MADISON – The familiarity of digging out from an early Big Ten hole is nothing new for the University of Wisconsin.
For the fifth time since 2008 and for consecutive years, the Badgers will have to figure out how to regroup after stubbing their toe in the conference opener.
“One of the things that we preach to everybody is there is a lot of football left in the season,” said senior cornerback Darius Hillary. “Whether or not we won the game, we have to come back the next week and be ready to play. I think we’ll do that.”
The task of a turnaround for Wisconsin – which dropped from No.19 to out of the AP poll following its 10-6 home loss to Iowa – begins this week at Nebraska (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten). It will be the Badgers first trip to Memorial Stadium since 2012.
Many of the problems that popped up in the conference opener against Iowa were present a year ago. Wisconsin turned the ball over four times, was a mess throwing the football and lacked the necessary fundamentals in a 20-14 loss at Northwestern.
It wasn’t an immediate fix, but the Badgers regrouped to win the final seven games of the regular season – riding the offense of tailback Melvin Gordon – and win the Big Ten West.
On three of those 0-1 conference starts, UW either won a conference title or advanced to the title game (granted one was as the third-place team in 2012). That was the message – to a degree - being preached in the locker room after the game.
“We were given a similar situation with the tough Northwestern loss but that was different people, different season and different circumstances,” said junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel. “If we want to get to where we want to be, we can definitely draw upon those experiences that we had from last year.”
But unlike last year, the running game wasn’t a problem. Gordon ran for 259 yards and averaged 9.6 yards per carry. Against Iowa, UW had only two runs longer than nine yards. With no dynamic running back healthy on the roster and an offensive line in flux, the Badgers’ 167.8 rushing yards is 74th in the country.
“There are obviously a bunch of things that need to be tightened up,” said junior tailback Dare Ogunbowale. “It really is just being patient, seeing the holes. We’re going to keep working. There’s nothing that needs to be drastically changed. Things didn’t work out for us and it was tough sledding in the running game.”
While wiping the slate clean and starting over may be drastic, UW’s running game won’t get a break against a Cornhuskers defense allowing 85 rushing yards per game (per comparison, Iowa was limiting teams to 84 rush yards). And UW might be going into Lincoln without its only two reliable weapons in the passing game.
Senior tight end Austin Traylor had a procedure done Monday, according to head coach Paul Chryst, and will not play Saturday. Senior receiver Alex Erickson is going through the concussion protocol after getting knocked out at the start of the third quarter against the Hawkeyes.
“Everybody is going to step up with Traylor being out and Alex,” said Ogunbowale. “It’s going to be tough. Those guys are big playmakers for us. I think we have enough depth and playmakers to step up.”
Even if Ogunbowale is over selling the team’s depth, Wisconsin will need help to win the West.
Now sitting 1.5 games behind Iowa, the Hawkeyes – like UW – don’t have Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan on the schedule. Iowa’s matchup with undefeated Northwestern in Evanston on Oct.17 has huge implications. Sandwiched around the Iowa matchup for Northwestern, the Wildcats go to Ann Arbor and Nebraska in their toughest stretch on the schedule.
Northwestern comes to Madison Nov.21. It’ll be up to the Badgers to make that game relevant.
“It’s going to be a tough road from here on out,” said Biegel. “Entering the Big Ten schedule, we’re going to play some great opponents. Everything is still ahead of us to get to where we want to be, and we’re excited about that.”