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There seems to be little if any argument that the Big Ten is college basketball's best conference. Not only is the top half of the league strong, but it appears that everyone is dangerous. At home, or on the road.
While protecting the home court is an annual theme, this year home security is proving to be anything but a given. Through about one third of the conference season, winning in a team's friendly confines is about a 50-50 proposition.
Yes, under Bo Ryan the Badgers have enjoyed incredible success at the Kohl Center, but in such an evenly-balanced league, we have discovered it is unwise to simply assume the home team will always prevail.
Indiana found out the hard way last week in Bloomington, courtesy of Wisconsin.
Illinois found out much the same last week in a home loss to Northwestern.
Minnesota found out more of the same in a home loss to Michigan.
And yes, the Badgers fell two points short on Tuesday night against Michigan State.
On and on it goes in what is shaping up to be a wild conference race.
Last week I wrote about how the Badgers have every intention of being a serious player in the Big Ten title chase. At the same time, I suggested that it is realistic to expect some bumps along the way.
Well, here are those bumps. An eye injury to Frank Kaminsky. The flu bug that caught up with George Marshall. And a pair of close losses to Iowa and Michigan State.
Now, a deep and athletic Minnesota team comes to town for a Saturday afternoon game at the Kohl Center. The latest in a series of difficult challenges that will continue through the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, and hopefully beyond.
A Badgers-Gophers game usually has fans excited, as does a Badgers-Spartans matchup. This year, every conference game should get our attention. After Saturday's game, the next home date is the Feb. 6 rematch with Iowa. Eleven days later the Buckeyes come calling. Then it's Michigan.
March Madness? In the Big Ten, the madness is well underway.
Some observers firmly believe the league champ could have four or five losses. That alone might not be startling, but keep in mind -- for what it is worth -- in this week's AP and coaches' polls, there are five conference teams ranked in the top 15.
It is easy to get the sense that teams in this conference will spend the next several weeks beating up on each other. As of this writing, Michigan State leads the pack with a 6-1 record. To MSU's credit, it has closed out the tight games very well.
The best teams finds ways to win the close ones, but even a diehard Michigan State supporter might need to admit that Sparty is walking a fine line, especially in this league. Especially this year.
After last week's inspiring effort at Indiana, the Badgers' head coach talked about being a believer in the saying "What you did yesterday means little today." That was his way of saying there is a long way to go, and the focus should always be on "next."
That saying applies now as well. Certainly Tuesday's game was there for the taking, but off-target shooting proved costly. That game is done, so you move on.
There is another big game on the horizon. How big? Really big. The biggest game they will play this season -- until the next game on the schedule.
Since there is way too much season remaining, I will try to spare you the "I told you so" mumbo jumbo. But for the 5,000th time, I will say in regard to the Wisconsin basketball program -- the team you see in November and December isn't necessarily what you see in January, February and March.
In the last two games, Bo Ryan's group has given us prime examples of why the Badgers have been able to sustain such a high level of success.
The non-conference schedule included those humbling trips to Gainesville and Milwaukee, not to mention a pair of tough games in Las Vegas, which Wisconsin managed to split. Throw in a close loss to Virginia at the Kohl Center, and many were left wondering whether the Badgers' NCAA tournament streak would end. Who knows? But doesn't Wisconsin deserve the benefit of the doubt?
History tells us it does.
Overreaction is common, and most of us are guilty of it. The good news is Ryan stresses the opposite. That would seem to be one of the many keys to his success. The players and coaches simply keep working. No panic. No gimmicks. Just keep striving to get better.
The younger players continue to grow, and the veterans are playing like veterans. It helps to get healthier, and that is happening with Mike Bruesewitz, who embraced the eardrum-bursting noise at Assembly Hall with a joy that should remind us that sports really can be kind of fun.
Put it all together, and you have national attention-grabbing victories against Illinois and Indiana that has the rest of the Big Ten looking up at Wisconsin in the league standings.
I would imagine excitement is building for this team, but if you think the flight home from Bloomington was a rowdy ride, think again. Sure, there was a nice locker room celebration, and understandably the boys got a charge out of watching Jared Berggren bulldoze down the lane for his high-flying, rim-rattling, posterizing dunk.
