Anger and frustration’
University of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and his players know that feeling today.
It is a feeling that should eat at the UW players and coaches throughout the off-season as they reflect upon a disappointing, 21-17 Outback Bowl loss to Tennessee, a loss that capped a season laden with frustration.
“I think we should have easily won this game,” redshirt freshman offensive tackle Gabe Carimi said. “No disrespect to Tennessee. Tennessee played good and they didn’t make many mistakes.
“But I just felt we had way too many mistakes on offense that hurt us.”
Linebacker DeAndre Levy shared those sentiments.
“Anger and frustration,” Levy said when asked to describe what he was feeling. “But I hope guys use that anger for something positive. Use that as a motivator going into this off-season and carry it over into fall camp.”
Tennessee held on for the four-point victory despite failing to score in the second half and on its final six full possessions overall.
The Volunteers (10-4) prevailed in part because senior quarterback Erik Ainge, the most valuable player of the game, passed for two touchdowns and 229 of his 365 yards in the first half to help his team build a 21-7 lead.
However, UW (9-4) ruined its victory chances with two critical turnovers at or inside the Tennessee 30, including Tyler Donovan’s interception with 38 seconds left; poor coverage in the secondary and continued shoddy tackling in the open field; and a lack of discipline that led to four timeouts being burned on offense.
Last was the questionable decision in the final quarter when Bielema eschewed a 27-yard field-goal attempt with his team facing fourth and 2 from the Tennessee 10 and trailing by 21-17.
“On third down we made the decision that if it was fourth and 2 or less we were going for it,” Bielema said. “The biggest thing was we weren’t able to execute.”
Donovan missed tight end Travis Beckum (two catches, 22 yards) open early after rolling to his right and then had to throw the ball away into the back of the end zone after scrambling to his left.
“I think we left things on the field,” said Beckum, who ripped his helmet off with two hands and slammed it to the turf after he reached the sideline. “I think we could have scored on that play but we didn’t.”
The Volunteers took over at their 10 with 5 minutes 52 seconds left, converted two critical third-down plays and drove to the UW 40 before punting and giving the ball back to UW at its 12 with 1:26 to go.
Donovan, who absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit in the opening quarter and missed two plays in the second quarter after apparently injuring his left knee while sliding at the end of a 2-yard run, drove the Badgers to the Tennessee 36.
On first down, however, he tried to hit Paul Hubbard deep down the left side. Reserve strong safety Antonio Wardlow was waiting and went up high for the interception at the Tennessee 1. His 16-yard return gave the Volunteers the ball at their 17 and they ran one play to end the game.
“I was just going to a guy who can go and make a play,” said Donovan, who finished 14 for 24 for 155 yards and a touchdown. “That was the one-on-one (match-up).”
UW was fortunate to be within 21-14 at halftime after a disjointed, mistake-filled performance.
Hubbard lost a fumble at the Tennessee 30 on UW’s first possession and UW’s defenders had trouble putting any pressure on Ainge or staying with his receivers.
Hubbard’s fumble cost UW at least a field-goal attempt and the Volunteers drove 66 yards for a touchdown, a 3-yard run by freshman wide receiver Gerald Jones, who lined up in the shotgun and took a direct snap.
Ainge in the first half threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Josh Briscoe, who ran away from strong safety Aubrey Pleasant, and a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brad Cottam, who eluded linebacker Jonathan Casillas and gained 22 yards after the catch.
“We just didn’t have that attitude and that passion on defense,” Casillas said. “I don’t know why.”
UW stayed close thanks to a 6-yard touchdown run by Donovan, set up by David Gilreath’s 60-yard kickoff return, and Donovan’s 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Andy Crooks with 63 seconds left in the half.
But the Badgers mustered only a field goal in six second-half possessions.
“We just let it slip away,” UW cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. “Tennessee is a great team. But I really don’t think they did anything that we couldn’t handle.
“Us not playing well, the end result is evident… . That is something that really frustrates you.”