Rose Bowl redemption fuels Wilson, UW

The thought crossed Montee Ball's mind as he left the field at Ohio Stadium, still in shock after another heartbreaking loss in the final minute.

The Rose Bowl dream, the one that had spurred Ball and his Wisconsin teammates throughout the offseason, appeared to be dashed.

"Yes, of course," the Badgers junior running back said. "We want to play in the big bowl, so after the second loss it stung a little bit because we thought it slipped out of our hands. But now that it's back in our hands and we're able to control our own destiny, it's just a great thing.

"We're going to make sure we embrace it and really capitalize it on it this time."

College football can be unforgiving, and rarely do teams get second chances to achieve their chief goals. After back-to-back road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, No. 16 Wisconsin has rebounded. With a little help, the Badgers find themselves in position to reach the Big Ten title game and play for a return trip to Pasadena, where they lost 21-19 to TCU on Jan. 1.

Wisconsin will face No. 19 Penn State for the Leaders Division title on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, where the Badgers have won 15 consecutive games and average 52.3 points per game this season.

"That's the reason why I came here," senior quarterback Russell Wilson said. "... I wanted to be a part of something special."

Wilson wasn't on the field Jan. 1 in Pasadena. He didn't experience the anguish of falling short against TCU. He didn't shed tears in the locker room after the game, like so many Wisconsin players did.

But it didn't take long for Wilson, after transferring from NC State, to recognize what drives his new teammates.

"Russell has gotten more and more comfortable with our kids," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "And as he's been here longer, he's heard the stories about us falling short against TCU."

Added Wilson: "Guys have definitely talked about it, in terms of, I'm not sure 'heartbreak,' but the toughness that it takes to get through something like that. You never want to lose a game in general, especially a game like that, playing in the Rose Bowl. … We have the opportunity to [return], but before we can even do that, we have to beat Penn State and play a great game."

Wisconsin needs a great game Saturday from Wilson, who has been brilliant at Camp Randall Stadium. He has completed 75 percent of his passes (87-for-116) for 1,415 yards with 13 touchdown strikes and no interceptions. It equates to an astronomical quarterback rating of 214.5 -- a big reason Wilson, who leads the nation with a season rating of 199.3, remains on pace to break Colt Brennan's NCAA record (186).

But Wilson hasn't been nearly as dominant against elite defenses, and Penn State might be the best he'll face all season. He threw two of his three interceptions this season against Michigan State, ranked as the nation's No. 3 defense. He had his least accurate performance (20-of-32) against Ohio State, the nation's No. 16 defense, and passed for only 90 yards last week against Illinois, the nation's No. 9 defense.

Penn State ranks eighth nationally in total defense, sixth in pass defense and fourth in pass efficiency defense (96.4 rating) -- a mark that leads the Big Ten.

"I see guys that can fly around, guys that are extremely aggressive," Wilson said of the Lions. "They've got a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball."

Some view Wisconsin as a disappointment this season, as the Badgers seemingly had the league's best team and a schedule aligned to make a national title run. An upset-filled Week 12 around the country underscored the fact that, had Wisconsin avoided late breakdowns in East Lansing and in Columbus, it would be in the thick of the title talk.

"Definitely you think about basically those 45 seconds total that it comes down to that you potentially could have been in the national championship," Wilson said. "But at the same time, you can’t look back; you have to look forward."

Penn State is in Wisconsin's path to Pasadena. If the Badgers navigate their way past the Lions, they earn a rematch with Michigan State in Indianapolis for a chance to return to the Rose Bowl.

It's not a bad situation, especially considering where Wisconsin was Oct. 29 in Columbus.

"To lose those games the way we did I thought only was going to make us stronger," Bielema said. "It was very, very difficult times, and if you don’t have great kids or great coaches, you wouldn’t be able to come out of there. ... The result is we put ourselves in a position to go play a Penn State team for the opportunity to play in something even bigger."