MADISON - All offseason, senior linebacker Marcus Trotter said he and his blue-collared teammates conditioned and worked with the notion that Wisconsin was going to win the fourth quarter in every game they played.
It was on their mind when they ran stadium stairs, lifted weights and worked on drills during their own time.
So when Wisconsin blew a fourth-quarter lead in the first game of the season, disheartening was the accurate word that came to mind.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” said Trotter. “You could tell in the game they (LSU) were going to quit sooner or later. We had the lead and the mental advantage. Being a senior, you really want to push the guys through four quarters. It’s four quarters for a reason. You can’t play three quarters and decide to take off, especially against a team like LSU.”
Losing close games against big-time opponents have become an unfortunate reoccurrence for Wisconsin over the past few seasons. Of the Badgers’ last 15 losses, 14 have come by seven points or less. That number includes three Rose Bowls and matchups against seven ranked teams.
“Pretty much since I’ve been here we’ve been coming up short in big games,” said running back Melvin Gordon. “It sucks.”
Wisconsin had the biggest point differential over its opponents in the fourth quarter last season (64; 120-64), but the numbers are deceiving. In a season where Wisconsin didn’t beat a team that ended the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, the Badgers outscored their opponents 36-34 but gave up five touchdown drives of more than 60 yards with the game on the line.
In the opener, Wisconsin held LSU’s athletic offense to only 225 yards on 47 plays in the first three quarters (4.8 yards per play). But once UW’s injuries on the defensive line mounted, the Tigers gashed UW for 140 yards on 21 plays (6.7 yards per play), executing five plays over 13 yards after having only one through the first three quarters.
“They controlled the football game,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “That is really hard for me as a head football coach to look at the team and you guys and everybody else and say we couldn't get it done in the fourth quarter. That's hard for me to swallow.”
The problem wasn’t just on defense. Needing to respond to LSU’s offense outburst, Wisconsin’s final five drives registered a paltry 32 yards, leading to three punts and two interceptions.
“We really just didn’t do enough to win that fourth quarter, whether it be running the ball or pass protecting,” said right tackle Rob Havenstein. “You can go ahead and put that on us because we didn’t play well enough to go out and get that win.”
All of those things wrapped together make members of No.18 Wisconsin anxious to return to the field tomorrow against Western Illinois (1-0) at Camp Randall.
In addition to the off-the-field stories concerning Gordon’s hip flexor injury and Joel Stave’s throwing situation, Wisconsin will have to find a suitable replacement for nose tackle Warren Herring, who underwent knee surgery and will miss the next 4-to-6 weeks.
The schedule does lighten up for the Badgers. Following Western Illinois and a bye week, Wisconsin faces a Bowling Green team scrambling to find a replacement quarterback and a South Florida team that went 2-10 a season ago.
Wisconsin can get healthy, can see its young guys improve with game reps and develop some momentum heading into the conference opener. The one thing the Badgers won’t be able to do is beat an elite team and make amends for another fourth quarter debacle until November.
“It’s frustrating to know we had to game, we had the reigns as a defense the entire game and a couple plays later a couple things happen and the tides turn,” said junior Michael Caputo. “It’s frustrating as a player on defense that we could have stopped on defense that could have won us the game.”
While the sting of the loss will likely linger, the roster is young enough to where a reminder of shortcomings from past seasons could motivate an impressionable group to make sure the program doesn’t have to endure more heartbreak down the road.
“It’s encouraging to know what we need to get better on, like finishing,” said Caputo. “I think we have some of the best guys for the spots that we have them in. Despite the injuries, guys stepping up and doing our job is a big part. I trust all the guys still. Just because you messed up one play that you lose trust in guys. We’re a pretty good team.”