It’s been a good two weeks for Badger fans.
There was that epic defeat of No. 1 Ohio State at home, where the fans flooded the field and among other things, destroyed a $500,000 3-D camera that ESPN owned. There was also last week’s can-you-believe-it win in Iowa City, Bret Bielema’s first road win over a ranked Big Ten team. It was one of those games where you weren’t sure who was going to win until the clock literally hit “0:00,” an instant classic.
Now, Wisconsin sits at 7-1, with a real chance to run the table and go 11-1. That record doesn’t guarantee a spot in a BCS bowl though, as OSU could potentially leapfrog UW in the BCS standings and send the Badgers to the Capital One Bowl instead, provided Michigan State wins out. The resulting outrage would be even greater than in 2006, as that UW squad lacked a signature win, while the 2010 Badgers might own two of the best victories in college football this season.
Whatever the outcome, Badger Nation will be left asking one question: What if?
What if Wisconsin hadn’t laid an egg in East Lansing? Instead of listening to how the Spartans are a dark horse for the National Championship, it could be the Badgers getting the ESPN love. Wisconsin would be 8-0 with a realistic chance to go undefeated and at the very least, earn that coveted Rose Bowl berth.
Well, without that loss, the Badgers probably lose one, or both of their games against the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes. “It’s possible. Obviously we didn’t have that situation, so I wouldn’t know,” center Pete Konz said. “You really find out who you are after the adversity; we really buckled down the way we needed to. If [the loss] had to happen, I’m glad the way we responded to that is how we did.”
The loss to Michigan State wasn’t just a loss. It was a humbling experience. There is no question Wisconsin looked highly over-ranked following that debacle in the Great Lakes State. The offense had no rhythm, the defense couldn’t stop anybody and there was no clutch last drive or defensive stand. The highly-touted offensive line was nowhere near as good as we thought, while the loss of Chris Borland meant there was no playmaker on the other side of the ball.
Simply put, the questions raised in the shaky non-conference portion of the schedule seemed to have been answered: UW simply wasn’t a very good team.
Bielema talked after the season-opener how it was good to face adversity early in the season. That same theme was echoed in the following games against San Jose State and Arizona State. Come the Big Ten opener, UW hoped the earlier adversity would have served the team well.
The only problem was, the adversity didn’t end until the scoreboard at Spartan Stadium read 34-24. Senior guard John Moffitt wouldn’t come out and say it outright, but admitted he’d thought about it: The MSU loss had an effect on the Badgers.
“I think that it did wake certain people up, against Michigan State, which was needed, and maybe that carried through into Ohio State,” Moffitt said. “But as far as the way we approached it, or Coach Bielema approached it, there was no big talk or big thing. I think guys just understood, OK, we need to move forward now and play better football.”
The Badgers learned what they needed to improve on. But the loss really made the Ohio State game a must-win. Beat the Buckeyes, save the season.
When’s the last time a Badgers team looked as good as Bielema’s squad did Oct. 16? David Gilreath gives UW a big boost with his kick return, the offense clicked and the defense held steady against a national-title caliber team and a Heisman-contending dual-threat quarterback.
UW basically did everything it didn’t do at MSU.
Against Iowa, the Badgers got a chance to exorcise that road-game demon. It wasn’t a perfect game, but it was good enough. The defense was shoddy on third-downs, but when the Badgers needed a play, J.J. Watt finally came through with his 11-yard sack of Ricky Stanzi.
That clutch drive to tie the score in that wasn’t there in East Lansing. It made its appearance against the Hawkeyes, where UW converted twice on third down and twice on fourth down, including that ballsy fake punt run.
The Badgers got to see firsthand everything a great team cannot do by losing to the Spartans. It’s one thing to play poorly and get away with it; it’s a completely different matter to pay the price as a result.
“It’s really eye-opening, it’s kind of like a speeding ticket,” Konz said of the Michigan State loss. “You speed and you don’t get caught, you’re going to continue speeding, you’re going to continue doing the wrong thing. It’s not until you get caught where you slow down.”
It still remains to be seen where the Badgers end up after the clock hits zero in the Northwestern game. Maybe they’re 11-1, maybe they lose one or two of these next four games. Some people still might be asking, “What if we had beaten MSU”?
The answer? We wouldn’t be savoring two signature wins, and we would never have found out how good this team can be.
Adam is a senior majoring in journalism. Think the MSU game was a wake-up call, or would Bucky have run the table? E-mail him at email@example.com or tweet at him @adamjsholt.