Yet by the time the wheels were up (on the plane, not Berggren -- did you know he had "ups" like that?), it was time to relax and appreciate the night, with the understanding there is much more work to be done.
They refuse to overreact.
That is a good idea because Iowa is waiting. You know, the team that swept Wisconsin a year ago, and has the entire week to get ready for Saturday night's game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
They'll just keep trying to get better. Never too high. Never too low.
Before I wrap up this week's blog, it is time to give a little shout out to the scout team. Players such as Dan Fahey, Jordan Smith, Duje Dukan, J.D. Wise, Evan Anderson, as well as Zak Showalter and Zach Bohannon, who will run with the scouts as well as the regular rotation players.
Especially in these last two games, it has been a formidable challenge to mimic athletic teams such as the Illini and the Hoosiers. The scouts continue to do their jobs extremely well.
There is a long way to go, and this figures to be an extremely close Big Ten race, but on Tuesday night the Badgers served notice that they have every intention of being a serious player -- again. They have dealt with a few bumps, and realistically, there will be some more along the way.
That's OK. The Badgers are demonstrating that they know how to absorb a punch, and deliver a few counterpunches of their own.
Yes, some of the numbers get your attention, and not in a very good way.
• 38 percent field goal shooting
• 20 percent from 3-point range
• 41 percent from the free throw line
Playing in what many consider the toughest league in America, and the Badgers' early statistics might appear to be the ingredients for an 0-2 start.
Instead, Wisconsin's record is just the opposite in the Big Ten play.
No, the games against Penn State and Nebraska were not pretty. Not exactly a "work of art," as Jared Berggren deadpanned after Sunday's game in Lincoln. Who cares? The Badgers found a way to win, and once again, found a way to win on the road.
In Bo Ryan's time as Wisconsin's head coach, the Badgers have had more road success in Big Ten play than any other team in the league.
How did they add to that total at Nebraska?
"We did it with tough defense," said Ryan. "We got on the glass. We took care of the ball."
The Badgers really have taken care of the ball. They are guilty of just 10 turnovers in the first two conference games. In that regard, at least they are giving themselves a chance to score. The low scoring totals have little if anything to do with sloppy play. They simply are missing a ton of shots -- but they are winning anyway.
"How are we going to have to get better?" Ryan asks. "Shoot it a little bit better. Finish stronger around the basket. Get some confidence back at the free throw line, which I think can happen."
For those wondering -- yes, this team spends ample time in practice at the free throw line. They will continue to do that. Even if the team percentage was closer to 80 than 40, the Badgers would spend a lot of time at the line. That is how they go about practice. They try to be consistent in everything they do.
"I have been extremely proud of our players in past years," said Ryan. "When we have hit tough snags, or hit shooting slumps, that guys have been able to work themselves through it."
"We always have to keep in mind that other teams have to do it too."
Clearly, the Big Ten is not the only conference where scoring has been difficult. Take a look at last weekend's Big East scores, and you will see some games in the 40s and 50s. It happens, and while the winning teams are aware there is work to do on the offensive end, I doubt many of them are offering up apologizes for failing to score 50 points, but still getting out of the arena with a victory.
As for the free throw shooting, keep in mind that, last year, Ryan Evans shot 72 percent from the line. There is documented evidence that he can knock down his throws. He hit his final foul shots in Sunday's win. Maybe that can start to get him on the right track.
He has been willing to make fun of himself, and he also knows that when in doubt, opposing teams will start hacking him at crunch time. Evans will continue to work on his shooting touch, and hopefully that percentage will start heading in the right direction.
In the meantime, his head coach stresses that it is a good idea to embrace the challenge.
"I kind of think it's exciting for a person to work through a problem like this," Ryan said. "I think it will help (Evans) in the long run overcome a lot of other things."
So far this team has overcome the inability to shoot very straight. Defense, rebounding and protecting the ball have helped the Badgers to a 2-0 start. If and when the shots drop on a more regular basis, perhaps this team has a chance to become a bit more dangerous.
