Wisconsin's basketball student section is nicknamed "The Grateful Red" – an obvious homage and take off of the Grateful Dead. So, perhaps it's only fitting that we quote from that band to describe what the heck went on in Madison during the 2012 football season.
"Sometimes the lights all shinin on me;
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been."
It's true, 2012 was a long and strange journey. This was a Badger team that began by barely hanging on to beat FCS opponent Northern Iowa, would win just seven games during the regular season, lose twice in OT at home, and then go on to win the Big Ten Championship for a third straight year. Long, strange trip indeed.
Back-to-back-to-back Rose Bowl trips and Big Ten championships. Wisconsin became the first team outside of Michigan and Ohio State to go to the Rose Bowl more than twice in a row from the Big Ten. Hard to top winning a 3rd straight title…. Unless that 3rd straight title comes as a severe underdog and you don't just win but dominate your opponent to do so.
That's exactly what the Badgers did in winning their 2nd straight Big Ten championship game, taking Nebraska to the woodshed in a 70-31 victory. It's not often you can also say a game was truly and completely over at halftime (it's usually hyperbole when it's said), but that's exactly what happened in this one as UW was up 41-10 at the half. There wasn't a better game played by the Badgers in 2012 and it came at just the right time considering all that happened along the way.
Back-to-back-to-back Rose Bowl loses in close fashion. After losing to TCU by just two points and Oregon by a touchdown the Badgers couldn't crack the Rose Bowl nut, losing by six to Stanford. Sure, getting to three straight Rose Bowls is awesome, but not winning a single one of them?
Well, that may be perhaps the most Big Ten thing to have ever done. I mean, this conference as a whole has struggled in the Rose Bowl for what seems like forever. However, for Wisconsin it is hard to get over the fact that they couldn't find a way to win any of three games decided by a TD or less in the past three Rose Bowls.
It's also a microcosm of the season on the whole as the Badgers managed to lose all of their six loses by a touchdown or less. If the Badgers won they won big, by more than a touchdown at a minimum, but it was clear all season long that they just didn't have the luck or the horses (more on the luck side, see Ball's only collegiate fumble on the goal line) to win those close games.
Going 7-5 sure wasn't pretty. In fact it was downright ugly at times and a lot of it had to do with having two quarterbacks who the Badgers couldn't/didn't trust enough to lead them in the passing game. At first it was Danny O'Brien who just didn't have the team behind him for whatever reason and it showed in three less than average (at best) games, the third of which lasted all of one half of football before he was replaced by redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
Stave changed this team around immediately, leading them to a come from behind victory in the 2nd half of that Utah State game. However the good times wouldn't last as Stave would break his collar bone early in the 2nd half against Michigan State.
In stepped O'Brien and his inability to lead this team showed up again as they squandered two big time opportunities in the 2nd half that would've led them to victory thanks to bad decision making on O'Brien's part. That led to a third QB coming in in Curt Phillips – he of the three ACL tears in his career variety.
Phillips led the Badgers to the necessary W's to get them to the Big Ten Championship game, but the games and the play of Wisconsin was vastly different because Phillips wasn't able to be a pure drop back passer thanks to his injury history.
Like we said at the top, it was a long strange trip and it only got stranger following the Big Ten title game as Bret Bielema left the Badgers for the vacant Arkansas job after destroying the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Championship game.
It led to Barry Alvarez, the current AD and retired coaching legend, to come out of retirement when asked by the seniors on the team to coach them for the Rose Bowl. Alvarez got the coaching staff to really coach the guys while he juggled the coaching search and focusing the team at the same time. Shortly before the Rose Bowl the Badgers announced Gary Andersen as their next head coach and he began to get to know the team by watching them in Rose Bowl prep and the game itself.