Capable Competitors

Bret Bielema didn't coin the phrase, but he's a big preacher in the motto, 'it's not how you start, but how you finish.' After a rough regular season, Wisconsin has a chance to finish its season as conference champions and Rose Bowl participants for a third straight season.

INDIANAPOLIS - Wisconsin senior tailback Montee Ball doesn't know whether this year's Wisconsin football team is being tested or is cursed. Either way, it's hard to blame him for whichever option he chooses.

Wisconsin became the fifth program since college football instituted overtime in 1996 to go 0-3 in the extra sessions. What makes it harder to fathom was that the three losses happened in less than a month, turning the Badgers from Leaders Division champions to championship participants by default.

"I'm a firm believer everything happens for a reason," said Ball. "We've had to overcome a lot of adversity. We've been in those games.

"(Playing in the championship game) is kind of like default, it's most definitely not the way we wanted it. So, we'll have that little asterisk next to our name. But the only thing we can do is play. That's what we're going to do."

That's been the message head coach Bret Bielema has given to his players and the players have given to the media this week: Wisconsin has come to win and defend its title, not just to hand it generously over to the Cornhuskers.

"We are capable of winning and erasing everything," said Ball.

All the significant goals – a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champions - are still in front of the Wisconsin football team if the Badgers (7-5) beat No. 14 Nebraska (10-2) in the Big Ten title game tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Do that and this season – filled with five one-possession losses, a firing of an assistant in week three and turmoil at multiple positions - will be deemed a success for Wisconsin and Bielema, doing something no UW coach has ever done by winning three straight conference titles.

Should Wisconsin fall short again, it would tie the worst record in Bielema's seven years with the dysfunctional 2008 team that went 3-5 in the Big Ten and got blown out by Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

The Badgers would still have a bowl game – likely the Jan.1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., against an opponent from the SEC – but that would be little solace.

"This is incredibly disappointing and frustrating, but just like last week, we have to learn from it," said senior quarterback Curt Phillips following the 24-21 overtime loss to Penn State last week. "We still have so much in front of us. If we are able to rally back, which I think we will, it's an awesome opportunity. We're still going to the Big Ten Championship against a team that beat you in the regular season. So, you can't ask for a better opportunity than that."

Bielema called his 7-5 team a strong, resilient group that hasn't succumbed to the negativity. That's evident by the way Wisconsin bounced back from its 30-27 loss at Lincoln. Sitting at 3-2 after letting a 17-point, third-quarter lead slip away, Wisconsin won its next three games by 22 points.

"We came back from the other losses," said junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong. "There was never any question, never any looking around, never any finger pointing. Everyone looked at themselves, what can I do better? We'll bounce back from it."

The optimist will say Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team to not lose a game by more than seven points since the start of the 2010 season. In reality, every other Big Ten team has at least one loss by at least 14 points in that span.

The naysayers will point out that while Wisconsin has been close and competitive in games, the Badgers have developed a trend of coming up short in the clutch. Over that same time frame, Wisconsin is 5-9 in games decides by one possession or less, including a 2-5 record this year and a 2-5 record against ranked teams.

Two of those one-possession losses to ranked teams happened in the Rose Bowl, but one of those wins was a come-from-behind victory over No.11 Michigan State in the same stadium UW will compete in tonight.

"We keep fighting," said Ball. "Every game is super close. Against Ohio State, playing a great team we should have beat, fell short. Same for (Penn State). Another great team, they just made a lot more plays than we did.

"One thing we're going to take away from all of it is we kept fighting. Everyone's not looking around for someone they can blame, they put in on themselves."

Bielema acknowledges he might agree with the resentment of his team playing tonight if the Badgers got their ‘heads beat' by either Ohio State or Penn State. Despite being a play here or there from vastly improving their record, Bielema is making no apologizes for Wisconsin doing what it needed to do to get back to Indianapolis and defend its title.

"They're going to get rewarded for it," said Bielema. "I don't know if it's going to come Saturday, if it's going to come in the bowl game or five years from now in their lives, they're going to take these things and learn."

Tonight would be a perfect time to apply those lessons.

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