This week your friendly blogger will take a break from all things Badger football and focus on the basketball squad.
Yes, at times it has been a rough non-conference season. When you consider the season-ending knee injury to Josh Gasser, and Mike Bruesewitz being in and out of the lineup, the Badgers became a much younger team.
Given that, one might argue the Badgers have over-scheduled in the non-conference.
Take a look at the rest of the Big Ten. Five teams in the league played one true road game. One team will not have a true road tussle until conference play begins.
The Badgers are one of six Big Ten teams to play two games in what can be termed hostile environments. Four of the six were sent packing for one game as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
The other two, Wisconsin and Illinois, simply scheduled a couple of trips on their own. Prior to winning the Maui Invitational, the Illini stopped in Honolulu to play Hawaii. Illinois also owns the Big Ten's most impressive road win to date after beating Gonzaga, 85-74.
It is fair to suggest that the Badgers' roadies at Florida and at Marquette are as tough as it gets in the Big Ten and probably beyond. While the results were not what Bo Ryan and company would prefer, it could end up making them stronger.
The Badgers are going through some growing pains, and everyone has a chance to observe them. The backcourt is young, and at times, can struggle. Most young players have their ups and downs, but fans should be encouraged by the upside of this group.
In the recent game against Green Bay, the Badgers recovered from a very bumpy start. Providing a spark was redshirt freshman George Marshall, who drilled a couple of 3-point shots. Traevon Jackson is showing signs of settling, as he was turnover-free and had two steals against the Phoenix. Those two continued to show progress last Saturday against Milwaukee.
And let's face it, there is a buzz when freshmen Sam Dekker and Zak Showalter step on the floor. They both continue to learn what Bo Ryan wants done and how he wants it done, but how do you not love the energy of these first-year players? You want to try to get to a loose ball before Showalter? Do so at your own risk.
As the head coach has stated, everyone needs to bring a little more to the table, both the veterans and the rookies. While Bruesewitz fights through a brutally frustrating stretch of injuries, fellow seniors Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren are fully aware of what they need to do. Both are proven players in this league, and no doubt, they are eager to crank up the volume as conference play approaches.
I guess I have been around Bo Ryan's teams long enough to know that what you see in November and December isn't necessarily what you see later in the season. His teams have a seemingly uncommon ability to improve. With the Big Ten looking to be as good as it has been in quite awhile, getting better is a necessity this winter.
This is where such a difficult pre-conference schedule can help. The venues in Gainesville and Milwaukee were loud, and there was little in the way of Badger Love in either location. The players have now been exposed to that type of atmosphere.
They will have faced Creighton, Virginia and yes, the state's other Division I schools. I include Green Bay and Milwaukee because you have to figure Wisconsin is a game they circle, and they always have a thorough scouting report on the Badgers.
The conference season will provide few, if any, so-called breathers. The Badgers' schedule through the last month-and-a-half could very well have them more prepared than most for what lies ahead.
History tells us it is worth watching to find out.
While speaking to the Madison Sports Hall of Fame Club last week, a person asked me about the six Wisconsin football assistant coaches who last winter left the program for other jobs. The person asking the question is a very loyal Badgers fan, and seemed to struggle understanding why anyone would leave here.
A big part of my answer had to do with making a business decision. Yes, Madison is a wonderful town, and the University of Wisconsin is a world-class institution. I would like to believe those are facts, not just biased observations.
However, there can come a time in anyone's life when he or she needs to assess the pros and cons of an opportunity elsewhere. By and large, those former UW assistants accepted promotions and are being paid accordingly.
Sometimes you have to make a business decision.
That seems to be what is in play with Bret Bielema, who stunned fans and appeared to do the same to his team at the news of his departure for Arkansas.
When you win a lot of games, and Bielema's teams have averaged nearly 10 victories a season, you are going to hear from other schools, or even NFL teams. Especially when you are younger. At age 42, Bielema certainly qualifies as a younger coach.
