The road is an inhospitable place. The Wisconsin Badgers found that out once again.
After having a potential win all but taken away by a quirky finish on their first trip of the season, the 23rd-ranked Badgers were their own worst enemy Saturday night in a 31-24 loss at No. 4 Ohio State.
"It's the little things that set us back," quarterback Joel Stave said.
The Badgers committed penalties at the very worst time. They dropped passes — including one by a Wisconsin defender. There was a costly turnover.
And still the Badgers (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) had a chance to tie the Buckeyes at the bitter end. But even that opportunity wilted.
The bottom line was frustration. Again. Away from home.
"The team that was out there wasn't Wisconsin," strong safety Dezmen Southward said.
The Badgers had no one to blame but themselves for many of their problems.
"We felt like we handed them a lot of plays," cornerback Peniel Jean said. "If we could take them back we definitely would."
Coach Gary Andersen was as befuddled by the self-inflicted errors as anyone.
"You can't just give them easy plays," he said. "I don't care if it's a miscommunication, a blown coverage. You can't give those things up if you're going to come into a place like this and play a very talented football team. You have to make those plays."
Kyle French missed a 32-yard field goal wide left in the second quarter that would have cut the lead to 14-10. There were also eight penalties that proved costly, including a huge gaffe when Ohio State's Corey Brown muffed a first-half punt that would have given the Badgers the ball deep in Buckeye territory.
While several Wisconsin players celebrated the fumble recovery, those left back near the line of scrimmage hung their heads. The Badgers had too many men in the backfield and had to re-punt the ball after taking a 5-yard penalty. This time, the punt netted only 30 yards. Six plays later, the Buckeyes made it 17-7 when Drew Basil kicked a 45-yard field goal.
Then in the final seconds of the half, Ohio State's Braxton Miller threw a pass directly into the hands of Wisconsin defensive back Sojourn Shelton — and he dropped it. On the next play, fourth-and-7 at the Wisconsin 40, Miller found a wide-open Brown all alone in the secondary for the touchdown and a 24-14 halftime lead.
"It's a play that should absolutely never have happened," Southward said.
Even when the Badgers did something good, they seemed to follow it up with something bad.
Chris Borland and Pat Muldoon — both of whom are from Ohio — made a big stop when they stood up Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde at the line on a fourth-and-1 play at the Wisconsin 47 midway through the third quarter with the Badgers trailing just 24-14.
But on the next play, Stave — who hit on 20 of 34 passes for 295 yards and two touchdowns — was sacked for a 9-yard loss by Ohio State linebacker Curtis Grant. On second down, Stave had defensive end Adolphus Washington in his face as he threw — right to cornerback Bradley Roby.
Roby returned the ball 15 yards to the Wisconsin 32 and Miller then flipped a 1-yard TD pass to Brown. Suddenly it was 31-14 and the game was almost out of reach.
Yet the Badgers still made things interesting with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to narrow the gap to seven points. They got the ball back with 1:29 left at their own 10.
Stave threw an incompletion, then hit James White on a short pass — but White fumbled and Stave recovered for a 7-yard loss. White caught a 13-yard pass from Stave, but on fourth down the Badgers had another incompletion to kill the drive and set off a celebration in a partisan crowd of 105,826.
Jared Abbrederis had 10 catches for 207 yards — both career highs. Borland was all over the field, finishing with 16 tackles. But it was the mistakes that piled up that cost the Badgers.
Two weeks earlier, the Badgers had lost at Arizona State 32-30 when the officials failed to stop the clock in the final seconds after Stave had taken a knee — preventing the Badgers from kicking the winning field goal.
"We're sitting at, in my mind, 3-1-1," Andersen said defiantly, counting the ASU loss as a tie. "In everybody else's mind we're 3-2. We'll move on. The 2013 Badgers are 3-1-1. Then what do they do next?"