By TOM LEA
PASADENA, Calif. — The NCAA’s all-time touchdown leader approached the same podium former Univerisity of Wisconsin teammates (and now NFL standouts) J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson did each of the past two years.
He walked into the media tent adjacent to the Rose Bowl stadium with sullen eyes, slumped shoulders and a dry-fit undershirt saturated with sweat that had been beneath the pads he'd just worn for the final time as a college tailback.
Montee Ball had just lost his third straight Rose Bowl, something he’s afraid will stain his legacy as not only one of the best backs the Wisconsin program has ever seen, but also one of the best backs in college football history.
“This is not the way I want to be remembered -- and I’m speaking for the entire senior group,” said Ball, who became the only player ever to score at least one touchdown in three different Rose Bowls. “This is not the way we wanted to go out. But at this point right now, it is what it is.”
The Badgers, the first five-loss team to ever play in "The Granddaddy of Them All," lost 20-14 in a game that will certainly define one of the more exciting, yet excruciating, eras the program has ever seen.
Yet the Badgers had chances to win, the last of which evaporated when senior Curt Phillips misfired on a pass intended for junior Jacob Pedersen that ultimately wound up in the arms of Stanford’s Usua Amanam with approximately two minutes to play at the Stanford 42-yard line.
“I don’t know if it got tipped or not,” said Phillips, who finished 10-of-16 for 83 yards with one touchdown and one interception. “We started with the out route to the left and they did a good job of covering that. We had the crossing route to Kenzel Doe and that wasn’t there. Then we have an option for Pedersen. He can either curl back out or inside.
“There was a little bit of miscommunication between us, but I saw him. I’ve got to put it on him. It wasn’t a good throw.”
Stanford, stymied by Wisconsin’s fierce run defense after it jumped to a quick 14-0 lead after its first two series, ended the game when senior Stepfan Taylor (20 carries, 88 yards, one touchdown) picked up a first down three plays later.
The Badgers never bothered to use their final timeout.
Athletic director Barry Alvarez, coaching his first game in seven years, knew his team had come up short and he knew he would drop his first game inside the same facility that played a major role in building the UW program to what it is today.
“Stanford didn’t surprise me with how they played,” Alvarez said. “You saw that on film. They’ve been very consistent all year. They’re a physical team. They’re well-coached and they deserved to win today.”
The Cardinal opened the 99th Rose Bowl by slapping Wisconsin with back-to-back touchdown drives of 80 and 79 yards, sucking much of the emotion out of a fired-up Badgers sideline aiming to start fast.
Freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan completed all three of his passes for 71 yards during those two drives, including a 43-yard bomb to All-American tight end Zach Ertz. At that point it looked as though the Pac-12 champion would overwhelm the Badgers.
But Wisconsin, as it has all season, fought back.
“When you fall behind 14-0, I thought it was a microcosm of their whole season,” Alvarez said. “They fought back and got in the ballgame.”
The constant adversity this Wisconsin team had endured throughout the 2012 season — starting with the off-field assault of Ball and ending with the sudden departure of Bret Bielema — struck plenty of times throughout the Rose Bowl.
One of note: Early in the second quarter, when junior tailback James White was stuffed on fourth-and-goal from the Stanford 1-yard line.
Instead of running a play with Ball, an All-American and Doak Walker winner, offensive coordinator Matt Canada opted to run a play out of the barge formation (UW’s version of the wildcat).
White was immediately stuffed by Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner, which forced the turnover on downs and left what was an impressive drive without anything to show for it.
“I’m always upset that I’m not in the game,” said Ball, who rushed for a game-high 100 yards. “It’s just the competitive nature that I have, but we have a lot of faith in our offensive coordinator. That play has been working leading up to this game and we were very confident that it was going to work.
“But the defensive line did a great job clogging the holes, submarining our linemen and not leaving any gaps for James to find.”
White finished the day with six carries for 4 yards.
But that moment in the game led to a change in Wisconsin’s defensive demeanor. The defense forced a quick three-and-out on the ensuing possession, which helped the Badgers start the next offensive drive inside Cardinal territory.
Ball, enjoying his 83rd and final touchdown as a collegiate tailback, scored five plays later.
The UW defense then held Stanford to a field goal on the ensuing drive, and the Badgers eventually went into the halftime break down just three points following Phillips’ 4-yard touchdown pass to freshman Jordan Fredrick with 19 seconds left in the half.
“We were excited,” Phillips said. “I thought we were rolling pretty well.”
But that was the last time Wisconsin’s offense was able to muster much of anything. The final 30 minutes saw the Badgers run just four plays inside Stanford territory, one being a punt, and none being any deeper than the Stanford 46-yard line.
UW mustered just 82 yards of total offense (67 rushing), picked up just four first downs and punted five times during the second half. It averaged just three yards per play and completed just 3-of-7 passes.
Ball, who rushed for 87 yards in the first half, only managed to accrue 13 in the second.
“They were doing some different things on the perimeter,” Alvarez said. “Thy were doing some line stunts that we were having some problems with, and quite frankly, they’re a very good defensive front. We knew that coming in.
“They’re very difficult to block.”
Still, Wisconsin had the ball at Stanford’s 49-yard line with just over 2 minutes to play, with two timeouts and a chance to win the game.
“It’s too bad we didn’t make that last pass and see what was going to happen,” Canada said. “I do think we were starting to go. I felt good about it.”
But the ball didn’t bounce Wisconsin’s way, staying consistent with the theme of the year as a whole.
Tack on a Rose Bowl loss to the three overtime losses, and it’s understandable how Phillips was somewhat choked up talking to the media and why junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis was sitting stone-faced at his locker with all of his pads on more than half an hour after the game ended.
Michigan was the last team to reach three-straight Rose Bowl’s (1977-79), and coincidentally, Michigan was the last team to lose three-straight Rose Bowl’s until Wisconsin.
The sting of defeat, even when a team has been down the same avenue each of the past two years, doesn’t get any easier to overcome.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Phillips, who also rushed for 46 yards. “There was no doubt in my mind we were going to win that game. It’s tough.
“It’s been a hell of a ride the whole time.”