Wednesday, October 26, 2011
No time for Badgers to hang their heads
By Adam Rittenberg
The Wisconsin Badgers weren't chanting "Happy Flight!" when they left Spartan Stadium late Saturday night.
Their flight to Madison, along with two bus rides, took place in virtual silence.
No one could blame the Badgers. The combination of what they lost and how they lost in East Lansing didn't leave anyone in a chatty mood.
"A lot of times I'll just have my headphones on, and I popped them off a couple different times expecting to hear some noise," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Didn't hear anything. I think the kids really absorbed the defeat Saturday night."
Bret Bielema believes his Badgers can rebound from a heart-breaking loss at Michigan State as long as they "stick to the plan."
The coaches typically work into the early morning hours Monday crafting the game plan for Wisconsin's next opponent. But after barely sleeping the night before, Bielema took a different approach.
"I cleared everybody out of the offices about 10," Bielema said, "and just said, 'Hey, let's go home, regroup.'"
The Badgers have no choice but to regroup after a heart-wrenching 37-31 loss to Michigan State. While their national title hopes likely vanished as soon as referee Dennis Lipski told the crowd, "After further review, the runner did cross the goal line, touchdown," they have plenty still at stake.
A division title. A spot in the inaugural Big Ten championship game. And, most important, a return trip to the Rose Bowl, where they came up just short against TCU this past January.
There's no time for head-hanging or panicking. It's back to work.
"Over the last three and a half years, I think there are only three or four teams in college football that have won more games than Wisconsin, and nobody else in the Big Ten," Bielema said. "I put that record in front of [the players] and said, 'That doesn't happen by chance.' What we do is good. Stick to the plan.
"Any time you lose a game, a lot of people have the tendency to flinch or start looking for answers. But the answers are in front of you."
Bielema praised his team for fighting back in the fourth quarter against Michigan State, although the late rally didn't make the end result any easier to swallow.
"A lot of times it's harder to regroup from a game like that because you come so close," Wisconsin center Peter Konz told ESPN.com. "Your mind keeps going back to, 'Well, it could have been this play, it could have been that play.' You know you still had a chance after all the mistakes you made.
"But this group is mature enough where we know what we have to do. We know from film and during practice what corrections need to be made."
Wisconsin will try to answer this week at Ohio State. It's a Leaders Division road game, which brings added importance, but it also has significance regarding a potential shift in the Big Ten power balance.
Ohio State has dominated the conference for the better part of the past decade. The Buckeyes haven't dropped consecutive games to a Big Ten opponent since 2003-04, when they fell to Wisconsin.
A Badgers victory Saturday night against a desperate Buckeyes team that can still make noise in the division would further signify Wisconsin as one of the Big Ten's elite programs.
"Ohio State's a big thing," Bielema said. "They're in our division. Obviously, we recruit against them. We have 15 players from the state of Ohio, so for us to be competitive in that state, it's an important battle for us. ... Ohio State has set the bar in this league for the last five or six years with their championships. We were able to beat them last year, and this week's preparation is aiming to do the exact same thing."
Much of the regrouping process is left for team leaders like quarterback Russell Wilson, who struggled for the first time as a Badger at Michigan State, but ended the game on a strong note, leading two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. It's vital for Wilson to show he can perform well on the road against a stout Big Ten defense -- Ohio State ranks 16th nationally in yards allowed (304.9 ypg) and 12th in points allowed (16.3 ppg) -- and do so in a hostile environment like Ohio Stadium.
"The main thing is just staying positive," Wilson said. "There's a lot of great opportunities for us, and we have a great opportunity in playing Ohio State at Ohio State. It doesn't get much better than that."
It would take an unlikely sequence for Wisconsin to get back in the national championship hunt, but the Badgers remain in control of whether or not they return to Pasadena to avenge a loss that gnawed at veterans like Konz during the offseason.
"We've still got a lot of the Big Ten schedule ahead of us, so there's nothing to hang your head about," Konz said. "There are a lot of good opponents still out there to face. We can still get to where we want to go. We've just got to take care of business week in and week out."