MADISON – Let the fun begin for the University of Wisconsin.
After hearing how hard the Big Ten schedule is going to be, the Badgers survived their nonconference schedule unscathed and with plenty of room to grow, not close to peaking on either side of the football. That was evident on Saturday.
Favored by 33 points and having to execute a fourth-quarter comeback to get past Georgia State, players who spoke postgame were not disappointed by the performance in the final tune-up. It fact, it couldn’t have been more the opposite.
“It’s encouraging to not fire on all cylinders and still find a way to win,” center Michael Deiter said. “That teaches a lot of guy’s lessons that even when it’s not going to best we can go out and still get wins.”
Through three weeks of the college football season, the Big Ten gauntlet for the Badgers – which dropped two spots to No.11 in the Associated Press poll - looks even tougher. Beginning this weekend at No.8 Michigan State, Wisconsin plays five ranked teams in a row, including three on the road and two in the top five.
“I’m excited,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “You can be nervous but you can’t run. It is what it is. Next week you are starting off with one of the powerhouses in the Big Ten, the team that won the Big Ten last year and was able to experience what we’re trying to one day be, which is the college football playoffs. I’m excited and I know everyone in that locker room is excited.”
Each game has provided learning opportunities for Wisconsin. The win over LSU showed the Badgers can compete with top programs, last week’s win over Akron showed how good they can play when they execute and the 23-17 win over Georgia State Saturday proved they can survive without their best.
And for those who say it’s one thing to come from behind against a ranked team in a neutral site but an entirely different one against a Sun Belt conference school in your home stadium, UW doesn’t see it that way.
While things were stagnate on offense and the defense was leaking big plays, Wisconsin managed to pull things together in the final 11 minutes.
“I do think it was key that we made a stand in the fourth quarter,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “We were back up against the wall, came out and stopped them. Then our offense came down and executed well. I think it was key to get that win in that way that we did before Big Ten play. I think that was good for us.”
According to the players, the fix-it list for both sides of the ball is long. The offense is still searching for consistent rhythm. In three nonconference games, Wisconsin out gained teams 441 to 13 in the first quarter, running 61 plays and controlling the ball for 39 minutes, 40 seconds (87.6 percent), but have only scored 15 points and one touchdown.
Defensively the Badgers gave up five chunk pass plays of at least 20 yards Saturday, as well as points on three consecutive second-half drives to a team that ranked 104th or worse in most offensive categories.
But while going into conference play following a dominant performance looks nice, recent history shows the momentum doesn’t carry over.
In 2010 No.11 Wisconsin demolished Austin Peay, 70-3, with 618 yards of total offense, limited the Governors to 197 yards and was universally sound in special teams. A week later at No.24 Michigan State, the Badgers were limited to 292 yards of offense, gave up 444 and a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 34-24 defeat.
UW has also lost its conference opener in three of the last four seasons, including the last two years, after winning games by a combined score of 92-36.
How good the Badgers are will be deciphered over the next week, but history shows what happened last has no impact on what happens next.
“We’re not where we need to be,” Deiter said. “Obviously there’s still stuff we can clean up, but I’m encouraged by what we can do. We can be a lot better. There’s stuff we can do better, which is good. We have time to clean stuff up this week. I’m excited to go into Big Ten play with this group.”