"We have a lot of players coming back and that is one thing we'll have to learn—if you have the momentum, when you have a chance to win the ballgame, that you have to put it away at the end."
Wisconsin's season ended like so many games the second half of the season—with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory in the game's waning moments.
The Badgers tied the game at 14-14 with less than nine minutes to play, rebounding from a controversial Auburn third-quarter touchdown. Wisconsin's defense seemed in control, having forced the Tigers into two consecutive three-and-outs.
Two Auburn touchdown runs in less than two minutes late in the fourth quarter, though, sealed the Badgers 7-6 fate for the 2003 season.
"We have had situations—we haven't closed," Alvarez said. "If we want to take the next step and be a real good football team that is what you have to do."
The momentum shifted abruptly—on a second-and-seven from midfield, Jim Sorgi's deep pass intended for Lee Evans was deflected and intercepted by safety Will Herring. The pick gave Auburn new life, but Wisconsin's defense still had Auburn on its heels until Jason Campbell stepped up and delivered a third-and-eight strike down the left sideline to Jeris McIntyre for a 51-yard gain. Then Campbell found Silas Daniels for 27 to the UW 7, setting up Ronnie Brown's two-yard touchdown run two plays later.
On Wisconsin's next series, the Tigers teed off just as they had throughout the game, and linebacker Karlos Dansby and end Reggie Torbor combined on the team's fifth sack of Sorgi. This time, Dansby jarred the ball loose and the hit knocked Sorgi out of the game with an injured left arm, the fourth time Sorgi had been knocked out of a game this season and the second time in as many games. Auburn recovered the fumble and two plays later Carnell Williams went in from one-yard out with a minute-and-a-half remaining.
Williams and Brown each finished with two rushing touchdowns, while Campbell earned Music City Bowl Most Valuable Player, passing for 138 yards and rushing for 67, including 49 during a third-quarter scoring drive that put Auburn up 14-6. Auburn appeared to fumble twice near the goal line but each time officials ruled that the runners were down by contact.
"We came back and tied the game after that; we had the momentum," Alvarez said afterwards.
Wisconsin had plenty of momentum this season, ending Ohio State's 19-game winning streak on Oct. 11 to move to 6-1, 3-0 in the Big Ten. From that point on the Badgers went 1-5, including a blowout win over Michigan State and a painful loss to Northwestern spliced in with losses to Purdue and Minnesota on last second field goals and a loss to Iowa in the regular season finale that came down to the game's final play. Auburn was simply another game in which the Badgers found defeat in the final minutes.
"We have to find a way to make plays down the stretch of games," center Donovan Raiola said. "Find a way to pull out wins. We can't go anywhere but up from here. We are playing for the Rose Bowl next year."
In 2004, 18 of the players who started the 2003 Music City Bowl will return in addition to kicker Mike Allen and punter R.J. Morse, and three players—corner Brett Bell, strong safety Joe Stellmacher and end Erasmus James—who stand a strong chance of starting if they return to full health after missing most or all of this season. Only Evans, Sorgi and linebackers Jeff Mack and Alex Lewis depart from Wednesday's starting lineup.
Despite the myriad significant injuries this season, including those to tailback Anthony Davis and quarterback Sorgi, the Badgers were still four short sequences from an 11-2 season. The gulf between winning and losing, however, can loom large.
"It could have been great. It wound up pretty mediocre," Mack said. "I just hope the guys go back next year and win that Big Ten championship. Hopefully they will let me into one of their games so I can celebrate with them."