Nov. 28, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- When the Wisconsin football team walked off the field at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 2, it did so with a sense of déjà vu.
Just as they had in 2008, the Badgers left East Lansing, Mich., on the wrong side of the win-loss column.
The result was the same, but the Badgers’ response has made all the difference in a remarkable run to a Big Ten Conference title.
In 2008, it was all downhill for UW after losing to Michigan State.
This time around, the loss in East Lansing was the catalyst for an upward climb that has the Badgers breathing the rarified air of heights the UW program hasn’t seen in a decade.
As head coach Bret Bielema said after the Badgers’ resounding 70-23 win over Northwestern Saturday, it was no accident.
“Today didn’t happen by chance,” Bielema said. “This is done through recruiting, it’s done through development, through strength and conditioning program all year round, and a belief in a certain type of kid that fits in here at Wisconsin that’s going to have academic, athletic and social success.”
Essentially, by finding the right pieces, Bielema and his staff built a team that, to a degree, coaches itself.
| Instant Impressions
|What sealed the deal?
• Wisconsin scored on seven straight possessions in the second and third quarters to outscore the Wildcats, 49-14.
|Who gets the game ball?
• Montee Ball, who made it look easy again by averaging 8.9 yards per carry on his way to a second-consecutive four-touchdown game.
|What stands out?
• Wisconsin averaged 76.5 points per contest in its last two home games, even without scoring in the fourth quarter Saturday vs. Northwestern.
“Leaving the locker room at Michigan State, I didn’t need to jump this crew. I didn’t need to beat them up or berate them after losing that game,” he said. “I think they all left that locker room and knew how special this team could be and really have been unwavering since then.”
In the end, that will be the legacy of this team. A remarkable consistency of focus.
Miami’s great teams had their oft-referenced “swagger.” This Wisconsin squad has a quiet confidence that is just as effective.
It’s allowed this year’s edition of the Badgers to calmly respond to each of the challenges thrown its way.
Facing the No. 1 team in the nation, an Ohio State team that was let off the hook in its last appearance at Camp Randall, two years ago? UW confidently charged out the gate on the way to a decisive 31-18 win that gave the nation a glimpse of how good the Badgers could be.
Going on the road a week later to face a fierce rival in a trophy game? The Badgers showed their ability to win a big one on the road by utilizing depth to overcome key injuries and walk away from Kinnick Stadium with a 31-30 win over Iowa.
Taking on an explosive offense in a hostile environment that has historically been very unkind to teams wearing Cardinal and White? Wisconsin again showed the power of its offense – and exorcised some more demons from 2008 – with a 48-28 win over Michigan at the Big House.
When the chips were down during Big Ten play, the Badgers stepped up. And then some.
Along the way, Wisconsin put up the program’s three highest-scoring games in modern history and is on pace to shatter the school’s season scoring record by an average of more than a touchdown per game.
A defense that was considered by many to be the team’s biggest question mark has forced 15 takeaways in its last four games and has the Badgers leading the Big Ten in turnover margin at plus-15 for the conference season.
“Especially after we lost to Michigan State, people were going to just write us off or do certain things,” Bielema said. “The way these guys battle and the way they have resolve is just phenomenal.”
Underclassmen Montee Ball and James White have taken the spotlight as UW averaged 67 points over its last three games, but it’s the Badgers’ special senior class that set the tone for the team’s laundry list of accomplishments.
It begins with an immovable offensive line anchored on the left side by seniors Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt. Under center, senior quarterback Scott Tolzien has been nearly unflappable. Whether blocking or catching, Lance Kendricks has become the latest in UW’s long line of great tight ends.
On the other side of the ball, there’s the senior duo cornerback Niles Brinkley and safety Jay Valai, who have helped the Badgers rank third in the Big Ten in total defense – while committing just one pass interference penalty all season.
It’s a group that was there in East Lansing for that loss in 2008. Some played, some watched, but they all learned. When the time came for them to take the reins of the program as seniors, they were more than ready for the leadership role and everything it entails – even before the ball is first snapped in September.
“Really we started this back in January, coming off last season, and that’s what makes it special, being able to do it with all the guys you’ve worked so hard with,” said Tolzien, who is on pace to break the Big Ten’s single-season record for completion percentage at 74.3. “There’s been a lot of unpretty hours in here and meetings, and practice, but it’s nice to have it all pay off.”
While the numbers have been flashy, the even-keeled team putting them up week after week has been anything but.
There’s no need for this group to flaunt its accomplishments. The scoreboard tells the story.
So does the trophy the Badgers hoisted inside their locker room Saturday.
“Nobody can take that away from us,” junior safety Aaron Henry said. “Nobody can take this memory away from us.”
UW Athletic Communications