NCF Nation: Spartan Stadium

Badgers grow from stumbles in Sparta

October, 20, 2011
The Wisconsin Badgers who enter Spartan Stadium on Saturday night barely resemble the bunch that staggered out of the place on Nov. 1, 2008.

You might recognize the head coach, many of the assistants and some of the players. They're the same guys. The players will still wear all-white unis and helmets with the distinctive motion "W" on the sides.

But the similarities pretty much end there.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireWisconsin coach Bret Bielema says he isn't upset after losing 11 assistants in the past three seasons.
These days Wisconsin is a program on the rise, approaching historic heights and hoping the final chapter of its story is written Jan. 9 in New Orleans. But if you want to know how the Badgers got here, you have to go back to when they reached rock bottom: Spartan Stadium, Nov. 1, 2008.

"It was a low point," coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know if it was the lowest point in my coaching career, but that was a difficult one."

Wisconsin came to East Lansing at 4-4, already assured of a disappointing season. Considered a potential Big Ten title contender entering the fall, Wisconsin won its first three games and climbed to No. 9 in the polls.

Then the Badgers blew a 19-0 lead at Michigan and lost. Three more losses followed, including a 48-7 humiliation at home against Penn State. Bielema, who had gone 12-1 in 2006, came under fire, and many questioned whether Wisconsin could ever handle high expectations.

Wisconsin stopped its four-game slide against Illinois, setting up a game at Michigan State that, perhaps more than any other, showed how far the program needed to go.

Wisconsin built a 24-13 lead with 9:19 to play. But Michigan State's next possession began with an odd delay of game penalty on the defense, as Wisconsin was flagged for obstruction when safety Jay Valai bumped an official on his way to the field. Bielema, incensed by the call, earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for unloading on the official.

Rather than starting the drive at its own 36-yard line, Michigan State began on the Wisconsin 44 and marched to the end zone.

Wisconsin was flagged for eight penalties in the fourth quarter, including a holding call on future All-American John Moffitt, which nullified a run that likely would have sealed the win. Instead, Michigan State won 25-24 on a field goal as time expired.

"It was a game we thought we had in hand," Bielema said. "It was a difficult one, one we all grew from."

Wisconsin had significant edges in total yards (430-312) and rush yards (281-25) but came up short. The Michigan State loss stood out during a season of hard lessons for Bielema and his players.

"That was a challenging season, to say the least," senior wide receiver Nick Toon said. "We had a lot of penalties, a lot of mistakes, and didn't capitalize on our opportunities. It was a lack of discipline.

"That's not how we do things around here."

What has changed in the past 35 months?

Bielema cited three areas:

  • Improved communication on the road
  • Greater discipline, which begins in the types of players recruited
  • Opportunistic play on both sides of the ball

The Badgers drew 12 penalties against Michigan State in 2008. They drew 41 penalties all of last season, the fewest in the nation.

They finished 97th nationally in turnover margin in 2008 (minus-8). They improved to 47th in 2009 (plus-3), soared to sixth last season (plus-14) and rank tied for 11th nationally so far this season (plus-6).

Wisconsin football has become as much about not beating itself as beating the opponent with the power run, the play-action pass and opportunistic defense.

Still, the sight of Spartan Stadium on Saturday night might bring up bad memories. The Badgers have lost three consecutive games there, including their only regular-season loss in 2010, a 34-24 setback.

"Things just haven't swung our way the last couple times we were there," Toon said. "That's on us. We've got to go in, do what we do, prepare like we've been preparing all year."

Bielema often has pointed to last season's loss at Spartan Stadium as the springboard for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl run, saying, "I didn't know going into Michigan State if we had a championship team, but I knew leaving that locker room we did."

Wisconsin's only loss since then came in the Rose Bowl, and the Badgers have recorded road wins in places like Iowa City and Ann Arbor.

Rarely do college players get three opportunities to play in a road stadium. After falling short twice, Toon and his fellow seniors are anxious to change the script -- and continue a storybook season.

"Obviously, we didn't get the results we wanted to have the last couple times we were up there," Toon said. "So to go back and have a chance to make that right in my senior season would be great."

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

As I prepare to hit the road next week for some much needed R&R, I thought we should take a look at the most pivotal road games for each Big Ten team this season. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is never easy, and there might not be a greater factor to a team's success or failure than its performance away from its home turf.

Here are the road games that could make or break the season in the Big Ten. These aren't necessarily the toughest road games for a team, just the most important ones.


