It is a motif that has carried forth since offseason workouts began in January and has intensified this week with the Big Ten season looming. Penn State visits Camp Randall for a 4:45 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
That 3-0 start through the non-conference season? Poof! It's gone.
"We need to start over. We know [Penn State's] preparation is going to be different because they are opening up the league," offensive line coach Jim Hueber said. "They have the same goals that we do… There is no reason to even talk about the other games. I mean it is all pointing forward now."
"Each week we have to be the best team on the field," quarterback John Stocco said. "We are not trying to get ahead of ourselves. We know we have a great team here and we can do some special things but it's not going to happen unless we do what's important right now."
The Badgers' public face throughout this season has been very consistent. Essentially, the theme has been, "We are doing well, we are progressing but we cannot be complacent."
"What you try to do is strive for perfection," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "You never can reach it in football. Irregardless of how good the game looks… you always find things wrong. It's impossible but that's what you strive for."
There is quite a bit of truth in the regularly iterated notion that Wisconsin has much to build from, and be excited about, if only they keep building. The Badgers are 3-0 because of a stifling defense, dynamic special teams and timely play from what has been, for the most part, an anemic offense.
"I love our record as it is," Alvarez said. "I'm not satisfied with any phase. I think we've done a lot of good things… I've always said you either get better or you get worse, you never stay the same. And for us to be competitive, we better continue to get better."
In key areas, Wisconsin is poised to make a run at its first Big Ten crown since 1999. But there are reasons for skepticism.
No. 1 is the schedule thus far. Wisconsin's first three opponents are a combined 1-8 and possess the three worst offenses the Badgers will face this season. Of the three, Arizona is rated highest in total offense, at No. 103 in the nation. In recent years Wisconsin's defense has typically thrived against teams that allow opponents to stay in their base defense, as UNLV and Central Florida did. Only Arizona presented multiple looks to speak of—most Big Ten teams will be far more creative and more likely to take advantage of the few mistakes Wisconsin's defense has made.
Arizona's defense is a very respectable 27th nationally but UNLV and UCF check in at No. 81 and No. 100. Wisconsin's offense lit up the Golden Knights but struggled for nearly three quarters against the Rebels and Cats. The Badgers desperately need a healthy injection of tailback Anthony Davis, who missed the past two-and-a-half games with an eye injury.
"Without Anthony we don't have the long run threat where he can break one and just be gone because he is so fast," center Donovan Raiola said.
Through 41 minutes of play, Wisconsin amounted all of 156 yards against UNLV and just 131 versus Arizona. The offense deserves plaudits for kicking into gear down the stretch but will need to start faster against Big Ten teams.
Part of the equation has been out-of-character problems in close quarters. The Badgers have ventured into the red zone 11 times this year but only come away with five touchdowns. In each of the past two games, Wisconsin's offense could not pick up a fourth-and-one inside the opponents' five-yard line.
"We've just got to finish," Stocco said. "We've gotten a lot of long drives, nice drives. We can't go that far and just stop down there."
The ‘finishing' theme derived from the challenges of 2003 when UW lost four Big Ten games, each with a chance to win in the fourth quarter. This year Wisconsin has outscored its opponents 23-0 in the fourth quarter.
"We want to win the fourth quarter," Stocco said. "I think that's even more important than starting fast."
Stocco has only turned the ball over once this season but has completed just over half his passes (34 of 66) and is the second lowest rated starting passer in Big Ten.
His decision-making, however, has been nearly flawless, especially for a first-year starting quarterback. The best indication of this may be that the team has only allowed one sack all season. Credit the Badgers' offensive line and running backs for their blocking skills, of course, but Stocco has been remarkably adept at feeling the pressure and delivering passes on time.
"I've still got a long way to go but I think the exciting thing is I know I'm no where near as good as I can be," Stocco said.
Wisconsin has plenty more to build from:
- Caveats aside, the Badgers' defense has played remarkably well and is ranked fourth nationally in total defense (201 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (5.3 points per game). With 26 tackles for loss, nine sacks and only 34 first downs allowed, the only thing that is missing is more turnovers. Wisconsin has forced just two.
- Dwayne Smith's heart condition and Anthony Davis' eye injury severely impaired the Badgers tailback depth, forcing true freshmen Jamil Walker and Chris Pressley into action behind sophomore Booker Stanley. Stanley has played admirably but, more importantly, Davis is cautiously expected to return next week. And after injuries decimated the Badgers last season, they have been nearly unscathed this year.
- Place kicker Mike Allen has struggled but the rest of the special teams have been excellent. Punter Kenneth DeBauche and kickoff specialist Taylor Mehlhaff are rekindling memories of Badger greats Kevin Stemke and John Hall. Jim Leonhard is still one of the best punt returners in the nation.
- Stocco has completed passes to nine different receivers, keeping every option somewhat happy.
- Wisconsin has converted 43 percent of its third- and fourth-down conversions, compared to 22 percent for its opponents.
As the cliché goes, however, the most important statistic is the final score and the Badgers are well aware of the fact that they have not had a winning record in conference play since their last Big Ten title.
"Nobody wants to have the kind of seasons that we've had the last couple years," Stocco said.