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Tom Oates: Badgers’ ugly loss to Golden Gophers a fitting end to a disappointing regular season

November 25, 2018

T.J. Edwards tried. And tried. And tried some more.

The University of Wisconsin’s senior linebacker made 12 solo tackles and had a hand in six more, but effort alone wasn’t enough Saturday as the Badgers closed their regular season at Camp Randall Stadium with the most shocking result of all in a season filled with shocking results — a 37-15 loss to Minnesota, a team that hadn’t beaten UW since 2003.

For the Badgers, a regular season that began with a No. 4 ranking in the national polls closed with a 7-5 record and a feeling that combined bewilderment and embarrassment.

“I think it’s just frustration, just knowing how good this team can be,” Edwards said. “We just haven’t come out and shown that.”

At no point in the season did the Badgers consistently show that. Oh, there were times when they looked like the team they and just about everyone else thought they could be, the most recent coming the second half of a win at Purdue last week. But for the most part the Badgers just kept replaying the same game over and over, hoping for a different result.

Losing to the charged-up Gophers, who needed a victory to become bowl-eligible, was just the latest in a string of mistake-filled UW performances, games where the veteran offense couldn’t finish drives, the inexperienced defense couldn’t hold on forever and the special teams lost the field-position battle.

As usual, the effort was there against the Gophers. Consistency was missing though, which has been the case throughout this season of failed expectations and bitter disappointment.

“It just comes down to us executing and really shooting ourselves in the foot,” wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. “When you play a good team, you can’t have mental mistakes. You can’t have false starts, holding penalties. At any position on any side of the ball, you can’t make those types of mistakes. If you want to be a great team, you just can’t do that and expect to win the game. That’s kind of what happened in our losses. We had a lot of mental mistakes. If you want to beat a good team, you can’t have those mistakes and expect to win.”

You can’t have those mistakes if you want to beat Minnesota, either. Give credit to the Gophers, though. They were as efficient as the Badgers were inefficient, surrendering no turnovers, allowing no sacks and committing only two penalties.

But if ever a game was a microcosm of a season, this one was it for the Badgers. They outgained the Gophers 359-325, but couldn’t string together enough good plays to finish off drives with scores or get themselves off the field on defense.

On offense, UW had uneven quarterback play, three penalties, two dropped passes and four turnovers, a familiar blend from a unit that seemingly had an embarrassment of riches back in August. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook returned after missing two games with a concussion and turned the ball over four times, but he wasn’t the only one making mistakes.

The offense seemingly had gotten untracked late in the game at Purdue, but it didn’t carry over.

“As an offensive player, I could say it’s been turnovers and just not executing and not making enough plays like we can,” guard Michael Deiter said. “You look at the second half of the Purdue game, we’re executing, people are making plays, cutting it loose, there’s no turnovers, it’s all clean and we looked really good. But then (Saturday) we turn the ball over, we’re dropping stuff, fumbles, all that. You’re never going to get the momentum you want in the game as an offense to find a rhythm like we like to do.”

The defense had its own problems. It couldn’t stop Minnesota’s running game on first and second downs, which made it difficult to get off the field because the Gophers spent the day facing third-and-short situations.

Mostly, though, it was same old, same old for the defense. Breakdowns on the edge against the run, a costly pass-interference penalty and zero takeaways against a team that has been very generous in handing the ball to opponents all season.

“I thought once we got them to third-and-long, we were able to do what we wanted to do and get pressure on (quarterback Tanner Morgan) and cover guys,” Edwards said. “But we just didn’t do that often. On first and second down I think we lost, quite frankly.”

It was always something with the Badgers this season, which is surprising because under coach Paul Chryst they have been a team that improves during the season. Whether it was due to a shortage of depth and experience or the coaching staff’s reticence to take chances with such a mistake-prone team, the expected improvement never came.

Things never got fixed and UW never put together a complete game in 12 tries.

“There’s no doubt we haven’t made it easier on ourselves,” Chryst said. “I think our margin of error this year is much less. ... I think as a coach you’ve got to own it. We have got to do a better job of coaching and making sure the kids understand it and help them because playing this league you’re going to play teams that are tough to beat. Then when you also have to beat yourself, it’s that much (harder) and you have to be a great team to overcome both those. We’re not right now.”

They’ve proven that over and over again this season.

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