After a bye week to relax, recharge and refocus, the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (7-1) are heading back on the road to take on Purdue (4-4) as the chase for the Big Ten title continues.
UW was in desperate need of a bye week with several key starters recovering from injuries suffered during the 31-30 victory over Iowa. Head coach Bret Bielema revealed that all are expected to play except for tight end Lance Kendricks and running back James White, who may be held out for precautionary reasons despite practicing.
But aside from the physical toll on the players’ bodies, the Badgers took advantage of the time off to settle their emotions.
“It was nice to be able to rest and get your legs back under you,” junior defensive end J.J. Watt said. “We had two very emotionally and physically draining weeks against Ohio State and Iowa.”
For defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, the focus during the open week was simply to get healthy.
“We were extremely banged up,” Doeren said. “We just teach the plan and get enough rest to play fast coming out of [the bye].”
Senior captain Culmer St. Jean enjoyed his bye week and he was relieved to get a break after such a pressure-packed stretch in the schedule.
“The bye week was great. The pressure was off,” St. Jean said. “It gave us a week to take it all in, realize what’s in front of us and just prepare mentally and physically for Purdue.”
The Boilermakers could use a week off right about now.
Purdue is coming off two demoralizing losses, the first being a 49-0 loss to Ohio State. The second came in Champaign, where the Boilermakers suffered a 44-10 defeat at the hands of the Illini.
Aside from those back-to-back defeats that killed some early momentum in conference play, Purdue has been ravaged by injuries.
The starting running back, Ralph Bolden, starting wide receiver, Keith Smith (an All-conference performer) and starting quarterback, Robert Marve, are all out with season ending knee injuries.
As a result, head coach Danny Hope is relying on a ton of inexperience, and it all starts with freshman quarterback Sean Robinson, who is slated to make his first career start against UW. Rob Henry was the No. 1 quarterback in Marve’s absence, but a finger injury has forced Robinson into the starting role.
If the Badger defense wasn’t already fired up to get back on the field after a week off, the presence of a rookie quarterback in the pocket ought to get them going.
“If you’re a true freshman [quarterback] in the Big Ten and I’m a defensive lineman, I’m excited. I’m excited to rush the passer and see what we can do to rattle him,” Watt said. “We need to welcome him to Big Ten football.”
Defensive tackle Jordan Kohout hasn’t played in two full weeks due to an injury suffered against OSU, and he’s just as excited to take the field in West Lafayette.
And, yes, he too is looking forward to testing the young Purdue signal-caller.
“Having a true freshman starting at quarterback, I mean, like J.J. said, we lick our chops and just get after him,” Kohout said.
Robinson will try to get Purdue’s spread offense going after scoring just 10 points in two games, but the Badgers will be ready.
Luckily for Doeren, after four weeks against Big Ten teams with pro-style offenses, the Badgers got a bye week to help prepare for the final four games against teams who employ the spread. Coming off a bye week last season, UW shutout the Boilers’ productive offense in a 37-0 victory.
“I don’t know how that happened, but for us, it’s phenomenal just for our mindset and having continuity in your gameplan,” Doeren said.
One thing about Doeren’s gameplan remains the same whoever the opponent may be: get to the quarterback.
“Obviously whoever the quarterback is, it’s going to be key to get him out of rhythm. We want to make him hold it a second longer and throw into tight windows,” Doeren said. “We need to play well and take advantage of [Robinson's] lack of experience.”
A win against the Boilermakers is essential for UW to stay on track for a conference title.
The players know full well what is at stake, and the first step toward the Big Ten crown takes place at Ross-Ade Stadium.
“We need to win four games and then see what happens,” Watt said. “As long as we take care of our business, everything else will fall into place.”