In a season that has been plagued with three overtime losses, most recently to Penn State, the Wisconsin football team has struggled to close the door in late game situations.
In two of Wisconsin’s three overtime losses, the Badgers have given a lead away late in the game, eventually losing in overtime with the exception of the Ohio State game, where UW surmounted a 14-point deficit to force extra time.
In last Saturday’s overtime loss to Penn State, Wisconsin went into the second half with a seven-point cushion. But, as has seemingly been the case all season, the Badgers were dominated on both sides of the ball in the third and fourth quarter, allowing the Nittany Lions 247 yards and three scoring drives, including a 41-yard passing touchdown in the fourth quarter to hand PSU the lead.
UW secondary coach Ben Strickland acknowledged their performance on Saturday was not up to par and expects more of his players heading into the Big Ten championship.
“It’s just execution,” Strickland said. “We make a call, whatever that call is, those guys have to execute it, and they know it. They know they can do better. [The coaches] know we can do better, and we’ll just take it as a learning experience, move on and make sure it doesn’t happen next time.”
Wisconsin’s regular season finale was eerily similar to the overtime loss suffered at the hands of Michigan State just a month earlier at Camp Randall. The Spartans engineered a late scoring drive, tying the game with a 12-yard touchdown pass with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter.
Redshirt junior free safety Dezmen Southward, who has one interception and 52 tackles on the season, said the key to holding those leads is consistency.
“You can’t prepare to keep a lead,” Southward said. “The only thing you can prepare to do is just be consistent in the things that you see and just executing for four quarters because what does it mean to be great for 3 1/2 quarters? We’ve seen that side of the story, so we definitely understand what we have to do.”
In both losses to Penn State and Michigan State, Wisconsin gave up over 200 yards passing and a total of three passing touchdowns.
UW now has its sights set on the rematch with Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game on Saturday.
Although Nebraska is ranked No. 8 in the country in rushing, the Cornhuskers were still able to put up 181 passing yards and two passing touchdowns on the Badgers in September.
Strickland says Nebraska will use its physical running game to open up its passing game.
“The biggest thing [Nebraska] does is obviously the run game and then the play-action passes to complement it,” Strickland said. “So, we just have to be great with our eyes and our keys and understanding what our responsibilities are. [The secondary] knows we have to defend the play-action balls, when we are needed in the run game on our fits we have to make sure that we are in the right spots. Again that just comes down to reading keys, doing our jobs and being disciplined.”
Wisconsin’s defense will get a boost in Saturday’s championship game in Indianapolis when redshirt junior linebacker Chris Borland suits up after missing the last two games to injury.
Fellow linebacker and redshirt senior Mike Taylor knows what Borland means to UW’s defense and says the redshirt junior will bring confidence to the unit.
“I think [getting Borland back] is a big boost,” Taylor said. “Obviously, Chris is a great part of the middle, and he’s a great tackler. He makes plays, and I think he just gives the defense overall a boost of confidence and a little more swag running to the ball.”
After two straight overtime losses, Wisconsin must prepare to avenge a 27-30 loss to Nebraska this coming Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Southward believes after losing two close games in a row, the Badgers will come out ready to play in their second consecutive Big Ten Championship.
“After any loss, you are eager to get back out on the field,” Southward said. “I think you’ll see with this team, we are pretty resilient. We are a bunch of guys that are never going to give up, and we love fighting and we will fight together for four quarters. So I think you will see that Saturday.”