<strong>MADISON, Wis.—</strong> For the second consecutive year, Utah State went on the road and gave a big name school from a big name conference all it could handle. And for the second year in a row, special teams mistakes snuffed out the Aggies’ chances as they fell to the Wisconsin Badgers, 16-14.
Junior kicker Josh Thompson had a chance to put USU on top 17-16 as he attempted a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining. That kick was wide-right the entire way, allowing the Badgers to escape.
“We should have beat a Big-10 team. We walked in here expecting to beat Wisconsin. They walked in here trying to beat us too, I get all that stuff, but to be real frank, I’m tired of coming into these situations and walking out with the same feeling,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said in a postgame radio interview with KVNU.
“The ball is on the 19 yard line, right-middle, come on. The snap is good, the hold seemed to be good. We’ve got to make that field goal.”
Place kicking wasn’t the only special teams problem on the night for the Aggies. Normally reliable punter Tyler Bennett struggled with a couple of kicks, including a line drive punt that allowed Kenzel Doe to get a running start and return a punt 82 yards to ignite the Badgers.
That punt return came in the third quarter with the Aggies leading 14-3 – the same score they led by at the half – and pulled the Badgers to within a score at 14-10. After the USU offense stalled again, a shanked punt gave Wisconsin the ball back at the Aggie 42 yard line. Six plays later the Badgers took the lead and put USU behind for the first time this season.
That score came on a 17-yard run from Montee Ball, his longest of the year, and was one of his few highlights of the night. Ball finished the game with 139 yards rushing and that touchdown, but he needed 37 carries to do it. The USU defense was able to hold him in check, as well as shut down the Badgers passing game.
“I applaud the defensive line because they played their hearts out the whole entire game, and I didn’t expect anything less from them,” USU all-conference center Tyler Larsen said in a postgame radio interview with KVNU.
Andersen was equally pleased with his team’s defensive play, as the Aggies held the Badgers to 234 yards of total offense.
“That’s good defense, period,” he said. “You’ve got a back like that and you’re holding him to where he is. I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the football. I thought we got underneath their pads, and I thought we were tougher than they were. I thought we played a very, very physical nature of the game and that was good to see.”
Unfortunately for the Aggies, after some early fireworks, their offense bogged down as well. USU got things going early when sophomore QB Chuckie Keeton connected with running back Kerwynn Williams on 39-yard touchdown pass with 9:17 remaining in the first quarter.
The Aggies appeared to be in business again a few moments later when senior cornerback Willie Davis picked off Wisconsin’s Danny O’Brien. However, a roughing the passer penalty on Tavaris McMillian negated the turnover, which would have given USU the ball deep in Badger territory.
Wisconsin tacked on a field goal to cut the lead to four early in the second quarter, but the game was a war of heavyweight defenses for most of the night. It wasn’t until late in the first half following a fumble that USU got in position again.
O’Brien was sacked by Zach Vigil with just a couple minutes remaining in the half, and Jake Doughty recovered the ball at the Wisconsin 24 yard line. Five plays later on second and eight, Keeton connected with senior Matt Austin on an 11-yard strike that put USU up 14-3 heading into the intermission.
That lead appeared that it might hold up – until the special teams miscues changed the momentum.
“There were a lot of plays to be made in that game … we can point the finger at a lot of different places, but we’re not going to. We’re going to line up and we’re going to go play again,” Andersen said.
Despite allowing the Badgers to take the lead and steal the momentum, the Aggies still had life after forcing Wisconsin to punt late in the fourth quarter. Trailing by two after blocking a Badger PAT, USU had a chance to take the ball from its own 32 yard line and win the game.
Keeton used his legs and his arm to move the Aggies down the field and put them in a position to pull off the upset. The highlight of the drive came on third and 10 from near midfield where Keeton scrambled and bought time before connecting with Cameron Webb on a 36 yard pass down to the Badger 15 yard line.
USU appeared to get even closer when Keeton connected with tight end Kellen Bartlett inside the 10 yard line, but Bartlett was whistled for offensive pass interference, and the Aggies moved back to the 30 yard line. Keeton and the offense was able to get back to the 20 yard line, however, to set up the makeable game-winning attempt.
“We have to lick our wounds for two and half hours on the airplane and then not feel sorry for ourselves. It is what it is, and we’ll have to get better,” Andersen said. “Our goal is to win the WAC, we’ve been saying that since January 7, and this game has no bearing on that – other than how we react to the adversity and if we can get better. We’ve got some teams in our conference that are going to play better than either of the teams that were on the field tonight.”
Utah State will stay on the road when they travel to take on the Rams of Colorado State next Saturday at 5 p.m.