Lucas at Large: Badgers' trips to Kinnick an adventure

Ben Strickland can remember each of the bus trips that he took from Madison to Iowa City during his playing career at Wisconsin. Some were more memorable than others.

The three-hour ride can be quite picturesque at this time of the year with the explosion of fall colors framing the countryside. Yet, the big picture is always on the mind of the riders.

"With a game coming up, you're obviously thinking about a lot," said Strickland, who's now a graduate assistant coach with the Badgers. "On the bus, I'd review the game plan, and go over some stuff on the scouting report. But I'd also take some time to relax and get my mind off football."

Hit rewind to Nov. 10, 2006. On that Friday afternoon, the UW caravan, numbering four buses, took off for Iowa City. But the No. 3 bus encountered some mechanical problems near Dubuque.

The disabled bus was emptied of players, who jumped aboard the No. 4 bus and bumped the supervisory personnel. In order to stay on schedule, the three team buses got back on the road, while the UW administrators, cheerleaders , etc., got some unexpected ground time in Dubuque until one of the buses came back for them.

The moral of this story is:

A) Never assume you're anything but expendable if you're riding the fourth bus of a four-bus caravan and the team mascot is sitting across the aisle;

B) Never leave home without checking your front air brakes;

C) Never sweat the little things;

D) Never doubt the resolve of a first-year head coach (Bret Bielema) and a first-time starter at quarterback (Tyler Donovan) and cornerback (Strickland);

E) Never underestimate the value of chemistry or camaraderie in team sports.

Speaking to the last point then was Strickland, who replaced the injured Allen Langford in the secondary against Iowa. Langford rolled his ankle during that Tuesday's practice, which Strickland had to miss because of a class conflict. So how was the '06 team defined by chemistry or camaraderie?

"It's the team spirit we have," said Strickland, then a junior role player who excelled on special teams, "and it's a brotherhood we share and it has been carrying us through this year. Our motto was to finish." Finish in the context of finishing the regular season strong, on a high not a low.

The Badgers put their 9-1 record on the line against the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium with Strickland taking over for Langford, and Donovan taking over for starting quarterback  John Stocco, who separated his shoulder the week before against Penn State.

"We talked about it before the game," Bielema said of his shorthanded predicament, "this could be the greatest statement of the season for our team because it would be a total team effort."

And it turned out that way. Donovan was terrific, completing 17 of 24 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 13 carries for 61 yards. Strickland made the most of his first starting opportunity, too, with a team-high six tackles and a critical pass breakup late in the game.

There were many other highlights from Wisconsin's 24-21 victory, including Luke Swan coming back on an underthrown pass by Donovan, outbattling Iowa's Marcus Paschal for the ball and lunging into the end zone on a 42-yard touchdown that pushed the Badgers into a 17-14 lead at halftime.

Swan had another clutch catch in the third quarter; a 48-yard reception which helped keep alive a 15-play, 97-yard scoring march that burned 7 minutes and 40 seconds off the clock and firmly established the UW as a team that knew how to finish. The Badgers finished a 7-1 in the Big Ten.

The players awarded the game ball to Bielema, the former Hawkeye. "This is an environment that I grew up in," an emotional Bielema said afterward. "It was fun to come back and visit. But it was also great to walk off that field knowing you had a W."

Can the 2010 Badgers now finish what they started with their dramatic win over Ohio State? Can they make a run to put themselves in contention for a share of the Big Ten championship? Many questions will be answered Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.

"They're going to do what they do, because they've had success and they're very good at what they do," said Strickland, providing a plainspeak scouting report on the Hawks. "You have to be fundamentally sound in what you're doing, and trust in what the coaches are telling you, and you must understand that it's going to be a physical game.

"As far as the stadium, the fans are going to be on top of you. But sometimes when you're so focused on what you're doing, so honed in, you can't really tell what's happening on the outside. Once you're into the game, you're a part of it, whether it's home or away. With Iowa, it's always competitive. And Kinnick is much like Camp Randall. Their fans are loyal, supportive and loud. Just like our fans.''

Strickland has serious designs on becoming a coach - at whatever level - once he finishes his coaching apprenticeship and masters. Armed with an undergraduate degree in special education, he has been serving as a GA on the field, while working on an educational leadership program in the classroom.

"I enjoy being in a leadership role," he said. "Whether I'm teaching or coaching, I enjoy being around people who are students of the game or just students in general. I enjoy the learning process - teaching and seeing kids learn and grow, whether on the field or off."

So what does he like the most about this season's team?

"Last week our kids showed how focused they can be," Strickland said, "and they showed that they could sustain that for a whole week. I think they can sustain it through this week as well (with the Badgers drawing a bye following the Iowa game). Our kids have shown the ability to stay focused.  They understood what it took to beat a team like Ohio State. They understand the same things about Iowa."

As such, this trip to Kinnick will be as memorable as they make it.
ON WISCONSIN