Wisconsin Football: Why Are the Badgers Failing to Win Close Games?

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Wisconsin Football: Why Are the Badgers Failing to Win Close Games?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For a guy that took Wisconsin football to three straight Rose Bowl games, Bret Bielema sure took a lot of heat in Madison.

With the Badgers continuously coming up short in late game situations, a brunt of the blame was placed on Bielema. It's on the coach to manage the clock efficiently, and when you lose as many close games as Wisconsin did last season, and the season before that, you better expect criticism to come your way as a head coach.

It's becoming an epidemic at Madison. Dating back to 2011, the Badgers are 3-11 in games decided by seven points or less. 

Wisconsin's losses in one-score games since 2011
9/22/11 @ Mich St (37-31) 9/29/12 @ Nebraska (30-27) 1/1/13 vs. Stanford (20-14)
9/29/11 @ Ohio St (33-29) 10/27/12 vs Mich St (16-13) 9/14/13 @ Arizona St (32-30)
1/2/12 vs. Oregon (45-38) 11/17/12 vs Ohio St (21-14) 9/28/13 @ Ohio St (31-24)
9/8/12 @ Oregon St (10-7) 11/24/12 @ Penn St (24-21)

ESPN.com

Even still, Bielema did manage to maneuver his way around gut-wrenching losses and reach the Big Ten Football Championship Game the past two seasons. From there, Wisconsin found a way to punch its ticket to Pasadena, where the problem of falling just short reared its ugly head on the brightest of stages.

Bielema's demeanor on the sidelines and sudden inability to pull out competitive games snowballed as the hatred grew for Bielema in Wisconsin's fan base. He felt the heat as well as the cold, and even after winning a third consecutive B1G title, Bielema bolted for Arkansas after seven years at the helm.

Only here's the thing—the losing in close games remains in full effect at Wisconsin.

The new head coach for the Badgers, Gary Andersen, brings more passion to the sidelines and is a coach of the players and the fans. He comes off as confident but not arrogant; passionate but not irrational; someone who appears to have everything under control every step of the way.

But the Badgers have lost two of their first five games in 2013, with those losses coming by—you guessed it—seven points or less.

Those losses both came on the road against opponents that are currently ranked in the Top 25, so in fairness, these are games in which Wisconsin hasn't been embarrassed (unless you count the debacle that took place in Tempe, Ariz. in the wee hours of Sept. 15).

But Wisconsin considers itself to be a top-tier program, and top-tier programs need to come out on the right side of a close game more than 27 percent of the time. With Ohio State back to being a national powerhouse and eligible for the postseason, this season was the essential time for the Badgers to find a way in nail-biting finishes.

Instead, it's been mental lapses, especially against the Buckeyes, costing the Badgers in crucial situations. Say what you will about Joel Stave's kneel and subsequent setting down of the football against the Sun Devils, or Chris Borland's illegal formation penalty—it was Andersen's decision to run another play against Arizona State rather than be sure and kick the field goal.

And when a team has a combined 130 yards in penalties in two games, some of that blame has to fall on the coaching staff. If Bielema is going to be criticized for losing close ballgames, it’s only fair to look in Andersen’s direction as well.

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We've established that Wisconsin's losses this season have come against quality competition, and mistakes, especially in crucial situations, have played the biggest role. 

Last season, flux at the quarterback position as well as an un-Wisconsin-like offensive line contributed to long scoring droughts, periods of time where you'd expect a team like Wisconsin to at least score once or twice so that executing late becomes a luxury rather than a necessity.

In 2011, despite having the most talented quarterback in school history under center and weapons galore on offense, the defense conceded two Hail Mary passes in the waning moments of two different games, and then was completely lit up by Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl.

Imagine if the 2012 Wisconsin defense had been paired with the 2011 Wisconsin offense. We're talking about a National Championship contender, not just a Big Ten champion.

Each season it's been a different issue, and you can also certainly point to an inexperienced secondary and a subpar Wisconsin offensive line for putting the Badgers in difficult situations in 2013.

But it is what's been happening in those situations that is hard to put your finger on.

If you consider the freak occurrences that were the Badgers' two Hail Mary losses, the incompetence of the officials at Arizona State and the injury that occurred to Joel Stave last October, there are at least three instances where divine intervention has essentially taken victory away from Wisconsin in close games.

You would have to assume that Kyle French knocks home a 32-yard field goal (that's actually assuming quite a bit), and that Stave is able to perform slightly better than Curt Phillips against Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and/or Stanford last season. Then again, making assumptions in sports is always a dangerous proposition.

In the end, there is plenty of blame to go around, and all sorts of aspects need to be considered when trying to evaluate a team's failure to come through when it matters most. 

People are beginning to care less about how it's happening and more about how much it's happening, waiting for the law of averages to kick in. The heartbreak Wisconsin and its fans have had to deal with over the past three seasons isn't beginning to get old—it's been old for quite a while now.

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