Looking for a Leader

There are still many Big Ten games remaining, which was the emphasis Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and Purdue coach Danny Hope emphasized leading up to Saturday's conference tilt. Still, it's hard to argue that the team that leaves Ross Ade Stadium will have a huge edge in the conference race.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Considering they were winners of the last two conference championships, retained a good portion of its roster and saw one-third of its division forbidden from winning a championship, all the cards were perfectly aligned for the University of Wisconsin.

With the decision by the NCAA committee of infractions to remove Ohio State from postseason competition this season and Penn State ineligible for the next four seasons, many thought Wisconsin would run away with the division title behind its power running game and big offensive line.

A couple hundred miles away, Purdue easily could have taken notice, but chose to shutdown the internet, turn off the television and cancel the newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

"We didn't spend a lot of time reflecting on what was said in the media," said Purdue head coach Danny Hope. "There are so many different people out there with opinions on the quality of competition … Sometimes the information comes from reliable sources and sometimes not … so we just focused on what we needed to do to get better."

Through the month of September, it could be argued that the Boilermakers were the best team in the Leaders Division. Only losing by three on the road to a top-10 team in Notre Dame, Purdue outscored its other three nonconference opponents 153-to-63.

But instead of showing they were a legit conference contender, Purdue fell flat in its conference opener, generating only 213 yards of total offense and letting Michigan's Denard Robinson run wild in a 44-13 blowout.

"We knew that when the season began that people considered us pretenders, and then basically we progressed a little bit and then we became a dark horse and then contenders and then all of a sudden we became favorites," Hope said.

"We had to take all of that with a grain of salt. It was addressed and I don't think that they were fat and sassy or anything as a result of reading their press clippings. I thought we played a very good team and they played better than we did. We're a very good team and we didn't play as near as well as we needed to, and as a result we got beaten at home by a large margin."

When Wisconsin heads to Ross-Ade Stadium for its conference game against Purdue Saturday morning, the Badgers will come in looking far from the unbeatable foe they were portrayed to be. The running game, for the most part, has been limited and devoid of the video game-type numbers it put up last season. The offensive line continues to be in transition, as Wisconsin (4-2, 1-1 Big Ten) is on its third different offensive line coach in the past 10 months.

The Badgers are also searching for their first road win, missing an opportunity two weeks ago by blowing a pair of 17-point leads at Nebraska and lost 30-27. The Badgers responded and took care of Illinois to regain their footing within the Leaders Division, but the race has tightened.

Wisconsin's remaining Leaders schedule still provides a challenge, as it hosts No.8 Ohio State on Senior Day and travels to up-an-down Indiana and suddenly improving Penn State in the regular season finale. Throw in a pair of home games against border-rival Minnesota next week and Michigan State the week after, Wisconsin isn't in position to say Saturday's winner represents the Leaders Division in Indianapolis.

"All the games matter," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "It doesn't matter if they're in the Leaders or in the Legends. Your overall record is of the utmost importance. Purdue has only played one game. I get it. Everybody knows it.

"But really it's a one game approach. As coaches, as football players, you can't take any other perspective other than that."

It's that ‘1-0' philosophy that Bielema has coined over the last five years and, although it's been said ad nauseum, it's been a motto that has yielded dividends. In the previous five seasons under Bielema in which UW lost its Big Ten road opener, the Badgers have combined to go 24-7 (.774) in their remaining conference games after suffering the initial road loss.

Three of those wins have come over Purdue (3-2, 0-1) and won by an average score of 44.3-to-10, including last year's 63-17 blowout in Madison. But just like Wisconsin has bounced back from defeat, head coach Danny Hope has made Purdue regroup quickly.

Suffered two lopsided losses to Notre Dame and Wisconsin last year, the Boilermakers came back to knock off Minnesota and Ohio State, respectively, finishing the season 5-1 following a loss.

While both those programs would hardly call last season a banner year, Purdue responded in 2009 after being shut out by Wisconsin, 37-0, by winning at Michigan for the first time since 1966 one week later.

Now Purdue is looking to shake off its worst home loss since 1990 against a program that has beaten them six consecutive times.

"It's a huge game for both teams," said Hope. "Obviously the winner is in first place in our division, but there is so much football left to be played … It's not a one-game season, but certainly a game that can impact our team, our season and be a great springboard opportunity for our program in a lot of ways.

"It's a huge game. It's a game that can have a lot of magnitude in a lot of different areas."

The same could be said for Wisconsin, as the Badgers – whether they are playing Legends or Leaders – need to build some momentum heading into the heart of their schedule.

"We went to Nebraska and competed our hearts out," said Bielema. "I don't think we did it any less because they're in the other division. Purdue is going to prepare and do everything they can to beat us on Saturday, and we will the same.

"I know we have two divisions, and that's very important at the end of the year, but while you're trying to establish yourself in this league, it's important to have success in all Big Ten games."

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