‘Championship-caliber' game up next

UW is two wins from a Big Ten championship. Its toughest challenge awaits.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The stage is set. With two games left in its Big Ten season, the University of Wisconsin football team is two wins away from a conference championship.

The Badgers set the table with an uninspiring 41-24 win here Saturday, making enough plays to defeat an overmatched Illinois team that gave the Badgers all that they asked for and more.

Now, they prepare for the main event. Wisconsin travels to Happy Valley next week to battle Penn State with first place in the Big Ten on the line. Each team stands at 8-1 overall, 5-1 in the Big Ten.

"It don't get no better than that," senior receiver Brandon Williams said. "It's the biggest game for both teams all year."

Neither team was expected to be here. Barry Alvarez's swan song as Wisconsin's coach was supposed to be an exercise in frustration with a young team. There have been plenty of hiccups along the way, to be sure, but the Badgers have earned eight victories.

"I'm very pleased to be here," Alvarez said. "I don't think anyone expected us to be 8-1. So for us to be in this position and still alive and sitting atop the conference, I'm very happy."

It was not that long ago that a seething undercurrent was begging for Joe Paterno to ride into the sunset. Now, the Nittany Lions are one of the best teams in college football.

Said UW co-offensive coordinator Brian White: "It will be fun. What an experience. To go to Beaver Stadium and coach against an outstanding coaching staff and one of the legendary coaches of our sport. And in a big game. In a championship-caliber game. What could be better?"

In the win column, not much. This season has not been a work of art. Saturday, Illini quarterback Tim Brasic exposed titanic holes in the Badgers' defense, running for 116 yards and passing for 277. It does not get more troublesome than that, especially with Penn State's multi-dimensional signal-caller, Michael Robinson, waiting.

All week the Badger coaching staff emphasized playing a complete game, something that has eluded this team. Yet again, however, Wisconsin made enough plays to win.

"I got a good game offensively and we made a couple mistakes in the kicking game that we normally don't make," Alvarez said. "It wasn't exactly what I wanted but you take the win. You just move on. We've got to correct some things."

Saturday, as has been the case most of this season, Wisconsin won with offense. Brian Calhoun's 197 rushing yards and five touchdowns rushing led the way. There was also another big play on special teams: Jonathan Casillas' second blocked punt in three weeks. But the defense stammered and UW flubbed an extra point and a field-goal attempt.

"It is what it is. We win ugly sometimes," Williams said. "I don't care. I hope we can get an ugly win next week. And then an ugly win after that. As long as we win."

Two more wins and Wisconsin earns a Big Ten championship, blemishes and all.

"This team has been ready for everybody we've played," Alvarez said. "We've found a way to compete with everybody. Penn State is a great football team. I know they'll be ready. I just hope we have enough firepower to hang in there with them."

Wisconsin knows this feeling well. A year ago, UW was 9-0, two wins away from a perfect regular season and a conference crown. The Badgers proceeded to lose to Michigan State and Iowa by a combined 79-21.

"Déjà vu all over again," Williams said. "Hopefully we can be on the winning side this year."

Two more wins and the Badgers will send Alvarez out with his fourth conference championship in 16 seasons at Wisconsin.

"It's huge. He's built this program from ground up," senior tight end Jason Pociask said. "Put great people around him to be able to do this. And to be able to go out like this, if we can come through . . .

Pociask paused.

"Because in the past, last year is a good example, we just haven't finished a season," he said. "Finishing this season would be a great way to send him out."

Two more wins is all it will take.

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