It is no secret that there is more money to be made by coaching at several SEC schools, including Arkansas. Assistant coaches in that conference can make eye-popping salaries. The SEC has won the last six BCS national titles, and no doubt the folks at Arkansas believe they can join the party.
They have the money. They have the facilities. They have a rabid fan base.
Then again, take a look at the SEC West Division. The Hogs will deal with LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M.
An extremely rugged division, but it is an opportunity Bielema must believe he could not refuse.
I get it, and I wish him the best of luck.
When a coach leaves, it is natural for fans and everyone else to get emotional. I get that, too. But I would hope in time we can all look back and say Bret Bielema's seven years as Wisconsin's head coach were pretty good. The worst season was 2008, when the team went 7-6 and was thumped in the Champs Sports Bowl.
He learned from that season, and the Badgers have been good ever since. Championship good for the last three years.
Has Bielema turned off some fans? Yes. Following a living legend has to be a challenge to begin with, but it is obvious that many folks never warmed to him. Maybe it is the Iowa background. Maybe it is the two Rose Bowl losses. Maybe it is other game management issues. Or maybe it is something else.
But the guy won. A lot. And his teams won with good players who, with rare exception, have been low maintenance and high character on and off the field.
That isn't so bad, is it?
Bielema will move on, and so will the Badgers. It should help Badger fans to know that Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez knows what he is doing.
The University of Wisconsin head football position is a good gig. Alvarez is rather well connected in this racket, and far more than any of us, he understands the importance of finding the right fit.
As difficult as it might be, maybe the best advice for fans is to sit tight and trust the process. Alvarez likes to say he has been to "Handlin' School." In other words, he has ample experience handling tough situations. That is what coaches do. That is what athletic directors do.
Alvarez is both, and that gives the Badgers a good chance of finding an excellent coach.
In sports, I find the term "In the moment" to be perhaps the most appropriate three words to describe the emotions, the reactions, and yes, the overreactions of those who love to watch their favorite team.
Since I get paid to observe sporting events (I'm guessing you might use the term "stealing"), I believe I have at least some responsibility to take a look at the bigger picture. Some might call it spin control. Hopefully some of you will understand the point of today's column. Here goes:
In this strangest of Big Ten football seasons, the Badgers, with a 4-4 conference record, will play Nebraska Saturday night for a trip to the Rose Bowl. Win, and Bret Bielema's team will make school history with a third-straight trip to Pasadena.
Given the fact that Wisconsin has the sixth-best record in league play, we all know how some will choose to view the current state of affairs. But let us also remember that the Badgers did not make the rules, which were in place before the season began. Ohio State and Penn State broke the rules and paid for it with NCAA sanctions, including being ineligible for postseason play.
Is this ideal for the Big Ten? Of course not. What is the best way to avoid this situation in the future? Following NCAA rules and obeying the laws of society would be a good place to start.
To be clear, this is no reflection on the current players and coaches at Ohio State and Penn State. Those two teams put together excellent seasons and should be congratulated for their efforts. Urban Meyer's bunch ran the table, and Bill O'Brien gets my vote for national coach of the year. There are many young men in both programs who represent all that is good about the game. But everyone knew the drill back in July. The Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions would get 12 games. That's it.
Are the Badgers happy about being the third-place team in the Leaders Division? No, but they need not apologize for having the chance to win a league title. In a perfect world, they would have won the division outright. The last time I checked, the world is far from perfect.
Now to the matter of close games, and how the Badgers have struggled mightily the last two seasons.
Note the words "last two seasons." To hear some talk about it, you would think Bret Bielema has never won a close game in his seven years as the Badgers' head man.
Here are the facts. To date, Bielema's overall record in one-score games is 21-15. In Barry Alvarez's final seven years as the Badgers coach, Wisconsin was 20-17 in one-score games.
Breaking it down to include the schedule a school cannot control -- meaning the Big Ten slate plus a bowl game -- Bielema is 12-14. Alvarez was 14-15. Not exactly a ton of difference.
These numbers are not meant to be a Bret vs. Barry debate. I use these numbers of emphasize one of Alvarez's favorite sayings "It is hard to win." A simple, but very accurate statement.
