Sunday, October 2, 2011
Blue-collar Badgers rise to the occasion
By Adam Rittenberg
MADISON, Wis. -- Peter Konz stood in Wisconsin's dimly lit weight room, basking in the glow of the Badgers' reverberating 48-17 win against Nebraska.
A rusty bar was balanced atop a bench press behind the Wisconsin junior center. To his right, a dingy clock hung on the wall. In front of Konz was a sign that read "1-0," the motto Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has instilled in his team.
There are nicer weight rooms in America. Much nicer ones. Compared to Nebraska's iron palace in Lincoln, Wisconsin's workout facility looks like the local Y.
"A little rusty," Konz said. "Everything's used, everything's beaten because we grind. We put in the work day in and day out. If you have shiny stuff, you're not using it. It reminds me of that 'Rocky 3' [scene] where he loses to Clubber Lang and then he has to go back into an L.A. boxing club and you see the guys who are just hungry. They're in this dim room. ...
"It keeps us hungry."
When told that all Wisconsin needs is a few chickens to chase, Konz laughed.
"You've got to [expletive] lightning and [expletive] thunder!" Konz bellowed in his best Mickey voice.
Thanks to Wisconsin, thunder crashed all around Nebraska on Saturday night, ruining the Huskers' much-anticipated Big Ten debut. After facing its first deficit of the season at 14-7, the seventh-ranked Badgers scored 34 unanswered points to pull away from the shell-shocked Huskers.
Russell Wilson and the Badgers remained undefeated with a win over Nebraska.
Quarterback Russell Wilson (14-for-20 passing, 255 yards, 2 TDs, 1 rush TD) carved a place among the leading Heisman Trophy contenders, and Wisconsin, a team many doubted because of its soft nonconference schedule, carved a place among the nation's elite.
The momentum Wisconsin built with a Rose Bowl run last fall has spilled over into this season. The Badgers are used to big games by now. Saturday night, it showed.
"We can't always be that up-and-coming team," Konz said. "You have to take that responsibility. We take that and we embrace challenges."
Bielema embraced the magnitude of the game itself and of the week leading up to it. He embraced the hype and encouraged his players to do the same.
Friday night, he addressed all the big things surrounding the Nebraska showdown.
"I said, 'This week, I've heard about big game, big stage, all these big things. All we have is a big opportunity. What are we going to do with it?'" Bielema said. "They answered the bell."
Bielema hammers home the 1-0 philosophy, the we've-never-arrived mentality, the eternally unsexy image of Wisconsin football, while always keeping an eye on the big picture. Guard Travis Frederick said the coach usually "takes a peek into the future" in the team meeting Sunday before returning the focus to the next game and the next opponent.
Although Nebraska simply represented the Badgers' next opponent, Bielema is keenly aware of what the win means in the bigger picture.
"The way we did win, and it was a national stage and a national audience," Bielema said. "As a head coach, I get to vote in the coaches' poll and I'll vote us very [high]."
Nebraska, meanwhile, can expect to tumble in the polls. The Huskers couldn't have received a much tougher draw for their Big Ten debut, but they looked more than ready for their new league, scoring touchdowns on consecutive first-half possessions.
The offense hummed along, Taylor Martinez looked poised and Wisconsin seemed a bit rattled. But then the mistakes began. Martinez threw three interceptions on four possessions, all of which Wisconsin converted into touchdowns.
Perhaps more discouraging was a Blackshirts defense, hungry to prove itself after an unimpressive start to the season, surrendering touchdowns on five consecutive Wisconsin possessions (not counting the Badgers downing the ball with three seconds left in the first half). Wisconsin piled up 486 yards and 27 first downs, and converted on 8 of 12 third-down attempts.
"I'm embarrassed by how we played defensively," Huskers coach Bo Pelini said. "I apologize to the fans of Nebraska because that was a joke, plain and simple."
Wisconsin players had heard how their 4-0 record was hollow because of the competition. They knew they were moving up in weight class against Nebraska.
They respected the Huskers. But they didn't fear them.
"It's kind of like when we played Miami a couple of years ago," Badgers safety Aaron Henry said, referring to the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl. "They played 'The U' film, they showed the '30 for 30' on Miami and the players that they had back then. But we weren't playing Miami of then. We were playing Miami of right now.
"With Nebraska and their tradition and everything that they have going on for themselves, amazing ballclub. But we weren't playing the Tommie Fraziers and Eric Crouches. We're playing Nebraska of today."
So what's the Wisconsin of today?
"The Wisconsin of today is Russell Wilson, clearly, and that stable of backs and those wide receivers," Henry said. "And our defense is playing some of the best defense I've seen since I've been here."
The Wisconsin of today isn't unlike the Wisconsin of yesterday. Just look at the weight room.
But the promise of tomorrow -- of a Big Ten title, another Rose Bowl appearance, perhaps a spot in the national title game -- isn't lost on the Badgers.
"We had a great opportunity with all the national media here, with 'College GameDay' here," defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "The things we did tonight, maybe we did make a statement."