In several ways, it was only fitting how Wisconsin's final regular-season game played out.
For a team that either won convincingly or lost in painfully frustrating fashion throughout the 2013 season, you knew that with the Badgers slowly watching their game against Penn State slip through their fingertips, there would be no coming back.
Those who continued to doubt Joel Stave's ability to play quarterback were vindicated. Wisconsin's biggest weakness on defense, the secondary, was exposed once again, just as it had been in its previous two defeats.
And this loss wouldn't have been complete without the officials taking center stage—again.
Wisconsin was undeniably outplayed and inexplicably manhandled in the trenches. Just as they did against Arizona State and Ohio State, the Badgers put a gun to their foot and pulled the trigger. But the wind came out of the sails in the waning moments of the first half when two officiating blunders gift-wrapped the Nittany Lions seven points.
A nonexistent pass interference call on Sojourn Shelton put Penn State inside the red zone, and then with Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen sprinting and screaming for a time out, Eugene Lewis caught a three-yard touchdown pass with nobody covering him.
The result was a 14-14 score at halftime and, from there, the Nittany Lions seized momentum and dominated the majority of the second half, going on to win, 31-24.
With that, the Badgers were all but eliminated from BCS bowl contention. A final record of 9-3 (6-2) will still be worthy of a Jan. 1 bowl game—likely the Capital One Bowl—and, at the beginning of the season, many would have accepted such a result, all things considered.
But expectations grew as the season progressed, and one can't help but remember what happened on that late summer night in Tempe, Ariz.
A 32-yard field goal was all that separated the Badgers from an impressive road victory against a team that would wind up playing in its conference championship game. Alas, as we all can recall so vividly, Kyle French and Wisconsin were not presented with such an opportunity, and the Badgers lost their first game of the 2013 season.
The Sun Devils, now ranked No. 11 in the BCS standings, will actually be hosting the Pac-12 Championship Game, and would likely be doing so even had they fallen to Wisconsin. With a victory over Arizona State, the Badgers would have their most impressive win of the season, receiving a notable boost in strength of victory.
Entering their game against Penn State, the Badgers would have had a 10-1 record with a Top 10 ranking—at the very least.
Of course, that's assuming Wisconsin still lost to the now-No. 2 Buckeyes two weeks after the Debacle in the Desert. While many accept that as a legitimate loss for the Badgers, there were opportunities left on the table, and, had those opportunities been seized, victory would have been far from a stretch.
One also has to take into consideration the mental burden placed on players in their late teens and early 20s following what happened against Arizona State. Sure, the Badgers were able to bounce back with a sound victory over Purdue, but the Boilermakers were one of the worst teams in the B1G, and that nightmare finish in Tempe could have very well carried over to Columbus, Ohio for Wisconsin.
Accepting the Arizona State loss for what it was, Wisconsin still wasn't going to win the Big Ten, assuming a loss to the Buckeyes was inevitable. But a BCS bowl berth was still very much in play, even with the Badgers' unexpected loss to Penn State.
In fact, should Michigan State fall to Ohio State in the B1G title game, it could have very well come down to the Spartans and the Badgers for the No. 14 ranking in the BCS standings.
There are several aspects that make separating the two teams difficult, most notably the lack of a head-to-head matchup. But if you want to nitpick, Wisconsin won more convincingly against common opponents and had a stronger strength of schedule (via teamrankings.com).
|Comparing common opponents of Wisconsin and Michigan State|
|Opponent||Badgers' margin of victory||Spartans' margin of victory|
|Purdue||31 (home)||14 (home)|
|Iowa||19 (away)||12 (away)|
|Illinois||24 (away)||39 (away)|
|Northwestern||29 (home)||24 (away)|
|Indiana||48 (home)||14 (home)|
|Minnesota||13 (away)||11 (home)|
|Projecting season result if refs hadn't blown Arizona State game|
|Northern Illinois||13-0||No. 12||Fiesta|
|Michigan State||11-2||No. 14||Capital One|
The emotions were running high for Wisconsin on Senior Day, and the pressure of reaching a BCS bowl was real. The Badgers were outplayed, out-coached and beaten soundly by a dismal road team with a .500 conference record, and there's no denying that it was an inexcusable showing.
But most can agree that the officials made multiple gaffs that went against the Badgers, just as the refs blew the Arizona State game over two months ago.
What's in the past is in the past, but a victory against the Sun Devils was warranted.
A return to the B1G Championship Game was never really in the cards, but even with two losses on the season, Wisconsin would have had a real shot at playing in a BCS bowl game. Now, the Badgers are on the outside looking in.
There is plenty of blame to go around for where the Badgers stand now, but we'd be naive to neglect where it all began and the undeniable impact an inept Pac-12 officiating crew had on Wisconsin's season.