Wisconsin suffered the first loss of the Gary Andersen era on Saturday night, falling victim to Arizona State, 32-30, in a game that won't soon be forgotten.
The Badgers were outplayed for most of the game but still led for long stretches and had a chance to win it at the end. But one of the most bizarre sequences you'll ever see—both by quarterback Joel Stave and the referees—allowed the clock to expire before the Badgers could kick the game-winning field goal.
Even in defeat, the Badgers learned a lot about themselves on Saturday night, playing on the road against a team that might challenge for the Pac-12 South title.
The lessons it learned in a loss could help, eventually, lead to wins.
Joel Stave put the ball down instead of taking a knee, giving himself up to stop the clock and spot the field goal in the middle of the field. There were four seconds left on the clock.
Anthony Jones stood over the ball, which should have been a defensive delay of game. The official also stood over the ball, telling Wisconsin not to snap the ball yet.
But somehow, someway, as all this was happening, the final four seconds ticked off the clock and Wisconsin was not able to spike the ball. It never got a chance to attempt the field goal.
When it's all said and done this will—not might, but will—go down as one of the all-time biggest officiating gaffes. Like, right up there with last year's Fail Mary in the NFL.
No two ways about it. What Stave did—placing the ball on the ground instead of kneeling—was curious and might have been a fumble. But it wasn't ruled a fumble, and under that assumption, what the refs did was unconscionable.
This one will be under review.
Joel Stave looked like an All-Big Ten candidate in Week 1 and 2, but against Arizona State, it became clear that the level of competition—and home-field advantage—had something to do with his impressive earlier performances.
He missed a few big throws, including one to a wide-open Jacob Pedersen, which might have been a touchdown and definitely should have been a catch. He also went over a quarter without completing a pass after Wisconsin's first touchdown drive, before finally breaking the streak late in the third.
Stave finished the night 15-of-30 for 187 yards and a touchdown, and while he—himself—wasn't as bad as those numbers look, the passing game as a whole was.
What Stave did at the end of the game was really odd—it may or may not have cost Wisconsin the game—and his performance was a little uneven in spots.
But he did show a couple of flashes.
On two separate third downs, he made big-time plays in the pocket to convert. First was a flip pass forward while a defender was hanging onto him, and in the fourth quarter, he bounced out of traffic and found James White to set up a touchdown.
Stave is a game manager first and maybe even second. He's not the type of guy who wins you games on his own, but at least he has the potential to make some big-time plays.
Gordon was the brightest star and the best player on the field this evening, finishing the game with 193 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.
America's most explosive back—we can start calling him that now, right?—made another show-stopping play to start the third quarter, taking a jet sweep 80 yards for a touchdown that put Wisconsin up 21-13.
Maybe this wasn't learned, per se, since everyone already knew of Gordon's greatness, but it was certainly reinforced against the Sun Devils.
Arizona State capitalized, repeatedly, on Wisconsin's young secondary, picking on players like Sojourn Shelton in coverage.
The Badgers' corners weren't getting beat with good routes, but instead exploited in the air. Taylor Kelly unleashed a fusillade of back-shoulder throws that either resulted in completions or defensive pass interferences.
This was a learning experience for the secondary, and it might serve them well in Big Ten play. But for now, this group still has a lot of learning to do.
It's a little hard to tell, since the stadium was 98 degrees at kickoff, but it certainly looked like the Wisconsin defense was gassed.
ASU ran over 90 plays against the Badgers, almost as many as against their first two opponents combined. The defense started the game spry and energetic, but down the stretch, the Sun Devils took it to them.
Big Ten teams aren't known for the high tempos, and Wisconsin should never play in another venue this hot. But they revealed some conditioning flaws on tape that teams will at least consider exploiting.
Beyond the two main threats, Jared Abbrederis and Jacob Pedersen, things were ugly for the Badgers.
Prior to Jeff Duckworth's huge 51-yard catch on the final drive, and other than running back James White, only James Frederick—two catches for 16 yards—made a reception.
Wisconsin's offense is too predictable in its play-calling. Other teams know it wants to run, and when it passes, they know exactly who the Badgers are passing to.
Unless someone else steps up on the outside, that will continue to be the case all season.
One positive to take away from the defense's performance: At least they showed a little bit of pluck.
The Badgers stopped a couple of fourth downs in the first quarter that helped shift momentum in their direction. They also forced ASU to kick a couple of first-half field goals, which, despite doubling Wisconsin's first-half yardage total, resulted in the Sun Devils trailing at half-time.
This Badgers defense doesn't have the star power of previous units. Especially on the back end, this is not the defense most fans are accustomed to.
But if it can continue forcing teams into three points over six, it will continue to be just as successful.
From the run-pass dichotomy to the fake punt in the fourth quarter to the inexplicably weird ending—this still feels like a Bielema team.
It's not that Gary Andersen is doing a bad job, or not asserting himself or something. This team just took on the personality of its old coach, and until the new coach brings in all his recruits, they will continue to reflect his personality.
That isn't a bad thing, though.
This one was learned much earlier in the day, before the Badgers even stepped on the field. But despite a loss, they will be able to compete in the Big Ten.
Michigan almost lost to Akron, Penn State lost to UCF and Nebraska got punked (at home) by UCLA. Saturday was a reminder that the Big Ten has a lot of growing left to do, and Wisconsin should still be able to compete.
Did the loss to Arizona State reveal a couple of holes that need fixing? Sure. But in this conference and this year, those holes aren't a death sentence.