Coming into Barry Alvarez's final season as head football coach at Wisconsin, expectations for success were not high. The Badgers began the season unranked, and no one, even Alvarez, considered this year's team strong enough to make a run at the Big Ten title.
"I didn't even look at a Big Ten Title," Alvarez admitted about his pre-season expectations. "I thought we had a chance to be a nice football team. With the people we were going to play, knowing what the majority of our league had returning, I didn't know whether we'd be good enough to contend for a championship."
Nevertheless, the Badgers are 8-1 and this Saturday's game against conference co-leader Penn State could decide the Big Ten Champion. Despite Wisconsin's unexpected success, critics have been quick to discount their efforts.
"People have a tendency to watch a football game and they want to critique it," Alvarez said. "Everybody finds something wrong with the game because there's so much in our sport, unlike in any other sport; you can question every play. That gives everyone a tendency, when the game is over, to look at what went wrong. No one talks about what went right; everybody wants to know what was the problem. I think that's just the way it is, not just here, but anyplace."
Alvarez refuses to let criticism affect him or his team, and acknowledges that his assistant coaching staff has been instrumental in keeping his team focused. While uncertainty surrounds the future as the Alvarez era ends, the assistant coaches have excelled and the head coach humbly credits them.
"What my staff has accomplished to date, is by far the best job that we've done with the inexperience coming in," Alvarez said. "Even with all those things, they've been able to stay focused, they've been able to put a plan together to give the guys a chance to win, they've been able to motivate the players to play four quarters, make adjustments on the run. It's been really a special coaching job by the staff."
Looking to Penn State:
Saturday's game will be Alvarez's final Big Ten road game as head coach of the Badgers. Wisconsin, the league's best offense, averaging 39.7 points per game, will face the league's stingiest defense in Penn State, who allows just 16.1 points per contest, in a match up that could potentially decide the Big Ten Champion. If that weren't enough, the game will be televised nationally and Penn State's Beaver Stadium, which holds a capacity of 107,282 fans, is expecting a record crowd.
"If that doesn't get your motor running, there's something wrong," Alvarez said of his players. "That's why I try to stay away from building the game up. You don't have to because players understand it."
Instead, Alvarez will focus on scoring on Penn State's tough defense and stopping one of the country's most dangerous quarterbacks, Michael Robinson.
"He's very talented," said Alvarez of Robinson. "He can do it all and he can hurt you in a lot of different ways.
Newkirk stepping up:
Freshman defensive tackle Mike Newkirk has recently stepped up as a big contributor in the makeshift Badger defense. He had six tackles including a forced and recovered fumble on homecoming against Purdue.
"He's played well," Alvarez said. "He's active in there, he plays hard. I think he'll continue to get better because he's so focused and wants to be good. He's willing to put the time and effort in to improve."
Newkirk's seen his playing time increase drastically since the Minnesota contest when redshirt freshman Jason Chapman went down with an ankle injury. Chapman is expected to return for significant action this week.