Then as if someone flipped the switch, the Badgers came to life and on senior day, turned to an angry freshman to help deliver the blow that finally stiffened Cal Poly.
After a first quarter fumble gave Cal Poly the momentum and a lead in which it didn't relinquish in regulation, Wisconsin running back John Clay got his number called in overtime and made sure he got his redemption.
Rushing for a team-high 107 yards and two scores, none of Clay's carries were bigger than his three consecutive carries in overtime that led to the tying touchdown and set up another freshman, kicker Phil Welch, to kick the game-winning extra point in a game the Badgers trailed in until the very end, as UW found a way to beat Cal Poly, 36-35.
"To persevere and win says a lot about the character (of this team)," head coach Bret Bielema said. "To be down last week, 21-7, to Minnesota and come back and win and to be down 20-7 to Cal Poly and win in overtime, speaks volumes about the character that they have."
Clawing all the way back from a 13-point deficit, it looked as if Wisconsin (7-5, 3-5 Big Ten) had spent all of its energy fighting to get back to even. Once in overtime, the Mustang offense, which had thoroughly established its run game during the course of the game, surprised the Badgers with a 25-yard touchdown pass on their first play of overtime, giving the impression that Cal Poly was not deterred by another fourth-quarter Badger comeback.
But when junior kicker Andrew Gardner missed his third extra point attempt of the game, the Badgers finally had their opening to win the game.
With P.J. Hill suffering a stinger in his shoulder that plagued him last week and wasn't ready for overtime, Clay got the nod and ran with a purpose. His first carry went for 16 yards through the middle to give the Badgers a first down on the nine. After a three-yard rush on first down, Clay ran through the left side of the line for six yards, crossing the goal line and redeeming himself for his earlier mistake.
Once Welch nailed the extra point, the Badger victory was complete, all but guaranteeing Wisconsin a trip to at least the Insight Bowl on December 31.
"I needed to make up for that fumble," Clay said. "That was irritating me and it got me mad that I turned the ball over. I could have cost us the game doing that so ever opportunity that I got, I made positive on."
The positive finish was one of few straws the Badgers could grasp onto.
Defensively, Wisconsin had no answer for Cal Poly's Wing T offense. The Mustangs (8-2) out rushed UW 276 to 184, could not be stopped on third downs (the Mustangs were 9-for-17) and held onto the football for 39 minutes, 59 seconds against the team that led the Big Ten conference in time of possession (32:23).
The Mustangs rushed 59 times and sustained the multi-attack run game simply because the Badgers were confounded with who had the ball and where they were going. Of Cal Poly's four regulation scoring drives, three lasted over six minutes and two went 15 plays, including a 15-play, 58-yard drive that took eight minutes, 49 seconds off the clock, ending in a field goal and a 23-14 lead.
"It's very difficult because you are getting a lot of the same looks but you never know who has the ball," senior linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "You have to focus on your keys and the next thing you know, somebody is running up field with the ball. It's a complicated offense, one of the more challenging ones we faced."
The field goal, however, finally put a chink in Cal Poly's armor and the Badgers took advantage. While Cal Poly was methodical running its offense, Wisconsin chose the quick-strike approach. Going 80 yards in just four plays, the Badgers relied on P.J. Hill to score on a 10-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 23-21.
Of Wisconsin's four touchdown drives, none took more than two minutes, 25 seconds off the play clock and none were shorter than 63 yards.
"We came in and found a way to make plays," quarterback Dustin Sherer said. "We knew that we weren't going to have a lot of possessions, so we have to capitalize on the ones that we got."
Just like a heavyweight fight, Cal Poly countered Wisconsin's punch with an uppercut of its own, driving 76 yards in 15 agonizing plays for another touchdown to push the lead to 29-21.
It likely could have been the turning point of the football game. Earlier in the drive, Cal Poly, faced with a fourth-and-six from the UW 21, was lined up to kick a field goal. With O'Brien Schofield intent on getting a fast start, Cal Poly's center jerked the ball back before actually snapping it, causing Schofield to charge across the line and be whistled for encroachment.
The result was the Mustangs going for it on fourth-and-one, getting the first down and eventually finding the end zone.
"I felt bad because I thought they were going to call it on the center instead," Schofield said. "I ended up costing my team."
The only person that ended up costing a team was Cal Poly's Gardner, who missed his second of three extra points after the touchdown, keeping the lead within eight.
"There's a lot of ways to lose a game," Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson said. "There's all kinds of opportunities. If people want to talk about the game, they can talk about the extra points … but we stay together, we will swallow this bitter pill."
With four minutes remaining, the Badgers made sure there would be a pill to swallow. Wisconsin, starting from its own 11, drove 89 yards in nine plays and got Hill back into the end zone to cut the lead to 29-27. Because of the effectiveness of his two-yard touchdown run, the Badgers ran the same exact play with the same exact result.
"I think it took Coach Chryst point-five seconds to make that play call," Bielema said.
Even after the Badgers tied it up, Wisconsin had to dodge another bullet after the Mustangs rushed 45 yards down the field to attempt a game-winning 46-yard field goal try from sophomore kicker Jake West. The attempt, however, barely made it to the goal line, let alone the cross bar, putting UW in its first overtime game since the 2002 Alamo Bowl.
That set the stage for Clay's heroics to avoid a crushing blow to Wisconsin's psyche after a season of emotional hurdles.
"I think any good football team has to have that mentality not to quit," said Nick Toon, who caught his first career touchdown pass at the end of the second quarter. "You have to have a great will to win. I think to make it to this level, you have to take that attitude personally. When you lose to will the win, that's when the game slips out of your hand."
Wisconsin, unlike in previous weeks, thankfully didn't let this one slither away.