- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Wisconsin players enter the field at Camp Randall Stadium, they pass under this sign.
Coach Bret Bielema has drilled home a 1-0 mentality with his players since he took the top job. And, for the most part, it works.
The approach doesn't change this week. Purdue is the next opponent. Wisconsin has to go 1-0 on Saturday afternoon at Ross-Ade Stadium. It then must go 1-0 against Minnesota, and Michigan State, and so on ...
"It's the next game on the schedule," Bielema told ESPN.com.
But the next game means a little more because of the unique circumstances surrounding it. Wisconsin and Purdue make up 50 percent of a four-team race to represent the Leaders division at the Big Ten championship game Dec. 1 in Indianapolis. Ohio State and Penn State are both ineligible, while both Indiana and Illinois are 0-2 in league play (Illinois lost to Wisconsin last week).
Although the Boilers and Badgers are a combined 1-2 in Big Ten play and still both have more than half their league schedules left to play, it's hard to envision a scenario where neither team ends up in Indy. The team that prevails Saturday not only gets a division win, but the head-to-head tiebreaker, which could loom large in late November.
"It's not a one-game season, obviously, but it's certainly a game that can impact our team and our season and would be a great springboard opportunity for our program in a lot of ways," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "A huge game."
It's big for both teams, but a bit bigger for Purdue. The Boilers are in the middle of their defining stretch of the season -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State. They opened it with a thud last week against the Wolverines, falling behind 21-0 and 28-3 to put a damper on the most anticipated home game in recent memory.
A loss Saturday puts Purdue in danger of starting league play at 0-3, as they next visit unbeaten Ohio State. Although Purdue has claimed its past two home games against the Buckeyes, the Boilers haven't won in Columbus since 1988. Wisconsin at least has a Big Ten win within the division under its belt. As weak/unique as the Leaders is this season, it would be extremely tough for Purdue to climb out of an 0-3 hole.
If Purdue plans to turn a corner under Hope, whose approval rating among fans is shaky at best, now is the time.
"It means a lot," junior cornerback Ricardo Allen told ESPN.com. "There's not too many who can go on our side of the division, and Wisconsin's one of those top people. It's going to be a big game. We really need this one."
Allen chalks up Purdue's poor showing against Michigan to a lack of focus. Although none of Purdue's units performed particularly well, Allen said the defense shoulders the loss after failing to contain Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (235 rush yards, 105 pass yards).
After allowing just 42 points in its first three games, Purdue has seen opponents rack up 85 the past two weeks.
"A lot of people on the defense stood up and said, 'We put that game on us,'" Allen said, referring to the Michigan loss. "If we make up for it and we do well in this game and we keep doing well going forward, everybody will start believing in us again."
Wisconsin's offense is starting to believe as well after a rocky start to the season that saw Bielema dump offensive line coach Mike Markuson after a Week 2 loss at Oregon State. The Badgers still haven't put together a complete performance, but they've had stretches where they look like their former selves: the second and fourth quarters against UTEP, the first half at Nebraska, the fourth quarter against Illinois.
"If you compare our first three games offensively to our last three games, it's been night and day," Bielema said. "Just the points per game, the production, the yards per play, the efficiency in the red zone. All those things have been very, very positive the last three games.
"It's not where everybody wants it to be overnight, but they're definitely getting better."
Despite Purdue's recent defensive struggles, its front four should provide the biggest test for Wisconsin's offensive line since Oregon State. Bielema this week called the Boilers' line, led by senior tackle Kawann Short, arguably the best in the Big Ten.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave has held his own since being named the Badgers' starter -- 678 pass yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions in the last three games -- and didn't seem intimidated Sept. 29 at Nebraska. But he'll need protection from the offensive line and help from running backs Montee Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon.
"Purdue's strength is in their front four, for sure," Bielema said. "They're very talented at the corner position as well. To win on the road in this league is extremely difficult, and Purdue has always played us tough at home.
"This is going to be a great test to find out exactly where we're at."
And where they could be on Dec. 1.
1dDavid Ching and Edward Aschoff
3dESPN Stats & Information