As soon as the Badgers set down Paul Bunyan’s Axe in their locker room and faced the media, the questions came.
And no, most of us weren’t all that interested in the win over Minnesota.
Is this team ready for Ohio State? What does this group need to do to beat the No.1 team in the country? Was it hard not to look ahead to this game? How will you handle Ohio State’s dominant defensive front?
These are the questions the players, coaches and fans have been waiting to have answered.
Look, defeating the hated border-rivals is great. Handing the Gophers yet another loss in this one-sided rivalry is always a positive. The 41-23 victory looks pretty nice on the stat sheet despite some sloppiness early on.
But let’s make one thing very clear and get this whole perspective thing out of the way: Minnesota is really, really bad (sorry coach Brewster, but I’m going to go for two reallys). The Gophers lost to South Dakota and barely beat Middle Tennessee State for their one and only win.
So what can we take away from the Badgers’ fifth win? Not much.
Sure, against Minnesota the offense started to click, the running game was stellar, there were no turnovers to speak of and Wisconsin crushed a team they usually fight tooth and nail with. The Badgers bounced back from a sluggish second quarter and put the game out of reach. All positives.
But UW is about to face a much different beast in the Buckeyes.
The offense will need to raise its level against a stingy defense and the Badgers’ ‘D’ will need to slow down Terrelle Pryor, a true Heisman candidate, in their biggest game of the season. In fact, it’s arguably their biggest game of the last decade considering the talent and expectations on this Badger team.
Put it this way: This is a game that will ultimately define where Wisconsin stands as a program.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be in town, the Buckeyes will bring their No. 1 ranking, Camp Randall will be electric at night and all eyes in the college football universe will be on the Badgers. The stage is set and win or lose, a statement will be made.
But how exactly do we currently define the Badgers?
Well, during the Bielema Era, there is not a single signature conference win to speak of. They are a team that suffers under high expectations and has been consistently good but never elite. They’ll usually beat the average or below average teams, lose to the big boys and finish with a respectable record and a trip to Florida.
Now, to shatter that trend they have to win Saturday. Beat the No.1 team in the country on your home field, take a giant leap forward as a program and carry some serious momentum into Iowa City.
Recent history tells us that’s not likely to happen (Bielema is 1-8 against ranked Big Ten teams) and with the way the Badgers have played so far this season, Ohio State looks far superior. In their only game against a ranked team, the Badgers struggled on both sides of the ball and lost to Michigan State. The offense was stagnant and the defense was an embarrassment on third downs. Against Arizona State, the next best opponent to date, the UW offense was inconsistent once again as they squeaked by with a one-point win.
The hope is that the Badgers haven’t lived up to their potential thus far, that we have yet to see them fire on all cylinders. They’ll need to find that effort Saturday.
“We’re going to have to play our best game up to this point,” senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “You always hear that great players step up in big games so we just have to come out and make plays.”
Now, the Badgers have always kept things close with the Buckeyes, who have dominated the conference over the last decade. Two years ago, Wisconsin suffered a heartbreaking 3-point loss in freshman Terrelle Pryor’s breakthrough performance. Last year, the Badgers led in almost every statistical category but costly turnovers extinguished any chance for a victory.
“Every game we’ve been two, three or four plays away from winning,” said John Clay of the recent meetings with Ohio State. “We just need to make sure we make those plays when our name is called.”
It’s those two or three plays that separate teams at this level, and it’s those plays Wisconsin has continuously failed to make against the Big Ten’s top tier.
OSU coach Jim Tressel has piled up big win after big win in the Big Ten. Bielema on the other hand is looking for that first breakthrough and he knows how hard it is to come by, especially when Tressel and the Buckeyes are across the field.
“We’ve got a tremendous challenge. You talk about Ohio State, they’ve been the premier (team) of our conference the last several years. They’ve been able to win close games, especially against us. We have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do. Jim Tressel, in this business, is as good as it gets,” Bielema said. “I just really admire what they do. Until we’re able to surpass that and get a ‘W,’ that’s what we have to live with.”
Bielema’s exactly right. Until he gets that ‘W’ his team will face the same questions and encounter the same doubters who point to his lack of success in these high stakes games.
Lose to Ohio State and a road trip to Iowa the following week could end any and all hope for a Big Ten title. Win, however, and the Badgers thrust themselves back into the front of the conference race.
So Bielema, for once, after so many letdowns, show that this team can deliver.
Prove that under your lead Wisconsin football can be redefined.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Think the Badgers can upset the Buckeyes? E-mail him at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @maxhenson
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