“Is this the game you’ve been looking for all year?” asked a reporter following Saturday’s game.
“Uh, yeah,” Bret Bielema said with a slight smile.
The Wisconsin football head coach couldn’t seem to find any more words, stumbling over cliché phrases and something about “moving forward” as usual.
But he didn’t need to say anything pertinent. We all knew what the Badgers had just done. They played a complete, four-quarter game and finally proved they actually possessed the potential everyone thought they had.
Traveling to West Lafayette, the Badgers easily could have been heading into a trap game — Purdue looked beatable, but they were also dangerous. For 38 seconds, the Boilermakers looked like they were going to manhandle the Badgers’ defense with a 52-yard bomb on the first play from scrimmage, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush.
“It was demoralizing,” junior defensive tackle Beau Allen said of the first play. “You get out there, and you’re so hyped up with the pregame. You’re so ready to play, you’ve been waiting around all day. You get out there and something like that happens on the first play, you just kind of rally after that. I think we did a great job of just letting it go.”
They certainly did. A methodical Wisconsin offense took the field en route to a game-tying touchdown. And soon what looked like a trap game became Wisconsin’s best all-around performance of the season.
The offense accumulated 645 yards, many coming from senior running back Montee Ball’s 247-yard rushing day. Junior running back James White also gathered 124 yards on the ground as the run game accounted for 467 yards in the pouring rain at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Before the rain dampened passing opportunities, redshirt freshman Joel Stave managed 178 yards through the air, going 12-for-21 with one interception. His favorite target of the day was the formerly absent junior tight end Jacob Pedersen, who led all receivers with 77 yards on four catches.
While the offense clicked, the defense grew increasingly relentless after giving up the early touchdown.
Junior safety Dezmen Southward stopped another early drive by Purdue with an interception, which he returned for 31 yards. Though the Badgers didn’t force any other turnovers, they consistently placed pressure on the Boilermakers trio of quarterbacks that ultimately led to five sacks for 43 yards.
In the weeks leading up to the game, the media ran rampant with the idea the winner of this particular game will represent the leaders division in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.
While it’s certainly a good thing the Badgers came out on the higher end of the 38-14 decision given the divisional race, the win means so much more than another possible trip to the conference title game. Seven games into the season, it was the first time all season every unit performed to the level that was expected of a team fresh off a trip to the Rose Bowl for the second-consecutive year.
Before UW played a single minute in the 2012 season, expectations were high not only within the fan base and media, but also within the locker room. They were confident they were capable of another impressive season à la last year.
But it never completely showed. Sure there were fleeting moments — a hot first half in Lincoln, Neb., Sept. 29 or a stellar fourth quarter against Illinois Oct. 6 at Camp Randall — but there was never a complete effort, never a moment where every single unit played to the caliber expected.
Purdue was that game.
While Ball manhandled the Purdue defense on the move to a record-setting day — with three touchdowns on the day he became the Big Ten’s career touchdown leader with 72, passing Rob Dayne who held the previous record — the defense held the Boilermakers’ offense to only 252 yards on 124 passing yards and 128 rushing yards.
If Wisconsin is able to maintain this level of competition, all of Badger nation will be able to breathe a little easier and the season will certainly take an interesting turn. No longer will an exasperated “what was that” ring out on game day.
Before this theory can be put to the test, the Badgers are simply relishing a full effort against Purdue.
“Finally we got our offense out there rolling, and it felt like Badger football again,” Allen said. “That was exciting — to be on defense and watch the O-line pave the way for our running game and stuff like that. We played four quarters, but also our offensive line and running game looked awesome.”