Everyone who follows Wisconsin football knows what happened when the Badgers traveled to Evanston, Ill., last season. Wisconsin, which just two weeks before had been on top of the Big Ten world, dropped its second consecutive game, a 16-7 decision at the hands of Northwestern.
The two teams meet again Saturday at 11 a.m. Just like last year, Wisconsin is coming off two emotional games against Ohio State and Purdue. Last year, the Badgers snapped the Buckeyes'19-game winning streak, then lost to Purdue on a last-second field goal.
"After the loss to Purdue that hurt us pretty bad," defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne said. "I'm not really sure where everybody's mind was going into the game. We definitely wanted to beat Northwestern but things just didn't go our way during the game and we came up with a loss."
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez has a theory. He intimated Monday that the team was so emotionally and physically drained after those two games last year that maintaining a normal practice schedule sent the team's energy reserves plummeting towards empty.
"We just kept our same routine, figuring we'd get through one more week before we get to a bye," Alvarez said. "And I really thought our guys were drained and I didn't think we played particularly well. I think it was obvious. It was like we were sleepwalking."
"In the moment you weren't really thinking about you were tired or things like that," free safety Jim Leonhard said. "We came off of two really, really big games last year and losing the one to Purdue at the end like that was a big letdown. I feel like it did carry over a little bit into the next week."
Lesson learned. This week has been different. Alvarez shortened the players' work day Monday, turning them loose from football at about 5:30 p.m., rather than the customary 7 p.m.
"He put the Purdue game behind us and then really got us focused on Northwestern," cornerback Brett Bell said. "It's real nice. We just got done with midterms, we just got done with this game. It gives you some more time to yourself, which is hard to find during the season."
For the most part, the practice week was the same. The team has prepared as they normally would but practices were a few minutes shorter, there was less conditioning and weight training and a little less physical play in practice, players and coaches said.
"We just cut back a little bit on some certain things," defensive line coach John Palermo said. "Probably not as much banging as we normally do. We spent actually more time going against Northwestern stuff than we did going against ourselves, which we normally do quite a bit of during the week."
This was not an overhaul, but a slight tweaking.
The idea is that Wisconsin will be fresh when it takes the field Saturday, following emotional wins at Ohio State and at Purdue the past two weeks. The Badgers are undefeated and in contention for a national title this year. Still, what is to say the result of the Northwestern game will be different this year?
"We put the other games behind us," cornerback Scott Starks said. "Of course we won them last couple games but that doesn't have anything to do with this week. We have to go into it with a whole different mind frame. We just want to be 1-0 this week."
The Badgers also clearly remember what happened in Evanston last season.
"Mostly I remember just that day it was kind of a real just dim day," Starks said, painting a gloomy picture. "The sun wasn't out, it was kind of wet. The team's attitude did seem to change from when it did the two weeks prior to that. It just carried into the game. We started off real slow, we tried to pick it up and it was too little, too late."
A more poignant memory stuck with Hawthorne.
"Just the attitude of Northwestern's players when they were scoring," he said. "Things they were saying on the field really sticks out to me the most."
Hawthorne did not care to elaborate.
"I wouldn't want to comment on that," he said.
Wisconsin learns its lesson
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