For just one week, for 60 minutes on the field, head coach Bret Bielema must toss aside his prized “1-0” mentality and realize the significance of this week’s matchup in West Lafayette, Ind.
When asked about the importance of this game, Wisconsin’s head coach has continued the typical coachspeak — that Purdue is just another game, another conference matchup with nothing more than a ‘W’ on the line.
“All the games matter,” Bielema said at his press conference Monday. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in the Leaders or in the Legends. Your overall record is of the utmost importance.”
Perhaps Bielema was thinking back to the pre-expansion years, when there were no divisions in the Big Ten and each conference game carried equal importance. But it’s no longer 2010, and Wisconsin is facing a much different — and unique — situation.
It is fair to say this is not exactly the typical third game of the Big Ten season, as the winner all but punches its ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. With the top two teams in the Leaders Division in Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play and Illinois and Indiana both sitting at 0-2 in conference play, Saturday is the make-or-break moment for the 2012 Wisconsin football team.
If the Badgers pull off the win over a Boilermakers team that suffered an embarrassing blowout to Michigan in its lone Big Ten game of the year, they improve to 2-1, their path to Lucas Oil Stadium all but paved. Lose, and Bielema’s squad drops to 1-2 in conference play as the Leaders race turns into a season-long waiting game.
While the players and coaches will continue to push it off as nothing more than a fresh name on the schedule, there is no way they do not recognize the magnitude of their second Big Ten road game of 2012. Perhaps the “treat every game the same” mindset is what is required to stay focused, to not succumb to the pressure of such a big game.
But it is a near-guarantee after Saturday’s game they will care about what this game meant, realizing it has either kept alive a potential trip to Pasadena or relegated Wisconsin to a middle-of-the-pack conference finish.
And beyond the postseason implications Purdue holds, it may set the tone for the still important remainder of the Big Ten season. After what should be a quick tune-up but could turn into a pesky battle at home for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Ohio State and Michigan State await, sandwiched by a trip to Indiana.
Though the Spartans have faced tribulations of their own this season, they still stand as one of the toughest opponents left on the Badgers’ schedule. As for the Buckeyes, well, that game looks terrifying either way.
In his first year, Urban Meyer already looks to be turning Ohio State into a Big Ten powerhouse, the Braxton-Miller offense growing scarier by the second as the Buckeyes suffocated Nebraska with 63 points. Even so, it would certainly help to have that win over the Boilermakers in the back pocket, even if it’s nothing more than a redemptive achievement.
With so much on the line in a single game, UW’s play against Purdue may be the defining moment of the season. For the Badgers, this is the chance to show that not only will they make a second consecutive trip to Indianapolis, but that they actually deserve that chance, that the team isn’t simply taking advantage of a precarious situation but has the offensive weapons and staunch defense to actually challenge whoever takes the Legends Division crown.
Wisconsin has yet to win a game on the road this year, and though Ross-Ade Stadium won’t boast the screaming heads with block N’s running through their veins known as Nebraska fans that Memorial Stadium had in bunches, it’s still an unfriendly environment. And yes, I understand they consider “Boiler Up!” an intimidating cheer in West Lafayette (honestly, that’s an embarrassment to the Big Ten).
An offense that continues to show flashes of what it is capable of — think Nebraska first half and the fourth quarter against Illinois — Joel Stave & Co. are still searching for the convincing four-quarter effort. The retooled offensive line and the running game looked nothing less than brilliant in that final quarter against the Fighting Illini, but against Purdue the Badgers must show up on both sides of the ball.
Will Montee Ball continue to high-step his way into the end zone, drawing ever closer to the all-time NCAA record and running like he’s being chased by a pack of wolves? Will the offensive line create the gaping holes to allow the star tailback to open up the run game? Will Stave show the same composure he did in the first half in Lincoln, tossing play-action deep routes to Jared Abbrederis like it’s no more than a screen pass?
We’ve seen moments this season where each of these questions could have been answered affirmatively, the times when fans get butterflies in their stomachs and feel strikingly light-footed.
But at this point in the season, it’s time to put them together — an impressive drive, quarter or half is no longer sufficient. That Wisconsin even finds itself in this position six games into the year is a minor miracle, and against Purdue the most unlikely of dreams will either continue its wayward path or come down with a violent crash.
But then again, maybe it’s just another game.