Pasadena, Calif. — All it took for the Wisconsin football team’s third straight Rose Bowl to slip away was one misguided pass from the hands of quarterback Curt Phillips, a pass that sealed a 20-14 victory for Stanford Tuesday evening.
The fateful throw came as the Badgers drove down the field behind bruising runs as the clock trickled closer to the two-minute mark in the fourth quarter. All that momentum evaporated when Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro tipped a pass from Phillips intended for tight end Jacob Pedersen that instead landed in the hands of nickelback Usua Amanam.
"You’re at midfield or close to midfield with a chance to win the Rose Bowl," interim head coach Barry Alvarez said. "I just felt like maybe we were a team of destiny.
"So I just felt like somehow we were going to find a way to score."
The fifth-year senior signal caller said Stanford defenders shut off his first two targets on the play, making Pedersen — who had the option to curl inside or head toward the sideline — his man. But according to Phillips a miscommunication and a poor throw on his part ended the potential game-winning drive a yard into Stanford territory.
"It’s extremely frustrating, there’s no doubt in my mind we were going to win that game," Phillips said postgame as he fought back tears. "So it’s tough, but it’s been a hell of a ride the whole time, I’ve really enjoyed it."
Phillips’ final drive marked one of the only signs of offensive success for the Badgers in the second half, as their 14 points all came in the opening 30 minutes.
With the Cardinal defense keeping a muzzle on any offensive production from the Badgers early, speedy tailback Melvin Gordon took a jet sweep 15 yards around the right edge to establish the foundation for the remainder of the drive. A tipped ball somehow found its way into the arms of Jared Abbrederis, and Ball finally found a path to the end zone to cut Stanford’s lead to 14-7.
After Stanford’s Jordan Williamson slid a 47-yard field goal through the uprights, Wisconsin looked set to take a 14-point deficit into halftime.
But Phillips sprinted 38 yards down the left to give his team renewed hope of a score before the break. With less than 30 seconds left in the first half, the fifth-year senior found a diving Jordan Fredrick in the front of the end zone to lower the deficit to three points.
Yet Phillips impressive drive proved for naught, the game marred by the electrifying comebacks that ended in heartbreaking defeat that defined Wisconsin’s 2012 campaign.
"It’s heartbreaking. You’d like to send out guys like Montee the right way, and we couldn’t get it done today," linebacker Chris Borland said. "Like Coach (Alvarez) said earlier, it’s kind of been a microcosm of our whole season. We’ve faced some adversity, fought back and came up short."
The surprising offensive fireworks of the first half transformed into a grind-it-out defensive battle where neither team scored in the third quarter.
The lone score of the second half for either team came on a chip shot field goal that capped a clock-draining 12-play, 66-yard drive that chugged along behind running back Stepfan Taylor’s 25 yards.
But the offense sputtered for much of the game with Phillips throwing for only 83 yards and the combined 155 yards of Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon not enough to make up for it.
"It’s just been up and down, and we just weren’t able to produce what we needed to produce," redshirt junior Travis Frederick said. "As an offensive line we didn’t play the way we needed to in the second half … and I think that really hurt the team."
A steady rushing attack from the Badgers (151 yards) and an efficient two quarters from Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan (6-of-9, 90 yards) had the first half score sitting closer to what many expected for a full four quarters of play rather than a half.
Wisconsin’s offensive line kept Stanford’s vaunted defensive line and linebackers under control, as they never sacked Phillips and left enough space for him to run for 64 yards.
"They’re very difficult to block. I thought we had some success, Melvin had a great day on the edge," Alvarez said. "We made some plays, but they were jamming the middle up pretty good."
The Pac-12 champs wasted no time grabbing the early advantage, as running back Kelsey Young scampered around the left edge and into the end zone on a 16-yard run.
The Cardinal’s redshirt freshman signal caller then aired it out to tight end Zach Ertz for 43 yards before running back Stepfan Taylor rammed it past the goal line to hand Stanford the 14-0 lead early.
Twice the Badgers appeared to answer their first score, but the Stanford defense refused to make it that easy. Ball made it into the touchdown nearly untouched but a holding call on left tackle Ricky Wagner negated that score. Phillips then hit Pedersen — who appeared to crawl into the end zone — but a review overturned that call before the Cardinal denied White on fourth and goal.
The players realized the loss came as a result of more than a single errant throw. After chasing Stanford for four quarters, Wisconsin’s effort was too little, too late.
"It stings. It stings just as much because we fell short, extremely short when we had the opportunity to win," Ball said. "They did a great job of stopping a really good offense. But speaking for our offense, we had many opportunities to capitalize on big plays and we fell short."