Michigan State has lost back-to-back heartbreakers against conference powerhouses Michigan and Ohio State. Two weeks ago the Spartans blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead against the Wolverines, eventually losing in triple overtime. Last week they came back from a 17-0 hole to lead 19-17 in the final frame, only to watch the Buckeyes rattle off the game's final 15 points.
"I think about that constantly," Spartan offensive tackle Sean Poole told The Detroit News. "But I have to put it in the past. What's done is done."
Had Michigan State won those two games, Saturday's 2:30 p.m. kickoff with the undefeated Badgers would be for first place in the Big Ten. Rather, the Spartans are reeling and stand 3-3 in the conference play. At 4-5 overall, Michigan State must win its last three games to even qualify for a bowl berth.
It was not supposed to be like this, not after demolishing Minnesota 51-17 to go to 3-1 in league play.
"It's a beautiful day," Michigan State coach John L. Smith said at his Monday press conference. "You have to be in a good mood, because if you come in with a bad mood and bad outlook on life, then our kids are going to have that same outlook."
The Badgers understand. Through nine games last season, they were 6-3 and about to lose to Minnesota. They were bowl-bound, but they won just one of their final six games after a euphoric win over Ohio State, and finished 7-6. Three of those losses came down to the game's final play.
"It's tough to bounce back but they've got a good team," UW corner Scott Starks said. "The losses they've had have been close. They are going to come out fired up and ready to play at their house."
Wisconsin has put last season's late-game heartaches to good use this time around, winning three games that came down to a decisive fourth quarter, including a 9-7 win at Arizona and a 20-17 win at Purdue.
"The coaches really put a big emphasis on that this year because we lost so many close games last year in the fourth quarter," Badger quarterback John Stocco said. "I think it rubbed off on everybody. All the guys are winners. We know how to win."
Wisconsin has kept a remarkably even keel through its 9-0 start this season and players and coaches insist that talk of Bowl Championship Series standings, the Rose Bowl or a possible national championship are not affecting them. They remain focused on the next game on their schedule.
"We don't put a lot of pressure on ourselves," Starks said.
But what about high-profile games at Ohio State, at Purdue and emotional affairs like last week's senior day versus rival Minnesota? Didn't the Badgers feel mounting pressure those weeks?
"Nah, not at all. We just know what we have to do for that week," Starks said. "We have to go out there, play ball and win that game and not worry about the games after that or rankings and all that other stuff."
"We have an old team, we have a lot of seniors and a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball for us," Stocco said. "There's been pressure on us all year and we just can't worry about that. Just work on ‘1-0', that's it. All we need to worry about is Michigan State. They are a dangerous football team."
Focus is good. Winning is better.
"Any time you win it is fun," Starks said. "It is not fun losing and having must-win situations."
"We didn't have the same mentality last year of going 1-0," Starks added. "We had certain goals that kind of looked ahead in the season. We might have had more pressure last year that we put on ourselves. That's not the case this year."
From a Wisconsin vantage point it is hard to determine what kind of pressure the Spartans have put on themselves. The Badgers, though, expect Michigan State to bounce back, just as the Spartans did after it appeared Ohio State was going to run them right out of their own stadium after building a quick 17-0 lead, that deficit coming on the heels of the draining loss at Ann Arbor.
"When you play so hard and you're not rewarded over a period of time, there's a tendency to lose confidence," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "You can go back to them losing at Rutgers right out of the chute, yet coming back and playing well. And, you know, they have rebounded a number of times, which tells me that [John L. Smith] has his team and that they're a resilient group."
The Badgers have won week after week because they have not gotten ahead of themselves.
"We've accomplished all of our goals so far up to this point," Stocco said.
Just being 1-0.
"Nine times," Stocco said.