Emphasizing that getting back to full strength health wise was the key this week in leading up to the final three games of the regular season, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema put out a plan this weekend that included an early lift Friday followed by a conditioning session afterwards.
Following that session, the players are off, but with a message from their head coach.
"Take care of themselves," Bielema said Thursday. "Freakfest was last week. Thank goodness it's not this week. I'm sure there will be some type of events this weekend."
Whatever the event is, it will allow Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) to get its mind off football, and a season where the Badgers have lost three games each by three points. Despite sitting in third place in the Leaders Division, Wisconsin will clinch a berth in the conference championship game with a win over Indiana due to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible.
"We still have a very good season," Bielema said. "But still, you're nine points away from three different victories that put you in the league world of college football. We haven't been able to do it. It seems like every time this year when we begin to make a stride we get our feet knocked out from under us. These guys have been very resilient."
Finishing with two out of three on the road, Wisconsin responded to the challenge by having a physical practice Thursday that Bielema hopes sets the tone for a strong finish.
"We might have had our best practice of the fall." Bielema said. "I was really excited how our guys handled it. All we can do is move forward. We have a three-week season. For us the way it lays out, obviously, to go to Indiana and play a team that kind of controls the destiny of who goes to Indianapolis.
"And to play two teams that could win the Leaders Division but can't play in the game is very unique. The schedule was set almost three years ago. It's a unique scenario that probably no one could envision at the time it was made."
With the added importance of the Indiana game, Bielema stressed his message of ‘recovery' this week in order to allow Wisconsin to get a jump start on its preparation for the Hoosiers on Sunday.
In addition to paying close attention to Indiana's home game against Iowa Saturday, Wisconsin has already started installing Indiana's up-tempo offense to its scout team. After not having any bad or misalignments against Oregon's fast-tempo offense in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin's defense has been working on its defensive sub packages and started installing the game plan Wednesday and Thursday in order to have up tempo practices Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
"The advantage this week is we really taught (Indiana's) offense to (the scout team) this week." Bielema said. "The only (scenario) we can control is the one we are in."
Farewell to Fenton
Sensing his time at Wisconsin was winding down, junior linebacker A.J. Fenton approached the second half of spring camp with a determination and fervor the coaching staff hadn't seen from him. It was the reason he entered summer conditioning as the team's No.1 strongside linebacker.
Unfortunately, Fenton and the UW coaching staff got a reminder of how cruel the game of football is.
Before fall camp, Fenton mysteriously encountered a back injury that required surgery with the goal of minimizing some of the pain. When the surgery did not yield its intended results and the issue continued to persist, Fenton decided Sunday that he needed to move forward without football.
"Lucky for us he is a really good student," Bielema said. "He's going to graduate in spring and move on with the next phase of his life. It is tough for A.J. He's one of our favorites. He is a guy who we talked about the possibility of moving positions. I thought he could play linebacker. He really came on last fall during the course of the season. He and Coach Buh hit it off well, and he was playing exceptionally well."
Fenton came to Wisconsin as a talented multi-sport athlete out of Erie, Pa., and did everything for McDowell Senior High, holding the school's all-time records with 4,267 rushing yards and 54 touchdowns as a running back and quarterback in addition to his time as a safety.
He hardly played linebacker before coming to Wisconsin, but still played in 26 career games (including 13 last year) and finished with seven career tackles.
Bielema said Fenton, whose dad had back problems, isn't scheduled for any more surgeries, but isn't out of the realm of possibilities.
Fenton is the sixth recruit from Wisconsin's 2009 signing class to not finish his career at Wisconsin.
Mum's the Word
Although he wasn't willing to say if one quarterback had the advantage over the other, Bielema said both Curt Phillips and Danny O'Brien have growing confidence in the new opportunity to become the starting quarterback for the Badgers for the rest of the season in place of injured freshman Joel Stave.
"Curt and Danny both had a real good day," Bielema said. "Obviously competing brings the best out of people. They are playing well and the kids are aware of it, as well, I think our offensive players in particular. Hopefully that will keep moving forward. The quarterbacks will be different, but we don't want our offense to really change."
Bielema hopes to name a starter no later than Tuesday. He also hopes to keep Stave upbeat considering his broken collarbone is his first real injury that has taken him out of a football game.
"It's difficult," Bielema said. "He said, ‘Coach I've never had to sit before.' This is a growing process that he unfortunately has to go through. He's always got a ball in his hand and is flipping a ball with his left hand, I said ‘Buddy, you're all connected. You move your left arm it's still connected to the right arm.' He said ‘I'm sorry, coach.' He's aggressive and we just want him to recover."
Extra Points: Bielema reported senior left tackle Ricky Wagner has practiced the last couple of days and should be ready for everything next week … Bielema said Derek Landisch and Conor O'Neill have had some nice preparations his fall and could step in for Mike Taylor next season … Bielema said he's leaving at 5 a.m. Friday and will be going to four different states for recruiting. "I will end up somewhere far away from here, hopefully a little warmer."