The Badgers were in a similar position a year ago when No. 1 Ohio State came to town in mid-October. Night game, sell-out crowd, ESPN's College Gameday kickoff show broadcasting live from the stadium, national television audience and tickets going for more than double face value all set the stage for an electric atmosphere that ended with a 31-18 Wisconsin victory and rowdy students spilling out on to the field.
That atmosphere and then some is expected to descend on Madison again Oct. 1 when Nebraska – ranked No. 9 in the latest coaches poll – plays its first conference game against No. 7 Wisconsin in primetime at Camp Randall. Hotels are sold out, tickets prices are astronomical and UW officials are bracing for a lot of extra bodies in town based on how well Nebraska fans travel.
But while many Badgers fans are preparing for one of the most anticipated games the city has hosted this decade, don't count Wisconsin players among the contingent of people looking ahead.
"Coach Bielema does a great job of reminded us every day (to stay focused)," said senior quarterback Russell Wilson, who will lead his high-powered offense against Football Championship Subdivision opponent South Dakota at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Wisconsin's final nonconference tune-up. "We have a lot of leaders on this team that are making sure we are preparing one day at a time and staying in the now. That's our goal every single play, every single week, so that's kind of a consistent thing with us."
As he's grown in the head coaching business, Bielema has coined the phrase "1-0," a motto that emphasizes to his players that a college football season is a long journey and it can be made even longer if they don't take it one game, one quarter and one play at a time.
Staying focused is something Wisconsin has mastered through three blowout weekends of college football. Outscoring the competition, 135-24, Wisconsin has become more balanced by adding a lethal passing game, taken care of the football (one turnover) and moved the ball effectively with 7.6 yards per play.
"It's been exciting, just seeing that everyone that gets a chance to touch the ball moves the sticks," said sophomore wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. "Being able to get first downs and move the ball no matter what yardage we have to go … is a big thing for our team."
South Dakota will be the first ranked opponent the Badgers will face this season, although that No. 20 ranking is in the FCS coaches poll. The Coyotes (2-1) have made noise before, beating Minnesota in the Twin Cities last season, and beat top-ranked and defending FCS champion Eastern Washington two weeks ago.
Still, South Dakota coach Ed Meierkort, who was the head coach at UW-Stout from 1993-2003, said this week that the only way for his team to keep the game civil is if Wisconsin is caught peaking ahead.
"I'm sure they're a little more preoccupied with next week's game than our game," he said.
Last year, the Badgers' final tuneup before the Big Ten season was a 70-3 blasting of FCS opponent Austin Peay. The next week, Wisconsin's seniors admitted that the Badgers had a bad week of practice before beating Austin Peay and it cost them in their conference opener, a 34-24 loss at Michigan State. This week, Bielema in part blamed that loss on himself.
"I didn't stress the importance of not only we were playing Michigan State, we were playing Michigan State on the road," Bielema said. "We just weren't clean in some of the things we were doing."
Wisconsin finished the season on a seven-game win streak to clinch a share of its first conference championship in 11 years, doing so with a dominant offensive attack that put up more than 70 points two more times. A similar start this year has allowed Bielema to re-emphasize the point that a solid week of preparation yields dividends on Saturdays.
"If our preparation this week changes from what it was last week against Northern Illinois, the week before against Oregon State, or to go ahead a week against Nebraska, then we're setting ourselves up for failure," Bielema said. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. And I think, again, if it's South Dakota, Nebraska, Oregon State, Northern Illinois, it's the same for our guys."
When pressed further about Nebraska, Wilson admitted he's not naïve – he knows the Cornhuskers are next and that it's going to be a big game. But in the same breath, he said that every day is a big day and another opportunity to improve.
He may be new to the program, but Wilson has the company line down pat.
"That's how we treat it, and that's how we are preparing for this game," Wilson said. "The ultimate goal for me is to stay in the now, stay in the present time and enjoy the moment. That's what I try to instill in our offense every day and that's what the guys already have."
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