Nov. 26, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Wisconsin linebacker Ethan Armstrong couldn’t hide his disappointment. Nor did he try after Saturday’s loss at Penn State, the third time in four games the Badgers have come up short in overtime.
“I don’t think you really can put it into words,’’ he said, not pretending to be OK. “But we have to learn from his loss and move on from it and get ready for the Big Ten championship game.’’
There was special motivation in what Armstrong was saying.
On a personal front, Armstrong was injured in the 2011 regular-season finale against Penn State and didn’t get to play in the conference’s inaugural title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind.
What a difference a year makes, too.
Last season, Wisconsin was riding the momentum of a four-game winning streak into its rematch with Michigan State. This year, no such momentum exists.
But the stakes haven’t changed. Despite five losses overall, by a combined score of 19 points, if the Badgers beat Nebraska on Saturday night, they’re going to the Rose Bowl.
“If that happens,’ ’said Armstrong, one of the unsung members of the defense, “it would definitely take away the sting from all of these losses and make all the hurting go away.’’
His teammates were feeling the same hurt immediately following the Penn State defeat.
“It’s something that is definitely testing our perseverance,’’ conceded UW defensive end Brendan Kelly. “When you go through something like this, you don’t know 100 percent why.
“But it’s only going to draw us closer as a team. We’ve been through some trails this season with the way things have ended. But it could end just the way we all wanted it to end (in Pasadena).
“That’s something we still have the power to do.’’
There was special motivation in what Kelly was saying.
Kelly was injured and didn’t play against Nebraska in the Big Ten opener. UW safety Shelton Johnson was still recovering from a broken forearm and didn’t play against the Huskers, either.
Of course, Wisconsin will be minus quarterback Joel Stave, who made his second career start against Nebraska and helped stake the Badgers to a 27-10 third-quarter lead in Lincoln.
Stave, a former walk-on, wound up starting six games before breaking his collarbone Oct. 27 against Michigan State, the first of UW’s overtime losses. He was injured early in the third quarter.
Although the Cornhuskers roared back in the second half with 20 unanswered points against Wisconsin, Stave still made a lasting impression on Nebraska coach Bo Pelini.
“Obviously, I feel bad for Joel Stave,’’ Pelini said Sunday. “He was having a good year. He was really growing as a quarterback. Down the road, he’s going to be a really good player.
“But they haven’t changed much (without Stave). They’re very similar philosophically. You just plug in another quarterback. I think they have a lot of confidence in (Curt Phillips).’’
Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers will be minus two starters for the UW rematch: starting center Justin Jackson and defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler were injured last Friday at Iowa.
“Let’s face it, injuries are part of the game,’’ said Pelini, adding that it stings more because they were both seniors. “I’m sad for those two guys that they’re not able to play in a game such as this.’’
On the other hand, the Huskers have regained the services of running back Rex Burkhead, who had been sidelined for four games with a knee injury. His return definitely sparked the offense.
“He ran hard, he ran with passion,’’ Pelini said. “He got us out of some tough situations by putting his head down and making some extra yards. Our whole team feeds off his energy.’’
Wisconsin is hoping to get a similar lift in Indianapolis from the expected return of middle linebacker Chris Borland, who has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury.
Even without Borland, the Badgers put themselves in a position to win last Saturday.
Defensively, they got critical stops on consecutive Penn State possessions in the fourth quarter, which set up another dramatic, game-tying drive by Phillips, who completed 6-of-7 passes.
Prior to that series, he had only six completions for the game.
In the absence of Jared Abbrederis, who was injured the prior series, the Badgers got clutch receptions from Chase Hammond, Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Jacob Pedersen and Jeff Duckworth.
“You always have to prepare because you never know what’s going to happen,’’ said Duckworth, who was on the receiving end of a 4-yard scoring pass from Phillips that sent the game into overtime.
“Any catch helps when you’re a receiver,’’ continued Duckworth, a junior from Cincinnati. “I know they’re limited, but anytime you can make a play it helps.’’
It was Duckworth’s first reception since the second game of the season at Oregon State. How did he stay ready? He credited wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni for keeping him sharp.
“Coach Z treats all of us like we’re the starter,’’ said Duckworth, who had seven catches for 55 yards in the Sept. 8 loss to the Beavers. Since then, he has seen a limited role in the rotation.
“He (Azzanni) is always quizzing us and making sure we know the plays in different situations,’’ Duckworth went on. “He makes sure we know the plays in every different situation.’’
In the overtime, the UW defense forced Penn State to settle for a 37-yard field goal from Sam Ficken, who made 10 straight to close the season. (He missed 4 of 5 in a one-point loss to Virginia).
Armstrong admitted his gut reaction was to think, “All right, this is the one (we win). We’ve been here before and this is the time we finish it. This is the time that it’s our game.’’
The Badgers had a chance for a big play on a first down run by Montee Ball, but Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill brought down Ball after a 1-yard gain. Hill was virtually unblockable.
“It was wide open,’’ said, Ball, who set the NCAA record for career touchdowns in the first quarter. “I thought I was gone. But he (Hill) made a great play.’’
On second down, Phillips was sacked and fumbled.
UW offensive guard Kyle Costigan recovered the loose ball to save the possession.
“It was a fake-power wheel route,’’ Phillips explained. “Derek Watt had a guy rallying over the top of him, I probably could have back-shouldered (the throw) looking back on it.
“But I tried to get it to the post. That was covered. And, then, I thought there was a little bit of a run lane and I took off. I felt the pressure behind me and tried to throw it away, but it was too late.’’
On third down, Phillips was nearly intercepted.
That left Kyle French with a tough 44-yard field goal in a swirling wind.
“I felt like I hit it really well,’’ said French, “and I thought it had a pretty legit shot.’’
But he missed it, and the Badgers were saddled with another heartbreaking loss.
“It’s incredibly disappointing and frustrating; we have to correct the things that keep us from finishing,’’ Phillips said of the overtime defeats. “We were in a position to win, but we didn’t finish.’’
But the reality is that the Badgers aren’t finished yet.
“That’s the thing,’’ Phillips said. “Just like last week (the overtime loss to Ohio State), we have to learn from this one. We still have so much in front of us if we are able to rally back, which I think we will.
“We have an awesome opportunity. We’re playing for the Big Ten championship against a team that beat us during the regular season, so we can’t ask for a better opportunity than that.’’
A rematch for redemption?
That could apply to the earlier meeting between Nebraska and Wisconsin.
That also could apply to the season as a whole.
That’s how many see Saturday’s game in Indy.
“Obviously, we didn’t want to limp in there with a loss, but things happen,’’ said UW cornerback Marcus Cromartie. “Our coach told us we can go one of two ways.
“We can go and win next week and go to the Rose Bowl.
“Or, we can go and get our teeth knocked in, and lose.
“We know what the stakes are and we know these guys beat us in a close game earlier.’’
Cromartie knows two other things.
“We know now that sometimes it takes more than four quarters,’’ he said. “And, as seniors, we know we have only two more games left in college football. We have to take advantage of them.’’
UW coach Bret Bielema set a positive tone during Sunday’s Big Ten teleconference.
“There are 10 teams in the Big Ten that would love to be in the position that Nebraska and we are in right now,’’ he said.
“When the two teams take the field on Saturday, neither is going to care how the other one got there or what their record is.
“They’re just going to be looking to compete for a Big Ten championship.’’
Bielema later punctuated his remarks to make sure there was no mistaking the urgency.
“I guarantee,’’ he said, “we’ll have a group of 70-plus men coming over there to put on one great show and we will give it our best effort of the year and see what it can bring us.’’