If there was ever a week to go 1-0, this is it.
Wisconsin is 10-1 and just needs a win this Saturday against 7-4 Northwestern to assure itself a share of its first Big Ten title since 1999. And depending on how two other conference games shake out, the Badgers could feel quite flowery by game’s end.
UW’s game starts at 2:30 CT, with co-Big Ten leaders Ohio State and Michigan State playing at 11. If the Badgers win, a Spartans loss gives the Badgers the conference’s automatic BCS berth to the Rose Bowl, while a Buckeye upset at the hands of Michigan sends MSU to Pasadena. If all three teams win out and finish 11-1, 6-1 in conference play, the highest-ranked squad in the BCS – almost certainly Wisconsin – gets the bid.
The results of the other two games will be featured on the Camp Randall scoreboard, so there’s no keeping the Badgers from knowing exactly what could be on the line during their game.
“We’re not going to ask the scoreboard people to keep it off the board, so it just kind of comes as it is,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “I think the part that’s nice for us all going into this week is we’re already in a situation where if we just handle our business, take care of what we’re supposed to, whatever happens on Saturday outside of Camp Randall is in other people’s hands. We’ll just handle our own.”
Handling their own looks to be a manageable task.
The Wildcats are bowl-eligible and handed the Badgers a loss in Evanston last November. They almost pulled off an upset of then-undefeated Michigan State and shocked Iowa in a 21-17 win on Nov. 13.
But the man responsible for keying NU to those wins, Dan Persa, will be on the sidelines for the game, suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the win over the Hawkeyes.
Persa had 2,581 passing yards and 15 touchdowns before going down and was also a big threat on the ground, with 519 rushing yards and nine scores with his feet. Backup Evan Watkins struggled in last week’s loss to Illinois at Wrigley Field, going just 10-for-20 for 135 yards and an interception in the Wildcats’ 48-27 loss.
But again, there’s a reason they play the games.
“They gave it to us pretty good last year,” safety Jay Valai said of last season’s 31-33 loss. “They surprised us, and we came back and tried to fight. We can’t do that this year; we’ve got to be ready from the get-go.”
With so much riding on this game, and the way Wisconsin has come out so far this season, it’s hard to envision UW coming out flat. The Badgers must also be licking their chops at the prospect of running on the Wildcats’ sieve of a front seven. NU allowed 519 rushing yards to UI last week, including 330 to Illini running back Mikel LeShoure.
Wisconsin is coming off a 357-yard performance on the ground against Michigan, the second time in UW history it had two running backs post over 150 yards. Montee Ball finished with 173 yards and four touchdowns, while James White was named Big Ten freshman of the week for his 181-yard, two score performance. Wisconsin also gashed Indiana for over 300 yards on the ground the week prior.
And that was with Ball, who as recently as a month ago, was third on the depth chart, and White, playing as a true freshman. This week, starter John Clay – who hasn’t played since a knee sprain at Purdue Nov. 6 – is set to return, giving UW the three-headed rushing attack it envisioned at the beginning of the season.
With the regular season finale and a bowl game to go, it’s feasible, if unlikely, the Badgers could have all three backs rush for 1,000 yards. Clay needs just 71 yards, White 105. Ball would need another set of big performances, but sits 314 yards shy of the mark.
But still, the Badgers aren’t taking anything for granted.
“They’re very physical, very smart. Obviously [Northwestern defensive coordinator] Mike [Hankwitz] knows a lot about our offensive system, going against it for two years,” Bielema said. “So that’s the challenge that I think our kids are embracing more than anything.”
With the way this team has dominated play in its last few games, it seems evident the Badgers have taken Bielema’s much-publicized “1-0” mentality to heart. Already, it’s the first time in program history Wisconsin has beaten Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan in the same season. One more win would ensure the first BCS bowl in Bielema’s tenure as head coach.
And while it’s not an issue of ability – Bielema has said his 2008 team may have been the most talented he’s had – something is clearly clicking different with Wisconsin this season. With one more week left to go 1-0, UW’s veteran squad is locked in to the task at hand.
“We’re not looking past anybody; obviously this is the last one,” guard John Moffitt said. “Now it’s time to realign and finish the season right.”