In a close game, it is only natural to second guess any decision that does not work. Coaches sign up for that stuff. On the other hand, sometimes there is a bad bounce, a tough official's call (or non-call), or perhaps a perfectly designed play that results in a dropped pass, a bad throw, or maybe the guy on the other team just made a great play.
Lately, maybe it is a little bit of everything. I just know in 2009 and 2010, the Badgers were 8-2 in one-score games (5-2 in Big Ten games plus the bowls), so I am pretty sure the current coach knows what it takes to win the nail-biters.
One other thing. While the close losses have outnumbered the close wins, especially in the last two years, the Badgers did snag a rather significant down-to-the-wire tilt last year. For their efforts, they collected a very pretty trophy and a big, fat Big Ten championship ring.
The fact remains that despite the recent troubles, another trophy and more fat rings remain in play.
In sports, one can argue that each team has its own identity and its own set of challenges, but with Bret Bielema's football program, a common theme has been the ability to get off the canvas after a hard-to-take loss.
As Wisconsin heads to Happy Valley this week, that theme is back in play.
Do they always win the week following a loss? No, but it is fair to suggest that the Badgers have not simply rolled over, the victim of an emotional hangover from the previous game.
This season has offered some examples. After losing to a better-than-expected Oregon State team in September, the Badgers did struggle, but managed to hang on against Utah State (9-2 overall, 5-0 in the WAC). Maybe not a very pretty game, but I don't think it was because of lack of effort. Remember there was an assistant coaching change that week and a quarterback change that night.
Better performances happened after losses to Nebraska and Michigan State, when the Badgers outscored Illinois and Indiana 93-28.
Remember, many were jumping on the Hoosiers' bandwagon, and there were some who picked Indiana to win and stay alive in the Rose Bowl race. It didn't happen.
Clearly, in this "bounce back" game, the caliber of opponent is better.
Given the NCAA sanctions and player departures, Penn State has played extremely well. While the Thanksgiving holiday might have some wondering about the size of the crowd this Saturday, I will go ahead and assume that Beaver Stadium will be loud. Very, very loud.
Remember this is Penn State's final game of the season, and the final game period for the seniors. As for the Badgers, after Saturday they have two games remaining.
A popular question is whether Bielema will rest some players for next week's Big Ten championship game. If this is the NFL, perhaps he does to keep his group fresh for the playoffs.
This isn't the NFL, and the Badgers seem eager to get the winning feeling back as soon as possible. In addition, Saturday's game can be about bowl positioning. Naturally, they have their eyes on Pasadena. However, if that does not happen, you want to be as high in the bowl pecking order as possible.
At the moment, bowls not named the Rose that appear to be the most in play are the Outback Bowl in Tampa, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, or perhaps the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. The Badgers need to win this week to keep close with Northwestern. If Wisconsin falls two games behind the Wildcats in the loss column, then the Gator Bowl likely is the best option (other than the Rose Bowl, of course).
Does this make sense?
If it is confusing, don't worry about it. Spend any length of time around this football team and you will realize that, as long as they are going to keep score, the Badgers just want to win a game -- and Saturday would be a big one.
It is difficult to measure how many points you get for being emotionally ready. I don't know who will win the game, but I am confident that the visiting team, coming off a tough loss yet already assured of a trip to Indianapolis next week, will bring all they have to State College.
We have seen nothing to suggest otherwise.
For Badgers fans, it has the makings of a fun debate. What is more impressive, Ron Dayne's NCAA rushing record, or Montee Ball being on the brink of the NCAA record for touchdowns?
Going into Saturday's final home game against Ohio State, Ball has reached the end zone 77 times. Former Miami University star Travis Prentice holds the mark with 78, set between 1996-99. Along the way this fall, Ball has passed the likes of Mr. Dayne, as well as Cedric Benson and Ricky Williams, among others.
When the senior from Wentzville, Mo., takes the field on Saturday, Ball will be making his 29th career start. In other words, Ball has done most of his work in what amounts to two-and-a-half seasons.
