INDIANAPOLIS - Wisconsin dropped four games a year ago, all of which were bitter pills to swallow. There was Senior Day against Penn State, the bowl game against South Carolina and the officiating blunder at Arizona State.
But the 31-24 loss to Ohio State in late September was the one that really stuck for a lot of players, ultimately costing Wisconsin a chance to play in a third straight Big Ten championship game.
“That was one of those hard-to-swallow losses, especially since a couple of their touchdowns were just one big play, just one blown assignment or one unlikely bounce that we had,” said outside linebacker Joe Schobert. “We felt like we played them the whole game straight up. It’s definitely motivation.” /p>
No.11 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten) is back in the conference title after a one year absence and, as fate would have it, gets a shot at redemption tonight against the sixth-ranked Buckeyes (11-1. 8-0) at 7:17 p.m. CT at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“They’re going to be a really good team and incredibly talented,” senior tight end Sam Arneson said. “It’s definitely a challenge we look forward to talking on. If you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best.”
A year ago Wisconsin beat themselves, as a young secondary not being able to make enough plays and crippling errors on special teams were too much to overcome in a hostile road environment.
Defensively Sojourn Shelton dropped a sure interception near the UW 10-yard line. One play later, a busted coverage by Peniel Jean, who jumped the sideline route instead of dropping back with the deep route, resulted in a 40-yard touchdown pass from Braxton Miller to Corey Brown.
It was one of three Miller touchdown passes, all over 25 yards, in the first half that the savvy quarterback completed because of miscommunication between young secondary players, but was the most damaging considering there was only one second left in the half and came just 1 minute, 29 seconds after UW cut the deficit to 17-14.
“This will be a game that we can't afford to make those mistakes,” said UW coach Gary Andersen, as Wisconsin didn’t force a turnover in the loss. “Usually in a game that is a tight game or you have a chance to be able to win or be in at the end, if you're not in that position, you have made those mistakes that can really hurt you. That was the case in that last game, and we'll have to learn from that.”
The Badgers didn’t get the breaks on special teams either. After a Joel-Stave-to-Jared-Abbrederis 64-yard gain to the Ohio State 23, then-kicker Kyle French missed a 32-yard field goal, keeping the score at 14-7 Ohio State.
Following a scoreless drive by both teams, Brown muffed a UW punt that the Badgers apparently recovered at the Ohio State 31, only to have the play wiped out because of an illegal formation penalty on linebacker Chris Borland.
Wisconsin punted again, Ohio State got the ball at the UW 45 and kicked a field goal to lead 17-7.
The box score showed Wisconsin’s running game being held to only 104 total yards, usually a number that the Badgers’ offense can’t overcome, but Stave and Abbrederis were terrific. Abbrederis caught 205 of Stave’s 295 passing yards and one of his two touchdowns, torching the Buckeyes’ secondary.
But they weren’t immune to miscues either. Stave threw an interception (the only turnover of the game) after being hit on his attempt. The pick was returned to the Wisconsin 32, leading to an Ohio State touchdown and a 31-14 lead in the third quarter. The offense also went just 3-for-12 on third down.
“It comes down to execution,” said Stave. “There’s a couple things we want back on offense. There’s a couple things we want back on defense. That was enough to lose us the game. We’ll be able to go back, look at ourselves and see what we missed in that game, see what we’ve been doing well this year and come up with a good plan.”
Although the teams meet just 14 months later, there are few carryovers. Miller is on the sidelines, where he has been all season because of shoulder problems, and third-string quarterback Cardale Jones will be in charge of running the offense. The Wisconsin front seven is also virtually brand new, as only senior Derek Landisch started last season.
The only thing that’s the same for Wisconsin defensive is the secondary, which is a good thing in junior cornerback Darius Hillary’s mind.
“We’re playing more team football,” said Hillary. “Communication was something that hurt us last year against Ohio State, but communication on the back end has been something we’ve stressed and something we’ve accomplished. I definitely think we’ve done a good job thus far.”
After falling in the conference opener at Northwestern, there were questions about whether or not the Badgers had the mental moxie and make up to be a championship team. Winning the final seven games of the season, the Badgers have a chance to win their fourth conference title in five years and exact a little revenge at the same time.
“This is for it all,” said tailback Melvin Gordon. “They were there last year and came up short. I know they are expecting to go out all from the start of practice because they don’t want to feel that feeling. We don’t want to feel that either.”