MADISON – The turnovers were plentiful and the offense was mostly offensive. Yet, beacuse of its defense, the University of Wisconsin had chances – multiple ones in fact – to salvage a pitiful performance and turn it into one ugly wins.
But it wasn’t meant to be; the Big Ten officiating crew made certain of that.
No.21 Wisconsin had not one but two called touchdowns on the field reversed, one correctly and one up for debate, in the final seconds of a 13-7 loss to No.20 Northwestern in the home finale at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) already had their dim chances of a Big Ten West championship erased prior to kickoff, courtesy of No.5 Iowa’s 40-20 blasting of lowly Purdue, but that was an afterthought.
This one hurt, one of many adjectives used in a visibly defeated Wisconsin locker room.
“It sucks basically,” said tailback Corey Clement, who was UW’s leading rusher with 24 yards and a touchdown. “I felt as if we won three times.”
Truth be told, Wisconsin had no right to win on senior day because of its offense's definicies. The Badgers rushed for minus-26 yards, the first time that’s happened to the program since 2006, and committed five turnovers for the first time since 2003. In the first half UW ran three plays in Northwestern (9-2, 5-2) territory while the Wildcats had their first three drives start on UW’s side of the field.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” said senior tackle Tyler Marz. “Just seemed like we couldn’t really get much going, and turnovers obviously kill a drive.”
But the Badgers were in the game because of their defense, which again flexed their muscles despite being constantly pressed against the wall. Northwestern's average starting field position on its 15 drives was its own 42-yard line, yet the Badgers gave up only three scoring drives, only one of which was longer than 20 yards.
“Defense was stout,” said senior safety Michael Caputo. “I thought we played with our backs against the wall, and I feel like that brings the best out of us. We bowed up. It was nice. We played really well.”
And it was fitting that a defensive stand set off a crazy ending that will certainly be filed right up there next to the Arizona State’s questionable win over the visiting Badgers in 2013.
After Wisconsin’s defense held Northwestern in a do-or-die series, stopping three running plays, burning all three timeouts and letting only 28 seconds come off the clock, the Badgers began their two-minute drill with 1:47 remaining.
An incompletion started the drive, but quarterback Joel Stave – who had thrown two interceptions and lost a fumble on an afternoon where he was constantly under duress – completed passes of 18, 6 and 15 to get UW to the Northwestern 35.
Following a misfire, Stave hit Tanner McEvoy for 12 yards and then Troy Fumagalli for an apparent 23-yard touchdown to tie the game. That’s when the fun started.
Fumagalli’s knee was down at the 1-yard line upon completion of the catch with the ball short of the goal line. On the next play, down to 31 seconds left, Stave hit Jazz Peavy, who had a brilliant five-catch, 88-yard day, in the end zone.
Peavy took four steps and had his right knee down in bounds. Upon hitting the turf, the ball rotated slightly in Peavy’s right hand before he moved it to his left arm while completing his barrel roll and getting up to start celebrating.
The official announced the play was under review and came back with the news that Peavy did not complete the catch, resulting in an incomplete pass.
“No doubt in my mind (that was a catch),” said Peavy, who hadn’t seen the replay before entering the postgame media room. “It was an uphill battle with them (the refs). Things were just going back and forth.”
Still with time, Stave was sacked for a loss of 10 yards on second down (one of six sacks for minus-50 yards by the Wildcats) and was knocked dizzy as time was ticking down, forcing tailback Dare Ogunbowale to spring into action to get everyone to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball with six seconds left.
With backup quarterback Bart Houston under center, his post route to McEvoy on a diving attempt was incomplete on fourth down and that was that.
“It’s heartbreaking to lose like that but we still had an opportunity to win the game on the last play and we didn’t capitalize,” said McEvoy. “So even with all the stuff going on with the calls and the controversies we still had an opportunity. We still had the ball in our hands to make the play and we didn’t do it.”
A miserable first quarter did Wisconsin no favors and foreshadowed the day to come. None of UW’s four drives had a play start in Northwestern territory. Worse yet two ended in turnovers, an interception at the Wisconsin 19 and a forced fumble against McEvoy that was returned to the UW 43.
It only got worse, as a comedy errors ensued that included passes slipping out of Stave’s hand, the running game going nowhere and the offensive line getting crushed off the snap of the ball. At halftime Wisconsin had minus-19 rushing yards, including minus-46 from Stave. The Badgers were outgained by 83 yards but only trailed 10-0 at halftime.
Wisconsin appeared like a different team after halftime, taking its opening drive 63 yards in five plays for a touchdown and supposedly getting a 78-yard punt return by senior Alex Erickson to take the lead. After an official conference, however, it was ruled that Erickson gave an invalid fair catch signal – later deemed the correct call - and the ball was spotted at the UW 22.
Instead of finally playing in front, UW punted five plays later and didn’t threaten until the final drive, a result of three turnovers – a muffed punt, a Stave fumble and an interception – in a four drive span.
“It was one of those games, ugly, just couldn’t get anything going, but our defense kept us in it,” said Erickson. “They did a great job. We said give us one more chance, and they gave us one more chance. Low and behold we had a chance to win. We started to move the ball and couldn’t execute that last play.”