PASADENA, Calif. -- The Hollywood ending was all set up. Wisconsin, the underdog in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, would reverse its recent history here under the steady guidance of the old pro who'd come out of retirement for one last assignment.
The opening scene played out as you'd expect. Hall of Fame coach Barry Alvarez delivered a rousing pregame speech in the locker room, during which he told the players "Wisconsin invented physical."
"I have never seen a bunch of guys so excited," defensive lineman Brendan Kelly said. "I was so sure we were going to win this game."
But the Badgers' Rose Bowl appearances instead keep unreeling like an unimaginative sequel. For a third straight year, they came up short, this time 20-14 to Stanford. For a third straight year, they were unable to make a big play in the closing minutes. For a third straight year, they walked dejectedly off the field as confetti rained down on their opponents.
Oh, there were many different circumstances this year. Alvarez took over the team after Bret Bielema left and brought some swagger. Assistant coaches hugged each other at the end of the game, knowing they would be parting ways on Tuesday when Gary Andersen begins remaking the staff and the program. With an 8-6 final record, Wisconsin players had to listen to one obnoxious fan shout "O-H-I-O" and remind them that Ohio State had the better team this year as they trudged into the tunnel to their locker room.
But those are just plot details. The ending remains unchanged.
"The immediate reaction is the same," linebacker Chris Borland said. "It's heartbreaking."
Wisconsin became the third team ever to lose three straight Rose Bowls, the first since Michigan did so from 1976-78. Each has brought its own set of painful memories. In 2010, a failed two-point conversion on a much-debated play call doomed the Badgers against TCU. Last year, some questionable clock management down the stretch left star quarterback Russell Wilson begging for an extra second at the Oregon 25 in a seven-point defeat.
This time, the Badgers had to play from behind the whole way after giving up two early touchdowns to Stanford, which broke out some new offensive wrinkles it hadn't shown on film. Wisconsin answered, though, with two second-quarter scores to slice the lead to 17-14. It seemingly had all the momentum after Curt Phillips' touchdown pass to Jordan Fredrick just 19 seconds before halftime.
But the Badgers would not score again in a second half where they managed only 82 total yards. There were opportunities, like a deep pass to the Cardinal red zone that Chase Hammond dropped before he got creamed by safety Jordan Richards. Wisconsin defensive backs missed a few chances to pick off Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan in his own territory.
Alvarez also chose to punt rather than go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Cardinal 46 near the end of the third quarter. It was an understandable decision, the way the Badgers defense was playing. But Wisconsin would never again have such good field position.
After Stanford earned some breathing room with a fourth-quarter field goal, the Badgers got one more possession, with a chance to drive for the winning touchdown.
"I felt like maybe we were a team of destiny," Alvarez said.
Phillips led the offense to the Stanford 49. Then, he looked for an out route to Jared Abbrederis, which was covered. He spotted Kenzel Doe on a crossing pattern; it wasn't open. On his third read, he tried to squeeze one in to tight end Jacob Pedersen but was intercepted by Usua Amanam with 2:03 to go.
"The game was in our hands and we just didn't capitalize," said star running back Montee Ball, who ran for exactly 100 yards but only 13 in the second half. "It's extremely frustrating because we had this game."
The Badgers have said that a lot, not just in Pasadena but all season long. They lost six games this year by a combined 25 points, including three in overtime. We thought this Rose Bowl would look a lot like a Big Ten game because of Stanford's physical nature and similar style. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, it looked a lot like the Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State losses, right down to the similar score.
"Our whole offseason approach will be to take the mindset of finishing," Kelly said. "If we do that, we'll be an unbelievable team. But that's the last little attribute we need."
The program is about to go through a lot of changes with Andersen, who watched the game from the sidelines but mostly kept his distance the past few weeks. The Badgers will have to contend with surging and now bowl-eligible Ohio State in the Leaders Division. Even if they manage to make a fourth straight Rose Bowl appearance, they might not find as favorable an athletic matchup as this one was. Stanford might not have invented physical, but the Cardinal perfected it. And Wisconsin won't have a Hall of Famer on the sidelines.
"It was awesome to play for Coach Alvarez," Phillips said. "I just hate the fact that we couldn't get him another [Rose Bowl win]."
The Hollywood ending would have seen the Badgers carry Alvarez off on their shoulders in triumph. But this story is one that keeps repeating itself.