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Gary Andersen photo

UW coach Gary Andersen looks to the officials during the second half of Saturday night's game at Arizona State.

It is the fervent hope of University of Wisconsin senior defensive end Ethan Hemer that all of the heartache he has experienced over four seasons will amount to something.

A greater determination in upcoming close games in his final season with the Badgers? That would be wonderful.

A bushel-basket full of life experiences that will pay off when tackling adversity later in life, when his football-playing days are over? That wouldn’t be so bad, either.

Hemer can’t know yet how it will all turn out, but he has to believe the misery of the Badgers’ past 11 losses, dating back to 2010 and all coming by seven points or fewer, will have some sort of profound impact.

“Boy, we’ve faced a lot of heartache, haven’t we?” he said. “I’ll tell you, these experiences are building toward something for us, creating a resolve around this team — especially guys that have experienced it for the last few years — a lot of success but a lot of close heartache games.

“I think they’re building us for something more, whether it’s football or life in general, making us more well-rounded individuals. Hopefully, we’ll be able to take the experiences that we’ve had in these games, most recently this (Arizona State) game, and use it now as we go into conference.”

It’s hard to imagine another senior class across the country that has witnessed so many excruciating losses — crammed in amongst the highs of winning three consecutive Big Ten Conference championships.

The seniors have been through so much, it almost seems like piling on at some point.

Senior linebacker Chris Borland, in the painful aftermath of the 32-30 loss to Arizona State on Saturday night, was quick to call it the worst loss he had experienced.

That’s plenty of emotional ground to cover, given close losses in the past three Rose Bowls, all coming down to the last minute or two; or the Hail Mary loss to Michigan State in 2011, followed the next week by a similar loss to Ohio State on a long pass, due to a busted coverage.

But few of the losses felt as unjustified as the last one, given the Badgers were denied a chance to win it at the end, after doing everything right on the final drive before that.

“Our close losses in the past, I think we could have done more, the Hail Mary games, the Rose Bowl games, I think we made mistakes,” Borland said. “We made no big mistake that cost us the (last) game — we made a lot of little ones — it was just taken from us. That’s what was hardest to take from that.”

For context, every team in the Big Ten has lost games by more than one score, since the Badgers’ streak began. Ten of those teams lost games by more than seven points last season and Ohio State did it in 2011.

Nationally, powerhouses Alabama, Oregon, LSU and Stanford have all lost games by more than one score over that stretch.

A few other tidbits from UW’s run of close losses:

UW led or was tied in the fourth quarter of six of those losses.

Nine of the 11 losses came away from home.

The streak has spanned five starting quarterbacks: Scott Tolzien, Russell Wilson, Danny O’Brien, Joel Stave and Curt Phillips.

Three head coaches have been on the sidelines: Bret Bielema, Barry Alvarez and Gary Andersen.

The UW seniors are convinced things will be different this season, even after another close loss.

“I know going forward, we’re going to pull out these close games,” senior tight end Jacob Pedersen said. “Not a doubt in my mind.”

Pedersen gained confidence, seeing how the offense drove from its own 17-yard line with 1 minute, 36 seconds remaining, to the ASU 13 with :18 left, before the officials intervened.

“I think we’re going to get it changed around,” Pedersen said. “I think this team handled it really well, we can come back, we can make plays to put ourselves in a position to win at the end.”

The issue now is finishing. Nobody can say for sure if junior Kyle French would have made the 32-yard field goal try at the end, but Pedersen said, “There’s not a doubt in my mind that French makes that kick.”

Andersen, in his first year at UW, has seen enough in his short time at the helm to believe the seniors’ hard-earned scars from the close losses will pay dividends.

“Sometimes you go into a place and you’re trying to help kids learn how to win,” Andersen said. “I don’t want to sit here and say you’re teaching kids how to deal with a loss, but going through those tightly contested wins and tightly contested losses, it does help them understand how to avoid a hangover the next week and prepare for the next opponent and respect the next opponent.”

When Hemer was asked what has changed this year, to make him believe the Badgers will win those close games, the answer was basically “everything.”

“This year’s team is different from the other years’ teams,” Hemer said. “We have new coaches, everything is just different, there’s a new feel with this group.

“We were in a position to win that game. What would have happened in the next snap is unseen, but it gives me confidence in knowing we can put ourselves in situations to win games.”


Beat reporter for the University of Wisconsin football team.