MADISON - ”Adversity” is a word that the Wisconsin football team is familiar with. It is also a word that the football team needed to overcome if they wanted to become a great football team.
Wisconsin looked like a lost football team two months ago. Already blowing a 17-point, third-quarter lead in the season-opening loss to LSU, the Badgers committed turnovers, missed tackles and were beaten by a below average Northwestern team. The passing game was a mess and the faith in the program from the outside was dim.
Senior linebacker Marcus Trotter doesn’t believe he and his teammates lost faith, but knew things needed to be changed.
“We kind of understood that we really have to change how we practice, change how we play in order to win,” Trotter said. “It was funny, after the Northwestern game, Coach (Gary) Andersen even said ‘don’t even worry if we keep on playing and do what we do, we’re going to make it to Indianapolis,’ and I think outside people looking in wouldn’t have believed that. I think a lot of us really took that message and took it home, to practice, every single day, and we always believed in each other and we have a very young group of guys but a lot of guys stepped up after that and we understood that, and if we were going to Indianapolis we’re going to have to win each game.”
That message has proved its worth. Winners of seven straight games, Wisconsin – which moved up three spots to No.11 in the AP poll – won the Big Ten West Division outright after its 34-24 victory over then-No.22 Minnesota and will meet No.6 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday in Indianapolis.
As UW paraded around Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 11th straight season, many fans and media were wondering how the Badgers got to this point after their ugly Northwestern loss so long ago.
Against the Wildcats, Wisconsin’s season-long struggles with the quarterback play came to a head in the first half, as Andersen decided to make a mid-game switch at the position from Tanner McEvoy to Joel Stave to try to ignite something within the offense.
The results didn’t yield success, but the gears of changing the program were put into motion.
With a Big Ten West championship hat on his head, Andersen put the turnaround on a leadership committee that was formed early in the season, a group that played a critical role developing a roster that had a combined 23 players either freshman or sophomores listed on the two deep depth chart.
“Our leadership, it's phenomenal, it really truly is,” Andersen said. “The leadership committee on this football team is voted for early on. They vote for those kids, but this is the first year I didn't go back through and redo the leadership committee as far as having them vote again in the fall. I look at the amount of kids that are on that leadership committee and how they've been excited about being involved with the youth of this team, it's so impressive. So the kids deserve the credit. They bought in.”
It is difficult to practice for adversity until it comes, but Andersen said he and the coaching staff have tried to practice for it when it comes. The results showed during Wisconsin’s critical November stretch against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
All three of those teams had their chance to represent the West Division instead of Wisconsin. Wisconsin fell down by two touchdowns to both Nebraska and Minnesota at home and were able to find a way to win a two-point game at Iowa, UW’s first one-possession win in Big Ten play since 2010.
“I felt like this whole year are backs have been up against the wall not only defensively, but in a lot of different situations,” Trotter said. “I think it really shows us as a whole team that we are really poise and very calm...I think we’ve proved that even if we’re down we can still come back and rely on the offense like they rely on us.”
Over the last three years, Wisconsin has felt a felt a heavy dose of adversity against Ohio State. Since beating No.1 Ohio State, 31-18, in 2010, the Badgers have lost three straight to the Buckeyes by a combined 18 points.
“We're in a good spot,” Andersen said. “We're resilient. We're tough minded. We're going to play against a very talented Ohio State team obviously. We're excited about that opportunity. And these kids set a goal to get to this moment. We're going to start preparing and we're going to see what happens.”
After being a part of two teams who played and won in the Big Ten championship game, junior tailback Melvin Gordon was in attendance for last year’s championship game between Ohio State and Michigan State to support friend and former high school teammate Trae Waynes.
Gordon was able to see Wayne and the rest of the Spartans beat the Buckeyes that night, witnessing the confetti falling down and he thought to himself how great of a feeling it would be if Wisconsin could get to Indianapolis for a third time in four years.
Gordon knows that it took a lot for Wisconsin to overcome to get to this point, which is why he’s confidence that his teammates will be ready against the Buckeyes.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are determined and have a lot of heart and that’s been the story of Wisconsin,” Gordon said. “Guys that milk off of mental toughness; that’s all that was. In all honesty, in order to bounce back, you have to have some mental toughness, and that’s what we got.”