Jake Ferguson’s most memorable experience at the Rose Bowl to this point left him in tears.
The University of Wisconsin football team’s sophomore tight end was a middle schooler when his grandfather, Barry Alvarez, came back to coach the Badgers in the 2013 Rose Bowl against Stanford. Alvarez wanted his family to experience the Rose Bowl up close, so Ferguson and his brother, Joe, were in the locker room.
It was the pregame speech Alvarez delivered that shook Jake Ferguson up.
“I remember being in the locker room and I’ve never seen my grandpa raise his voice, and he’s screaming to his players,” Ferguson said. “We ended up walking out before everybody else on the field. (Joe) was walking out with his eyes big, I think I said something to him and he was like, ‘Yeah, that was really scary.’”
Ferguson will get a new vantage point on a trip to Pasadena, California, this week as he and the Badgers (10-3) get ready to take on Oregon (11-2) in the Rose Bowl.
He’s ready to get a chance to make his own mark and create a happier Rose Bowl memory. He’s spent years hearing stories from Alvarez — UW’s athletic director and former football coach — about college football’s longest-running bowl game.
“It’s not really been the whole week, it’s been almost my whole life. ‘Got to get to the Rose Bowl. Rose Bowl’s the greatest thing ever, you’re going to love Pasadena.’ That was when I was like 10,” Ferguson said. “Just knowing that and growing up with him talking about it all the time. It’s kind of special for us to be able to get this opportunity to play.”
If his grandfather’s stories weren’t enough of a motivation, Ferguson said he’s started to notice more and more how much the Rose Bowl is tied to the history of the UW program.
“You don’t really notice how much Rose Bowl stuff is here until you’re actually in it and you’re walking around and there’s roses everywhere. You understand that it is a big game here. It is almost like tradition for us to go there and get that opportunity to play,” he said.
The chance to win a Rose Bowl comes at the end of a season unlike any Ferguson, a former Madison Memorial athlete, has experienced at UW. He played regularly last season for the Badgers, but was the starter from the jump this year. The Badgers’ depth at tight end, which has long been a signature of the program, was wiped out this season due to a rash of injuries.
That left Ferguson and redshirt freshman Cormac Sampson as the two healthy tight ends coaches felt confident putting on the field. Ferguson has played nearly every offensive snap since Big Ten Conference play started in September — his 850 snaps are second only to junior center Tyler Biadasz (864).
“That’s not easy (to) play every snap, and do those types of things. I think carrying that responsibility, knowing you have to be on, there’s a mindset to that. (Ferguson) has done it. He’s championed it. He’s not looking for who’s coming in to give him a break. I give him a lot of credit for that,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said last month.
Ferguson also has been credited by teammates for his blocking in the run game. Ferguson’s and Sampson’s work in turning the edge of the defense with their blocks has helped the Badgers integrate more jet sweeps and receiver runs to the outside, factors that helped jump-start the offense midway through the season.
While Ferguson said he’s enjoyed playing as much as he has, it’s been a challenge as well.
“It’s definitely a grinder. I remember looking at Cormac after one of our like 90-yard drives, and I looked at him like, ‘I’m dying.’ He’s like, ‘Hold on, I’ve got to go throw up.’ It’s just been me and him back and forth,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson has had at least one catch in every game this season, and his 29 catches for 363 yards rank second on the team. Being a steady force even with that increased workload has been about preparation, Ferguson said. He and Sampson will study together on Friday nights at the team hotel to get things solidified, and he’s taken better care of his body throughout the week.
Ferguson also said he’s gained maturity through the season, and understands better how defenses will change throughout a game.
“Me being able to account for those changes and being able to switch on my own game, not doing the same thing. I don’t think I could’ve done that last year. I would’ve just been locked in on just one thing, just only done that,” he said.
As Ferguson and the Badgers inch closer to the Rose Bowl, the importance of the game can be felt in practice.
“Everybody on this team understands how big of a game this is,” Ferguson said. “In practice, you can completely tell, there’s this change of pace. A lot of these guys are really working harder.”
A look back: Badgers’ history in the Rose Bowl