MADISON, Wis. - For the Wisconsin football team, Saturday's game, albeit a win, was a great conclusion to a season that many times failed to cash in on plenty of opportunities.
Cal-Poly, a bowl subdivision school, came into Camp Randall, the Wisconsin cold and played in front of the largest crowd it had seen all season, and backed the Badgers into a corner that UW barely got out of.
If not for three missed extra point attempts from Mustangs kicker Andrew Gardner, including one in the overtime period following Ramses Barden's 25-yard touchdown grab on the first play in the extra frame and a missed 46-yard field goal at the end of regulation, the Badgers would be on the wrong side of another disappointment.
But, when it mattered most, freshman John Clay scored a touchdown in overtime to set up Philip Welch's game winning extra-point to seal its thrilling 36-35 come-from-behind win, its second in as many weeks.
"We try to win every football game," UW head coach Bret Bielema said following his team's seventh win of the year. "But for it to be our last game and the way the season has unfolded, it just says so much about our seniors and this entire team."
Sixteen Badger seniors played their final game on their home turf, and things were not going as according to plan for the majority of the game.
The Mustangs, the No. 3 ranked team in the FCS sub-division, held the ball for nearly 40 minutes of the game, basically twice as much as the Badgers did and forced UW into a relying on an unforeseen quick-strike offense.
"We have an operator at quarterback who can keep us in the good plays and we made lots of good plays," Cal-Poly's head coach Rich Ellerson said after the game. "We don't turn the ball over, we do enough things that give you a chance on every possession and we were able to convert some fourth downs.
"When you do that and you run the football to get a fourth down, there's a lot of time that goes off the clock."
In the third quarter alone, Cal-Poly held the ball for over 12 minutes of the 15-minute period. But the Mustangs still only led 23-21 going into the fourth quarter after the Badgers scored on a determined P.J. Hill 10-yard touchdown run to cap an efficient four-play, 80-yard drive in just over one minute of game time.
"They're a good football team," Bielema said. "Because of what they do offensively, they can monopolize the clock and, defensively, they can definitely bring pressure to confuse you and create some negative-yardage plays."
In total, UW racked up 429 yards of total offense, including a 107-yard, two-touchdown rushing performance from Clay. Quarterback Dustin Sherer, aside from his interception at the end of regulation, played his most complete game as the starting signal caller. The junior finished 13-of-22 with 245 yards and a touchdown pass in the win.
"I think I played fairly well," Sherer, who started his sixth consecutive game, said. "But obviously you've got to play that well all season."
For the Badgers, the win bucked a season long trend of games where the ball would bounce anyway but in its favor. Cal-Poly dominated the time of possession, scored a special team's touchdown, and held an eight-point lead with four minutes to play before Sherer guided his team down for the game tying touchdown and two-point conversion.
In that drive, the Indiana native scrambled for 22-yards when UW was backed up on its own 20 yard line to give them serious aspirations to tie the game. Four plays later, Clay broke a 27-yard run off right tackle to set up Hill's second rushing touchdown from three yards out to get Wisconsin within two.
Then, Hill, on the exact same play rumbled in for the game tying conversion attempt. But still, the Mustangs had an opportunity to win the game, when Gardner's nightmarish kicking performance continued after shanking a 46-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds left.
"We know that if they don't go right our first half, it's a four-quarter game," Clay said. "We got to play each game like it's our last and that's what we do."
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