On cusp of greatness, Badgers remain steady

Wisconsin has pushed grandiose goals to the sidelines all season long

For the 24 seniors on the University of Wisconsin football team, this afternoon is the last time they will don the Badgers' cardinal and white uniforms and venture into a Big Ten stadium.

Wisconsin renews its rivalry with Iowa today with a 3:30 p.m. kickoff from Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. In addition to the always heated matchup, the Badgers (9-1 overall, 6-1 Big Ten) still have Rose Bowl hopes and will clinch no worse than second place in the conference with a win over the Hawkeyes (8-2, 6-1).

This Wisconsin team, however, is not entertaining those thoughts, nor are the Badgers wary from their loss to Michigan State last week or busy pondering their bowl game destiny.

"Be 1-0," senior defensive tackle Jason Jefferson says. "We've just got to plug away at the next week and Iowa's the next opponent and that's who we are trying to get ready to beat."

So it has been for every game this season. The reason is simple. The Badgers' 24 seniors entered the 2004 campaign with unfinished business, having never claimed the prize they set out for when they arrived on campus three or four years ago.

"I know my recruiting class when we came in and we first met each other we all said we wanted to win the Rose Bowls," senior receiver Darrin Charles said.

The point of ‘1-0' was to submerge those feelings.

"Everyone's goal when they came in was to win a Big Ten championship and go to a Rose Bowl. It was just as our years went on and our opportunities kept getting shorter and shorter, yeah, one of our main goals this year was to win the Big Ten, and go to the Rose Bowl," fifth-year senior tight end Tony Paciotti said. "But then you know that all went to back of our minds when this competition and the 1-0 theory came."

This year could not be about a championship. First, it had to be about camaraderie and competition. It had to be about one of Wisconsin's largest senior classes leading a team one step at a time.

That was the message UW head coach Barry Alvarez had for his seniors after last season's 7-6 finish, spelled out for them in a seniors-only postseason meeting, players said.

"It was all about the potential that the team has," Paciotti said, "if we work hard enough what we were going to accomplish."

"You know, I really feel that we were all waiting for something to buy into," Paciotti said.

Competitions began in offseason workouts and continued through spring and fall.

"We tried to beat each other at certain things that they put us into, different situations whether it would be a running drill or lifting in the weight room or whether it was on the football field, we bought into that," Paciotti said.

‘1-0' arrived with the start of fall training camp.

"Then no one said anything about a bowl game," Paciotti said. "No one said anything about Christmastime. No one said nothing about what was going to happen the week after the game we were going to playing."

The Badgers bought in without a second thought and thrived, winning their first nine games.

"That's the way it still is now," Paciotti said. "Michigan State's over and done with. Now we have to be 1-0 against Iowa."

All the imaginable superlatives were lined up before the Badgers made their fateful journey to East Lansing last week. Then, in heap of Spartan glory, Wisconsin's undefeated season, its inside track to the Rose Bowl and a possible shot at a national championship vanished.

Before that game the question had been ripe in the air: was this the greatest team in program history?

A mere loss later, Wisconsin's luster has faded.

"I think just because it's so late in the season that we lost I think it's magnified a little bit," sophomore quarterback John Stocco said.

"You never want to lose," senior cornerback Scott Starks said. "But if you sit there and think about all the what ifs…you'll let the same team beat us twice. We've got to get over it no matter how hard it is, no matter how rough it is, just get ready for the next week."

At 9-1 the Badgers are still in the midst of one of the school's greatest seasons. A win Saturday and they will become only the fourth team in the program's 116-year history to win 10 games.

"We all know that. No one is really looking at it like, ‘yeah, we could be 10-1…no one's going out there just to say, ‘ooh, we had a 10-win season,'" Paciotti said. "No one is playing for that. They're playing for pride. We're playing to get respect back. We're playing to be 1-0."

"The guys on this team are great," senior cornerback Scott Starks said. "You'll see it next game when we bounce back, get an opportunity to get back on that field."

The Hawkeyes pose an intimidating challenge, having won six consecutive games to draw even with Wisconsin for second place in the Big Ten. Iowa also boasts a 17-game winning streak at Kinnick.

A trip to the Rose Bowl could be on the line for Wisconsin if Ohio State knocks off Michigan Saturday. That game, a noon kickoff, should be complete by the time the Hawkeyes and Badgers get going.

The thought of a Big Ten championship, though, remains buried in the UW psyche.

"Everybody in this room knows that we're playing for a lot," Starks said. "We want to concentrate on the whole 1-0; we want to be 1-0 this week."

Would there be a penalty if they said anything else?

"It wouldn't be smart," Starks said. "That can get the focus off and I want to keep my focus also on the game at hand."

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