For as comfortable that 19-point cushion might have felt for three quarters, the Badgers just kept on letting first down and touchdown opportunities slip through their hands. Slowly, the Wolverines crept back into the game, scoring two touchdowns to draw within five points with 10:30 to play.
Then, on the next play, one more UW drop proved critical, proved costly, proved deadly.
Big problem: the football went straight up. Bigger problem: if gravity teaches us anything, boys and girls, it's what comes up, must come down.
And come down it did. Not just the football, into the waiting arms of UM linebacker John Thompson. But also Wisconsin's chance to finally come away with its second victory in the Big House since 1962.
There's no official count on the number of drops committed by Wisconsin players Saturday; but there were numerous infractions committed by Jefferson, wide receiver David Gilreath (another dropped-pass-turned-interception), tight end Lance Kendricks (at least two drops with no defenders in sight), receiver Nick Toon (would have had a touchdown on the opening drive) and perhaps one or two others.
Whatever the final tally is, it will no doubt make UW head coach Bret Bielema sick for the next week – and possibly further.
"There were a lot of them out there," Bielema said. "You just can't expect to come into a hostile environment in Michigan, play against a good football team, and have those same things count against you."
To quarterback Allan Evridge's credit, he kept his composure enough to give UW a chance to win at the end despite his receivers and tight ends not helping him out.
But Bielema wasn't exactly singing praises to Evridge, who fumbled twice himself.
"On the same accounts, Allan's got to pick up his level of play and his ability to make the right throws and the right reads," Bielema said. "Down there in the fourth quarter, there were a couple of opportunities for some big hits that we just didn't go in the right direction with."
Jefferson and Gilreath have been listed as the two starting wide receivers in fall camp and through most the season. But clearly, their lack of production – and a groin injury to No. 3 receiver Maurice Moore – is taking a toll on the UW offense, as backups Toon, Isaac Anderson, and T.J. Theus saw considerable amounts of reps – even when the Badgers needed to score badly in the fourth quarter.
"We're putting a lot on those young guys who haven't been in there," Bielema said.
Even the tight ends, which had been so reliable through three games, couldn't factor into the equation. Leading receiver Garrett Graham did not play with a foot injury, and Travis Beckum was ineffective for most of the game – Bielema admitted afterward that Beckum's hamstring is still not 100 percent.
When Beckum or Graham is out, the passing offense's efficiency takes a hit. If both guys can't get in there – as was the case Saturday – things can get downright ugly.
Yes, UW's wide receivers are still young and have good-to-great upside. But they've been doing plenty of growing up in some big games on the road lately.
Wisconsin should be 1-0 in Big Ten play right now. Instead, it's 0-1. And if the Badgers don't catch themselves – literally – that record could drop like a rock before they know it.