It didn't matter that the Badgers were getting torched through the air by Northwestern senior quarterback Mike Kafka. It was indifferent that Ohio State had beaten Michigan earlier in the day to end UW's hopes at a share of the conference title.
For a team that has put so much time and focus into finishing football games, it seemed a given that UW, trailing 33-31 with 10 minutes, 45 seconds remaining, was going to pull this one out of the fire.
Three final offensive series to make amends equated into two turnovers, no points and one demoralizing loss.
"It's a very down locker room," said UW coach Bret Bielema after the 17th-ranked Badgers dropped a 33-31 decision at Northwestern Saturday. "I'm glad we have a bye week because it'll take some time to heal the wounds with these guys."
It was costly fourth quarter for the Badgers (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten), who had their three-game conference winning streak snapped and dropped from a potential second-place tie in the conference to a tie for fourth place with the Wildcats.
In the final three drives, the Badgers gained only 51 total yards and completed only a single pass.
"Crunch time, that's where big players come up big," said junior Scott Tolzien, who finished with 235 passing yards and two scores. "We weren't able to do that today."
The Badgers, despite allowing Kafka to throw 210 passing yards and two touchdowns in the opening half, had fought tooth-and-nail to try to square the game and were flying high.
UW saw David Gilreath return a punt 68 yards punt for a touchdown in the third quarter and senior tight end Garrett Graham shake coverage to grab his second touchdown pass of the game to close the gab to 33-31. It was then that the wheels started to come off.
The first drive with Wisconsin finally being able to establish the running game, as John Clay, who finished with 100 yards, picked up 23 yards on his first three carries. But faced with a third-and-7 at the UW 47, miscommunication between Nick Toon, who ran the correctly called post route and Tolzien, who threw the ball to the corner, stymied the drive.
"That was totally my fault," Tolzien said. "I thought it was something different. It cost us because he definitely popped (open) on that play. It would have been huge, another big score there." After UW's defense forced a three-and-out and got UW the ball back with 3:43 remaining, Clay fumbled the football on a third-and-1 run off left tackle, running into the back of Mickey Turner and NU defenseman Quentin Davie.
"I wasn't having the ball high and tight," Clay said. "I tried to do extra, get the first down and got caught up. We pride ourselves on being able to run the ball … and we slipped up at the end of this game."
Another three-and-out gave UW's offense one more chance with 45 seconds left on its 20, but Tolzien was intercepted by defensive back Jordan Mabin on the first play from scrimmage.
"If I were to do it again, I would have just thrown it underneath," Tolzien said. "Time says take a shot, but there's still plenty of time to throw it underneath, get some yards and get out of bounds. We only needed a field goal."
UW only needed that field goal, yet couldn't get the ball past Northwestern's 46-yard line, and the one time they got the field goal, the Badgers should have gotten more.
Throwing nine-straight times, getting as close as the Northwestern 11-yard line, Tolzien misfired two passes to Nick Toon and Kyle Jefferson and Isaac Anderson was called for an illegal procedure penalty that wiped out his touchdown catch, forcing UW to settle for a field goal.
"The one thing about history is history needs to happen," Bielema said. "The worst thing you can do is ignore history. They need to learn from these mistakes and got to understand why the game finished the way it did. Hopefully, it'll be a sounding board for our guys coming back next year in Big Ten play."
While the offense fell short in the fourth quarter, it was the defense that let down Wisconsin. After UW spotted Northwestern a quick 10 points, the Badgers answered with two scoring drives to reclaim the lead. The first was built on back-to-back completions to Graham of 20 and 18 yards that set up Clay's 1-yard touchdown run, his 13th of the season.
The second was initiated when freshman linebacker Chris Borland forced his fifth fumble of the season, giving up possession on the 37-yard line, leading to Tolzien throwing a 27-yard strike to a leaping Graham, giving the Badgers their first lead at 14-10.
Seventeen unanswered points before halftime killed any UW momentum, but the Badgers adjusted after halftime, limiting Northwestern to only six second-half points and outscoring the home team 17-6. They needed it to be 20-6.
And just like the other two losses this season, the Badgers admitted to beating themselves.
"It's real disappointing (because) they didn't really stop us," Gilreath said. "That's tough. We beat ourselves out there."