Fork in the road: Nov. 7 at Minnesota

The Illini will be coming off a fairly manageable stretch against Indiana, Purdue and Michigan, the league's worst three teams last season. If they haven't dug too big a hole to open Big Ten play, they could make a serious bowl push beginning at TCF Bank Stadium. But a loss could trigger a down-the-stretch slide, much like last year.


Fork in the road: Sept. 19, at Akron

Indiana enters the season with its head coach on the hot seat and serious doubts about the team's ability to get on track again. That's why an early trip to Akron and the new InfoCision Stadium is so critical. Indiana could be 3-0 after a win against Akron, or it could be 1-2 with a loss and starting the death march.


Fork in the road: Sept. 26 at Penn State

One of the nation's toughest road schedules has been well-documented, and it all begins in Happy Valley. The Hawkeyes will get a huge boost from a victory at night in front of Penn State's white-out -- never easy to do -- and can validate themselves as a serious league title contender. A loss would reinforce Iowa's recent struggles on the road (the Hawkeyes went 1-3 last year) with more challenges ahead.


Fork in the road: Oct. 3 at Michigan State

Michigan's first road game will be pivotal in a number of ways. It could mark the first road start for a freshman quarterback (Tate Forcier or Denard Robinson), and it kicks off a tough stretch of games against the Big Ten's upper tier. Michigan might head to East Lansing at 4-0, but another loss to in-state rival Michigan State could sidetrack Rich Rodriguez's team.


Fork in the road: Sept. 26 at Wisconsin

I'm starting to get really excited about this game because it could mean so much for both teams. Michigan State might be coming off its seventh consecutive victory at Notre Dame and looking to establish itself as a factor in the Big Ten title race. But the Spartans have dropped four of their last five games at Camp Randall Stadium, which will provide a tough setting for a new starting quarterback.


Fork in the road: Sept. 26 at Northwestern

The Gophers don't get many favors with their Big Ten road schedule, and their league-opening trip to Northwestern provides the best opportunity for a win. Minnesota will be coming off two emotional home games against Cal and Air Force, and could be anywhere from 3-0 to 1-2 entering Ryan Field. If the Gophers have taken the next step, they need to show it against Northwestern, which has delivered consecutive heartbreaking losses to Tim Brewster's team.


Fork in the road: Oct. 17 at Michigan State

For the second straight year, Northwestern could enter its showdown against Michigan State undefeated because of an easy opening stretch. The Wildcats took themselves out of last year's contest with a miserable first quarter, but they've had pretty good success at Spartan Stadium since 1995. A win could propel Northwestern toward a major bowl, while a loss would lower expectations.


Fork in the road: Nov. 7 at Penn State

An obvious choice here as Ohio State likely will take one of the nation's most impressive win streaks into Happy Valley. Provided the Buckeyes handle Purdue and Indiana, they will own a 17-game Big Ten road win streak. The last team to beat Ohio State at home? Penn State in 2005. A win in the Big Ten's premier game could clinch a league title for Ohio State. A loss could put the Buckeyes out of the BCS mix.


Fork in the road: Oct. 3 at Illinois

Penn State plays six of its first seven games at Beaver Stadium, but a trip to Champaign could prove problematic. Illinois boasts the league's best passing attack, and Penn State's secondary likely will be its weakest link this fall. The Lions lost their last game at Memorial Stadium and struggled to contain Arrelious Benn last year in Happy Valley. A win likely means Penn State will be 7-0 heading to Michigan on Oct. 24.


Fork in the road: Oct. 10 at Minnesota

Like Indiana, Purdue is a team that needs some early success to keep things afloat. The opening stretch won't be easy, and Purdue hosts Ohio State and Illinois after its visit to the Twin Cities. The Boilers will have a rough time winning at Oregon in Week 2, so this game provides quarterback Joey Elliott and his teammates a chance to build confidence away from home.


Fork in the road: Oct. 10 at Ohio State

Wisconsin's overall schedule is extremely favorable this fall, but the team's biggest test arrives in Columbus. This isn't necessarily a must-win for Wisconsin, but the Badgers need to show they can play with the league's best on the road. Wisconsin faces Ohio State and Iowa in back-to-back weeks, and its performance in those games will determine whether or not the Badgers are back.

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg

Love and hate are the themes of the day around these parts, so I figured I'd chime in about the Big Ten. There are many reasons why I love covering football in this conference, and a few things I'm not so crazy about.