Two years ago, when the Badgers beat then-No. 1 Ohio State, Ball had as many carries as you did -- none. For a brief time, he thought maybe he should move to linebacker.
I think this running back thing has turned out reasonably well for him.
This is an exciting time for Ball and his teammates. If Montee can break the record against the Buckeyes, great. If it happens next week, that's OK too. If it happens, fans and everyone else should appreciate Ball's amazing statistics that he put together in such a short period of time.
However, before I automatically say one NCAA record is better than the other, it is worth reminding ourselves when Ron Dayne was on the field, everyone in the stadium knew who was getting the football.
In the "Dayne Era," the Badgers were very much a running team. In Dayne's years, the most passing yards the Badgers produced was 2,042 in 1997. In Ball's time, the fewest yards through the air was in 2010, when Scott Tolzien and company threw for 2,593.
Last year, with Russell Wilson working his magic, the Badgers passed for 3,280 yards.
My point here is that, by and large, the UW offense has been much more balanced. Maybe not as much this season, but overall, during Montee's time, opposing defenses had to be quite concerned about the passing game.
When Ron played, it seemed as though the Badgers could publically announce -- "Hey (name the opponent), we are giving the ball to Ron, and he's going to run this way. Try to stop him." Probably not quite that simple, but you get the idea.
Also, keep in mind that in several games, Barry Alvarez pulled Dayne fairly early. It is not unreasonable to believe that Dayne could have added another 1,000 to 1,500 yards to his final rushing total.
The bottom line is both records are phenomenal, and both are individual marks requiring special performances from teammates. Dayne and Ball are both quick to credit their offensive lineman and everyone else who helped pave the way.
No doubt Ohio State has other ideas, but in a perfect world for Bucky Backers, Ball breaks the record on a game-winning score. Then UW fans can celebrate and further discuss which record is better.
* * * *
Now a quick note about a couple of early season basketball games where organizers had their hearts in the right place, but maybe needed a little better planning.
Last Friday, Ohio State and Marquette were scheduled to play on the deck of the USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Because of too much condensation on the floor, the game never started.
Also on Friday, the USS Bataan was the venue for the Florida-Georgetown tilt. They played one half, but because the floor became too slippery, so there was no second half.
Saluting the men and women of the armed forces via some college basketball games is a great idea, but maybe playing the games on big boats should be reconsidered.
Bo Ryan, at one time a sergeant in the United States Army, would love to play a game on an army base.
"Sergeant Ryan could coach the Badgers, against, well, maybe (Duke coach Mike) Krzyzewski," said the Badgers' boss. Krzyzewski was in the U.S. Army from 1969-74. Ryan served two years. I am guessing the number of Division I basketball coaches with military service would make for a short list.
Ryan has no interest in playing on boats, but hopefully at some point Bo can get his wish and honor the brave men and women who serve our country. Just make sure they play the game in a real gym.
It is fairly well documented that November has been a very good month for Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin Badgers. In the last two years, the Badgers are 8-0. Overall under Bielema, Wisconsin is 17-3.
I would guess many things go into the team's success this month. The head coach has talked about the work done by the strength and conditioning staff, led by Ben Herbert.
It seems logical to suggest good fortune with a team's health comes into play. Can your best players stay on the field? If not, can the "next man in" deliver?
Maybe there is a very simple explanation why November has been good for the Badgers. Maybe the answer is the Badgers simply have been pretty good. Good to great players playing their best football late in the season -- a goal for every team at every level.
That is the challenge for this year's group. The 2012 Badgers are a good team, but as yet, not a great team. Injuries have been a factor. The expected return of Rick Wagner at left tackle should boost the offensive line. The bye week should have bought some time for several other players dealing with various bumps and bruises.
Of course, there is the quarterback question. With Joel Stave out for the remainder of the regular season, both Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips have competed to step in.
At his weekly news conference, Bielema chose not to publicly reveal who will be the starter. Either way, it has the makings of a good story.
