Southward to grab the interception. Kyle French hit a big 34-yard kick in the fourth quarter, likely a big boost to his confidence, and averaged 64.8 yards on his kickoffs, including two touchbacks. Curiously, he hit that field goal from the right hash, the same hash UW was at before the play call to center the ball between the hashes.