Let's begin with five good things. 

Big stadiums -- Size matters in the Big Ten, which boasts three of the nation's four largest stadiums at Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State. Ohio Stadium, Beaver Stadium and Camp Randall Stadium are on the short list of toughest places to play, and other Big Ten venues (Kinnick Stadium, Spartan Stadium) add their own charm. The game-day experience is truly captured where Big Ten teams call home.

The Game (and other rivalries) -- The Big Ten lays claim to quite possibly the greatest rivalry in all of sports, between Ohio State and Michigan. No series has produced more colorful figures and memorable moments. The league also features exciting annual matchups like Michigan-Michigan State, Penn State-Ohio State and Minnesota-Wisconsin. At stake are coveted items like a bronzed pig, a giant ax, a brown jug and an ancient bucket.

Regent Street and the Beaver Stadium grounds -- They are two of the nation's prime tailgating spots, and they both belong to the Big Ten. Tailgating at Wisconsin or Penn State is an experience every college football fan should enjoy. You get beer and brats in Madison, and elaborate set-ups and daylong debauchery in State College. As a college football fan, you can't go wrong at either place. 

Legendary coaches -- The Big Ten has produced legendary coaches through the decades. From Fielding Yost and Bob Zuppke to Bernie Bierman and Fritz Crisler to Woody and Bo to Hayden Fry and Duffy Daugherty to Barry Alvarez and Jim Tressel, the Big Ten has been at the top of the coaching ranks. The arrival of Penn State's Joe Paterno in 1993 has only added to the league's rich coaching tradition. 

Night games in Columbus, Madison and State College -- Noon kickoffs are generally the norm in the Big Ten, which sort of blows but makes the rare night game all the more special. Ohio State will host only the ninth night game in team history this fall against USC, and the atmosphere will undoubtedly be electric. Same goes for any game under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium -- there were two last year -- and at Penn State, which thankfully welcomes night football more than any other Big Ten team. 

Posted by's Adam Rittenberg 

Happy Friday to all. Big Ten media days are less than a week away and every team but Purdue opens preseason practice on Aug. 4, so gear up. The season's almost upon us. Here's the daily look around the league:

  • College Football Hall of Fame enshrinement awaits Joe Paterno this weekend, and the coach spoke at a benefit dinner Thursday night in Johnstown, Pa. The 81-year-old is already in preseason mode: He's starting to ignore his grandkids, Sam Ross Jr. writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. As for his energy level? "I feel great," he said. "My health is fine. I can't throw the ball 40 yards any more, but I never could."
  • Who ends up making those 40-yard throws this fall remains to be seen, but JoePa would prefer having one quarterback lead the offense, Cory Giger writes in The Altoona Mirror.
  • Paterno also discussed the head-coaching potential of Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, the man most consider to be Paterno's choice as a successor, Mike Mastovich writes in The Tribune-Democrat.
  • Former Minnesota running back Amir Pinnix sees brighter days ahead for the program, Sid Hartman writes in The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune. "You have to stay optimistic, always," Pinnix said. "That's why I love coach [Tim] Brewster, because he's so optimistic. He uses motivation, and he can inspire you to go out and make things happen."
  • A quick hoops detour: Ohio State has gone Greek again, as center Zisis Sarikopoulos -- say that 10 times fast -- is transferring from UAB, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports. Perhaps Thad Matta knows he won't have B.J. Mullens for long, and a team can never have enough 7-footers, right?
  • Mike Barwis mania continues, as's Dennis Dodd takes a look at Michigan's enterprising new strength coach. Wonder if Barwis' colleagues around the country are getting jealous yet.
  • The Lansing State Journal's State of State series continues with a look at ticket prices. Michigan State hasn't raised them in football since 2005, and athletic director Mark Hollis wants to keep it that way, Joe Rexrode writes. But a hike seems inevitable, especially with football season-ticket sales projected to drop by 1,000 this season.
  • Student season-ticket sales haven't suffered at MSU. They're at the highest level in 20 years, so the school is expanding the student section at Spartan Stadium by roughly 3,300 seats this season. Last fall, student season-ticket sales were the highest in 20 years. I mistakenly wrote last week that the section is in the southwest corner; it's in the southeast corner.
  • Recent struggles aren't turning away Iowa fans. Games against Wisconsin and Iowa State are already sold out. Tickets went on sale Thursday.