O'Brien, the transfer from Maryland who many thought would have the job for the next two seasons, has at times struggled. In fairness to O'Brien, he has been in some difficult spots. He faced an Oregon State defense that is better than many expected. He came in late in the Nebraska game, trying to lead the Badgers on a long drive. Then, in Wisconsin's last game, O'Brien came off the bench in the second half against an excellent Michigan State defense.
The sample size for Phillips is smaller. Against Illinois, he appeared for one series. He entered late in the Minnesota game, and with the outcome decided, the Badgers kept the ball on the ground. In his career, he has thrown 13 passes. Yet he has proven to be tough as nails, coming back from three knee surgeries. He could have given up the game, and people would have understood.
However, Phillips has said he wants no regrets. He doesn't want to be in his late 20s wondering "what if?" He also has little interest in being the cute story of the player who returns from injury who gets to play a few snaps at the end of a blowout. If that is how it turns out, so be it, but to Phillips, he believes he can contribute to a greater degree.
Everybody understands what is on the line this week in Bloomington. The Badgers' defense will face a challenge with Indiana's up tempo offense that features the Big Ten's best passing attack.
The UW offense will look to re-establish its running game against an improving Hoosiers defense.
Yet in football, the attention usually will focus on the quarterback. And the fact is either O'Brien or Phillips will be in position to script an impressive personal comeback story.
More importantly, one or the other can help the Badgers continue their November success, and reach the conference title game for the second straight year.
Watch sports long enough, and it can be easy to believe you have seen just about everything.
Then there was last Saturday, when the UW basketball team lost point guard Josh Gasser for the season with a torn ACL. A few hours later, the football team lost starting quarterback Joel Stave.
Never mind the fact the football game ended with a gut-wrenching loss to rival Michigan State. I am just wondering how many major college football and basketball programs lost a QB and a lead guard on the same day?
Before I go any further, it is unlikely any Maryland Terrapins followers will be shedding too many tears, at least when it comes to losing quarterbacks. The Terps have lost four -- count 'em, four -- signal callers this season. Word is the "next man in" will be either a converted linebacker or a converted tight end.
Then there is the case of South Carolina star running back Marcus Lattimore, who came back from a knee injury in 2011. During last Saturday's game with Tennessee, Lattimore hyperextended his right knee, damaging several ligaments. It is not a pretty video.
When these things happen, especially close to home, I find myself getting ticked off at the circumstances. It is a very real question to wonder how Stave and Gasser's injuries will affect the Badgers. But for now, I think about a promising quarterback who is hurt, and very tough junior guard who busted his tail the entire off season, only to find out he won't have a season -- at least this season.
Trust me, I understand there are a lot worse things that can happen to people. Unfortunately, lately, I have had the chance to see a lot of that up close. What I am talking about here is the sometimes cruel nature of sports, and how the fortunes of a team, and more specifically a player, can turn on a dime.
During this open week in the football schedule, coach Bret Bielema, his staff and his players will move forward. Everyone will do his part to support Danny O'Brien and Curt Phillips (think about what he has gone through in his career), and the Badgers will continue to prepare each day for the stretch drive of the regular season. They do so knowing a trip to Indianapolis is still in their hands.
As for basketball, Bo Ryan has proven to be a master of dealing with adversity. He is hardly a rookie at this stuff. His first year as Wisconsin's head man, Ryan lost promising guard Latrell Fleming because of a heart condition, and big man Andreas Helmigk to a knee injury. A couple of years later, Alando Tucker's season was cut short because of a broken foot. Late in the 2007 season, Brian Butch dislocated his elbow. A few years later, Jon Leuer missed half of the Big Ten season because of a broken wrist.
Watch sports long enough and it is wise to understand that sometimes things happen that seem unfair.
A few days ago, Badger fans were excited about an improving football team and its young quarterback. The basketball backers already knew about Josh Gasser, and were eager to see him play the point.
By Saturday night, the mood had changed. Yes, I too am curious at how the two teams will respond. History tells me they will have no shortage of resolve.
But above all else, I just wish the best for the injured players. Yes, they know the risks involved, and now they are going through the lousy part of athletics. I look forward to watching them get back in the arena, so they can once again experience the far more enjoyable side of sports.