BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Chris Borland had not yet reached his teen years when a heavily-favored Wisconsin team -- No. 8/9 in the national polls and a defending Big Ten champion -- got a rude awakening in its first road game of the 1999 season, a disappointing 17-12 loss at Cincinnati.
That might seem like ancient history to everyone today except Borland, a history major. After last Saturday’s loss at Oregon State, the UW linebacker talked about how one loss -- especially one in September -- doesn’t define a season, and he cited the example of the ’99 team.
Despite also losing at home in the Big Ten opener to Michigan, the Badgers overcome those back-to-back defeats and reeled off eight straight victories punctuated by an outright Big Ten championship and a win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Borland didn’t get into specific parallels. He didn’t mention that the ‘99 team revolved around a record-setting tailback, Ron Dayne, who opted to return for his senior year instead of entering the draft and wound up breaking Ricky Williams’ NCAA career rushing mark and winning the Heisman.
He didn’t connect Dayne to Montee Ball, though he could have since the record-setting Ball also came back for his senior year after considering the draft. In addition, he’s the leading returning vote-getter for the Heisman and within 17 touchdowns of breaking Travis Prentice’s NCAA mark for TDs.
After Dayne struggled in the Michigan loss -- he had eight carries for zero yards in the second half -- he fell out of the Heisman polls. Sports Illustrated ranked him among the top 10 disappointments in college football. Dayne didn’t say anything. He just cut out the SI list and taped it to his locker.
That was part of his motivation -- to silence his critics -- and he had the last laugh.
Borland wasn’t laughing, nor smiling after Saturday’s loss at Oregon State. But he wasn’t throwing in the towel, nor conceding anything to any upcoming opponent.
Neither was Ball, who was held to 61 yards by the Beavers and failed to score a touchdown for the first time in 22 games.
“I’m very frustrated,’’ Ball admitted. “But all I can do now is go watch film and get better. I have to be a leader and playmaker for my team … with the team we have now, we need to focus on our urgency with calls, urgency with getting to the line of scrimmage and urgency with the plays.
“That will be my focus through this week of practice and from here on out.
“One of our goals is that in the face of adversity we have to make sure we come out on top.’’
UW linebacker Mike Taylor reflected that commitment to staying the course.
“We had high hopes (to start the season), we still have those hopes; it was just one game and we have to go into next week preparing to get better,’’ Taylor said. “We’re disappointed, angry. We fought a hard, close game and to lose a close one like this it never feels good.’’
Nobody felt good about how the game ended when the replay official overturned a call on the field awarding the ball to the Badgers after placekicker Kyle French had perfectly executed a “middle dribble’’ on-side kick -- the equivalent of a drag bunt in baseball -- and recovered the loose ball.
After a booth review, it was ruled that French had made contact with the football prior to it going 10 yards even though at least one replay camera angle indicated that Oregon State’s Tyrequek Zimmerman touched the ball with his left hand and batted it forward into French.
Fox Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira, a former NFL official and senior director of officiating, said afterward that “I could see his (Zimmerman’s) fingers going backward before French recovered the ball at the 44.’’ He also spoke to the underlying rule of thumb in these situations.
“After watching the replays, I really don’t think there was indisputable evidence to overturn the call made on the field,’’ Pereira said. “Wisconsin deserved to keep the ball and get a chance to attempt to tie (with a field goal) or win it.’’
French could only shrug and admit, “I felt like an Oregon State player hit it first. I wish we could have it back and I wish it could be reviewed again. I wish it was a better result than what happened. But it’s over with and there’s nothing we can do about it now.’’
That played into what Taylor was saying. “We have to just keep working hard and talk and let them know (the younger players) that the season is far from over,’’ he emphasized. “We’ve got a lot of things that we can get better at, and there are a lot of things that we can accomplish.’’
Responding to what he thought was a question on whether people might start doubting this team -- after the way the offense was stifled by the Beavers -- and the direction that the season appears to be headed, Taylor said, “They can have doubts.’’
Advised that the question was directed at the people in the locker room, not outsiders, and whatever doubts they may have after Saturday, he asserted, “I don’t think we ever doubt ourselves.’’ He then stressed the importance of “practicing and preparing and working’’ that much harder.
Following up on whether he was surprised by Oregon State’s performance in light of the UW’s 35-0 skunking over the Beavers last year, Taylor said, “I wouldn’t say I was surprised. Oregon State has been a good team. Last year was last year. Oregon State is a new team and they played well today.’’
Part of what he said could also be said of the Badgers.
Last year was last year.
Wisconsin is a new team, too -- one that is still growing and trying to figure out things.
“As a team,’’ said defensive tackle Ethan Hemer, “we need to embrace challenges and adversity because these are the times when character gets revealed and we find out what kind of team we are. This season is so young; we’ve only played two games. We’re guaranteed 10 more. So we can’t let something like this bury us, because everything we still want is out there for us.’’
It’s not like the returning players haven’t had to deal with setbacks. “Last year we dealt with a ton of adversity at the midway point (of the season),’’ Hemer said of back-to-back road losses at Michigan State and Ohio State. “So we’ve been there; the upperclassmen have been in that situation.’’
The way the Badgers lost both of those games in the closing seconds was painful. “Ohio State was pretty gut-wrenching just because I couldn’t believe that same situation happened back-to-back,’’ Hemer said. “That’s something that I will always remember, which is a positive and a negative.’’
Some of those lessons are applicable now. “It’s very hard to win them all, we learned that last year,’’ Hemer went on. “This year, we’ve stumbled early but I feel that we understand now what it takes to prepare for games and we understand now that every week is not going to go perfect.
“We need to build off what we know and fix things that we can.’’
Because the bar has been raised for the program -- on the heels of back-to-back Big Ten titles and Rose Bowl appearances -- there’s no turning back, no hiding from expectations or media scrutiny.
“That is what it is,’’ Hemer said. “We try not to buy into everything the media says as far as this team is not what we (others) thought they were. What matters most are the guys in the locker room.
“We need to come together as a team and let our actions speak for themselves.’’