Dienhart: 'End of one era, beginning of another'

When it comes to motivation, few push buttons better than Barry Alvarez. Heading into the Rose Bowl vs. Stanford, Alvarez had bracelets made for players that read “I’m In” and “I’m On.” But the players had to earn the rubber jewelry through their position coach.

The idea: Get players to focus on the Rose Bowl, the task at hand—and to zone out the background noise surrounding the program.

And there was a lot of background noise, set off by Bret Bielema’s stunning departure for Arkansas just days after leading the Badgers to a third Rose Bowl bid with a dominating 70-31 win over Nebraska in the Big Ten title game.

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“It kind of reminds me that I’m a little piece to the entire puzzle on this team,” said Montee Ball. “Everyone is. I’m in with everything this team is doing and we’re going to be on. I’m going to display my best game and show the team I want to win for them.”

But in the end, the ploy failed. The Badgers lost a hard-fought Rose Bowl, 20-14. Wisconsin (8-6) becomes just the third team to drop three consecutive Rose Bowls, joining Cal (1949, ’50, 51′) and Michigan in 1977, ’78 and ’79. Still, it took a special team and special focus for Wisconsin to get this far.

Montee BallThis was a big game for the Badgers for a lot of reasons. Wisconsin had unfinished business to tend to in Pasadena. After losing to TCU in the Rose Bowl after the 2010 season, and then falling to Oregon after last season, Wisconsin was hoping the third time would be a charm.

Stanford raced to a 14-0 lead, scoring on its two opening drives. It managed just two field goals the rest of the way, using a stifling defense to keep Wisconsin at bay. The Badgers had just 301 yards, with a scant 83 coming through the air. Curt Phillips hit 10-of-16 passes with a touchdown and interception. The rushing attack did its part, generating 218 yards. In the end, however, it wasn’t enough vs. a Stanford team that managed just 344 yards.

But this Rose Bowl vs. Stanford was about more than ending a two-game skid in Pasadena. This trip was about the end of one era and the beginning of another for Wisconsin.

Gary Andersen arrives from Utah State and will inherit a young Badger team that looks to be primed for a run at a fourth Rose Bowl trip in succession, though the path back to Pasadena will be more difficult with Ohio State off probation in 2013.

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But some didn’t think Wisconsin deserved to be in the Rose Bowl this season. Critics snipped that Wisconsin finished just third in the Legends Division behind Ohio State and Penn State. And the Badgers had five losses.

But look closer. Three of the defeats were in overtime (Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State). The other two were by three points (10-7 at Oregon State and 30-27 at Nebraska). The Badgers are a good team that was close to compiling a terrific record. And when you consider the hurdles it had to overcome, Wisconsin being back in the Rose Bowl is even more impressive.

First, Montee Ball’s senior season got sideways before it even started, as he was assaulted on Aug. 1 in Madison and sustained a concussion. Ball then overcame a slow start to rank second in the Big Ten with 1,730 yards rushing (133.1 ypg). And he set the all-time NCAA make for touchdowns with 82. It turned out to be a nice crowning season to one of the Big Ten’s all-time greatest players, as Ball won the Doak Walker Award.

The coaching staff also underwent tumult, as Bielema fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the loss at Oregon State, promoting G.A. Bart Miller to the post. Talk about risky.

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The next week at halftime of the Utah State game, Bielema made a switch at quarterback, as Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien was pulled in favor or redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Another risky move that paid off, as the offense found more life.

But then, Stave broke a collarbone on Oct. 27 vs. Michigan State. That thrust little-used Curt Phillips under center. And he responded after an injury-riddle career.

It would have been nice to have seen Alvarez get a fourth Rose Bowl win. But his presence today on the sideline was more about a win or loss. He was there to bridge the gap between Bielema and Andersen. And he earned this day to stand in the brilliant Pasadena sunshine one more time.

Barry AlvarezThere was Alvarez, an icon on the sidelines of this iconic venue, arms folded over his chest. This guy is a Rose Bowl Hall of Famer, as few have been better on college football’s biggest stage.

Alvarez is the face of Badgers football, the modern day father of the program. He walked into a heap of rubble in 1990 and quickly made Wisconsin football matter. He took the program to the Rose Bowl in just his fourth season in Madison, guiding the Badgers to a win over UCLA. And Alvarez followed with Rose Bowl triumphs after the 1998 and 1999 seasons.

Wisconsin’s loss capped a disappointing bowl season for the Big Ten, which went 2-5. New Year’s Day was a downer for the Big Ten, which went 1-4 on college football’s high-holy day. Northwestern was the lone winner, taking a 34-20 decision over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. Nebraska fell to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl (45-31), Michigan lost to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl (33-28) and Purdue got smashed by Oklahoma State in the Heart of Dallas Bowl (58-14).

Earlier in the bowl season, Minnesota lost to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas and Michigan State stopped TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

Now, the focus of the Big Ten and Wisconsin turns to 2013, which teems with possibilities for both.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Bryce Benjamin on 1/2/2013 @ 12:15am EDT Said:

Phillips clearly played his heart out today and made crucial runs and passes at various points in the game despite the interception. Thanks to him for his effort and offensive leadership! But I hope Gary and Barry quickly put a “very top” QB recruit at the “very top” of their recruiting list besides the talented backs and linemen WI typically goes after as that’s what it’s going to take to make the Badgers a National Champion Team!

Respectfully,

Alum and Five Time Badger Rose Bowl Attendee Fan including today