INDIANAPOLIS — The turf they stood on holds some painful memories for the trio of University of Wisconsin football players representing the program Friday at Big Ten Conference Football Media Days.
All three Badgers seniors at media days — tight end Jake Ferguson, cornerback Faion Hicks and linebacker Jack Sanborn — played in the 2019 game, and they were invested in the 2017 game in their own ways.
But if UW reaches the heights it wants to this season, namely a Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff title, they’ll have to exorcize their demons in Indianapolis. Lucas Oil Stadium hosts both events this winter.
“You sit here and you’re in awe,” Ferguson said. “You don’t realize how big it is when you’re watching on TV. You don’t even realize how big it is when there’s nobody sitting in the stands. And then you get here, people are screaming, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t handle it.’”
Ferguson and Hicks were redshirt freshmen watching in dorm rooms as the undefeated, fourth-ranked Badgers fell behind the eighth-ranked Buckeyes 21-7 in the first half of the 2017 contest. UW fought back into the game after halftime and, after Chris James’ 1-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion pass to Troy Fumagalli, the Badgers were behind 24-21 early in the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes’ defense held firm from that point, allowing 37 yards on 14 plays and picking off an Alex Hornibrook pass on UW’s last possession.
As he watched, Hicks said he could barely contain himself.
“It was tough,” he said. “It was just kind of like being anxious, ‘Like, man, I can’t wait to be on that stage with those guys.’ Really just thinking when I get my opportunity, I want to make the most of it.”
Sanborn, already orally committed to UW as a four-star recruit, was at home watching his future team lose a heartbreaker.
When they got their chance to play Ohio State for a conference championship in 2019, they helped 10th-ranked UW engineer a 21-7 halftime lead and put a scare into the No. 2 Buckeyes. But a 17-point third quarter gave Ohio State a lead it didn’t relinquish and UW fell 34-21.
That game left a lasting impression.
“I always think about how it was kind of a tale of two halves,” Sanborn said. “I mean, the first half, I thought we played really good football and second half, not so much.
“I thought that we were a different team in the fourth quarter, and they were the same team that they were in the first quarter — fourth quarter, first quarter, they’re the same team. That was the difference. So we know that, we understand that. And that’s where we’re getting to. That doesn’t just happen in that game, that happens now, in the summer and spring ball. So I think everyone understands that. So it’s about what we do now so then when we get back here, we can finish the job.”
Ferguson let out a long sigh when asked of his memories of that night.
“We had a great mentality that year, we had a great message that we were putting out to guys, people were bought in. But it just kind of shows that we’ve got to do that much more to be able to complete something that we want to do,” Ferguson said.
This season will likely be the last chance for this trio to win a Big Ten title, something the Badgers haven’t done since 2012. All three decided to stay at UW instead of trying their hands at a pro career, and it’s unlikely they’ll do so again.
Hicks believes this opportunity was a reason this group, along with other seniors like receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, chose to play for the Badgers for another year.
“We had it in our hands and it was just gone, just like that,” Hicks said. “The window of opportunity is very small. It ain’t easy making it here, so when you do man, you’ve got to go all out and give it your all.
“Seeing the older guys being so disappointed not being able to take this ‘W’ home and how much this means to our program … it adds fuel to the fire, it kind of motivates me. All of our leaders right now are motivated by that. Right now it’s about coming back and proving everybody wrong.”