Who's No. 2 in B1G? Why not Badgers?

October, 12, 2013
10/12/13
10:15
PM CT
MADISON, Wis. -- After dominating No. 19 Northwestern at home on Saturday, Wisconsin's players celebrated in the best way they knew how. They danced to Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," which blared throughout a giddy postgame locker room.

"That's my jam," defensive tackle Beau Allen told ESPN.com.

Yes, 300-pound Badger linemen like Allen shook and wiggled to bubble-gum pop. Question the musical choices all you like, but they could hardly have picked a song with a more appropriate title. For a wrecking ball is exactly what Wisconsin took to Northwestern in a surprisingly easy 35-6 victory.

The Wildcats entered Saturday riding a streak of seven consecutive games of at least 30 points, dating to last season. They managed all of two first-half field goals at Camp Randall Stadium. They also went 2-for-17 on third down and allowed seven sacks by seven different Badger defenders.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Gordon
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesMelvin Gordon topped the 100-yard mark for the fifth time this season with 172 yards on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's offense recovered from losing star receiver Jared Abbrederis to a head injury in the first half and found other ways to roll up 527 yards, with 286 of those coming on the ground.

It was just the kind of performance coach Gary Andersen thought his team needed to bounce back from tough road losses at Arizona State and Ohio State last month.

"Losing those two, emotionally, it can take its toll if you allow it to," Andersen said. "But these kids didn't. They don't accept losing in any way shape or form."

And maybe we should accept Wisconsin as the second-best team in the Big Ten despite its two losses. Ohio State clearly reigns as the league's alpha dog right now, but a stirring debate has broken out over identifying who's best in the non-Buckeye division.

Several Badgers didn't mind saying their showing against Northwestern delivered a statement. Other results on Saturday might have changed the conversation.

Michigan's run as an unbeaten ended in State College, as Penn State's Bill Belton finished a four-overtime slog with his touchdown jaunt. Conservative playcalling cost the Wolverines several chances to improve to 6-0, but Brady Hoke's team never looked as good as its record, anyway. The bottom line is Michigan doesn't have a singular strength on which to hang its winged hats, and that showed again in all four extra periods at Beaver Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Hoosier State helped Michigan State and Nebraska morph into mirror images of their previous selves. The Spartans' much-maligned offense took advantage of a shaky Indiana defense and put up a season-best 42 points in an easy win. Nebraska's even more maligned defense kept Purdue off the scoreboard until the final 40 seconds on the way to a 44-7 blowout. Whether those teams really have built armor around their Achilles' heels or are simply benefiting from weak competition remains to be seen. But barring major upsets, Michigan State will be 7-1 and Nebraska 6-1 heading into the November showdowns that will determine the Legends Division.

Northwestern had staked a reputable claim as the league's No. 2 team until Saturday, when it appeared deflated from last week's physically and emotionally draining 40-30 loss to Ohio State. Of course, it didn't help that top playmakers Kain Colter and Venric Mark missed the majority of the game with lower-body injuries, accounting for a combined total of 52 yards. But little else went right, either. Mark's status going forward is unclear, and so is that of the Wildcats as they already are saddled with an 0-2 conference record.

Then there's Wisconsin, a team that had looked the part of major contender for most of the season without the results to show for it. The Badgers got robbed by incompetent officiating at Arizona State and stole their own chance to win at Ohio State through critical mistakes. Those losses are why Andersen admitted that he considered this week a critical game for his team, and having a bye week after the crusher in Columbus proved great timing.

The Badgers still have their issues, including an inconsistent passing game and suspect kicking, but they're a senior-laden group with a wildly underrated defense and the same powerful running game they've churned out in Madison for years.

Being second-best in the Big Ten might not do a lot of good for Wisconsin; Ohio State would have to lose twice for the Badgers to get any shot of playing in Indianapolis for a third consecutive year and potentially Pasadena for a fourth time in a row. Yet hope for a special season remains.

Immediately after his postgame news conference, Andersen went over to shake hands and chat with representatives from the Fiesta and Capital One bowls. The Badgers will almost certainly not face another ranked team this season, and although they were unranked last week, perhaps voters will notice a team that could finish 10-2 with its only legitimate loss at Ohio State.

"We did lose to Arizona State and Ohio State, and that's tough," linebacker Brendan Kelly said. "But, hey, we're on the upswing now. Let's win out. A lot of guys believe in this team and believe in what we're doing, so there's a lot of good feelings here."

They felt good enough on Saturday to dance to Miley Cyrus. By season's end, they might feel even better.

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