The Defining Moment

Walking off the field in Champaign and State College, Wisconsin football looked to be headed for a disasterous finish. Nearly two months later, that simply was not the case.

TAMPA, Fla. - Ten weeks ago, Wisconsin football was at the lowest of lows.

Watching their No.5 national ranking and 14-game winning streak (the longest in the nation), get burned away by the searing heat and the 193 all-purpose yards from Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall.

With a national championship well out of the picture, a Big Ten title now uncertain and a reeling defense, Wisconsin headed to Penn State looking for a rebound.

What happened in Happy Valley marked the new low for the Badgers … and marked the rallying point.

"It was the low point of the year after we didn't play well against Illinois," said defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz about his defense giving up 437 total yards in a 38-7 shellacking. "We didn't play with much passion. We took stock of where we were at, why we were in that position and, to our player's credit, went out and did something with our season."

The Penn State loss was a disaster on multiple levels from the opening handoff. The Badgers committed three turnovers, were stymied in the running game and never posed a serious threat to the Nittany Lions.

But walking off the field to the jeers from the State College faithful, leaving their Big Ten title hopes behind, the Badgers knew that October 13th would define what would happen the remainder of the season.

"Obstacles come and it's not what happens, it's how you respond," fullback Chris Pressley said. "We needed to react to what happens and we didn't do that after the Illinois game, but we reacted positively after Penn State. We reacted in a positive way and if we didn't, we wouldn't be playing."

Sitting at 5-2, Wisconsin bounced back with dominating victories over Northern Illinois and Indiana – outscoring the two programs by a combined score of 77-6. After nearly pulling the upset over No.1 Ohio State, Wisconsin held Michigan to only 47 rushing yards and retained the axe for a fourth-straight season in Minneapolis to complete a stark midseason turnaround.

"We realized that we were a better team than the one that played Penn State. We knew things have to change and people needed to step up," tight end Travis Beckum said. "We knew that everything was still up for grabs and that we still had a chance for a (Jan. 1) bowl. After the Minnesota game, we felt we had a good shot at a good bowl."

The impressive turnaround was engineered by a complete 180 by the Wisconsin defense. Starting with a dominating defense performance by limiting Northern Illinois to 99 total yards and three points, Wisconsin improved in nearly all defensive categories – including allowed points per game (25.9 down to 19.8) and 107.8 rush yards in five games.

Even the offense found its rhythm, scoring 33 or more point in four of the final five games of the season. The only game UW fell short of the 33-point plateau was against No.1 Ohio State, which boasted one of the top defenses in the nation. Of course, that didn't stop the Badgers from becoming only the second team to score two offensive touchdowns against the Buckeyes.

The Badger accomplished all of this despite season-ending injuries to Jason Chapman, Allen Langford and Luke Swan and long-term injuries to P.J. Hill and Paul Hubbard.

"We had to persevere through some injuries and different things where we weren't clicking," said Tyler Donovan about the rallying point. "We needed guys to step up and take the roles of things that needed to be done. We just had to come together to get the job done, find ways to get victories, and we did that towards the end of the season."

Even the ball started bouncing the Badgers away after the Happy Valley disaster, as UW's turnover ratio started heading north.

Forcing just five turnovers in the team's first seven games, Wisconsin created 13 turnovers (nine interceptions and four fumble recoveries) in its last five games, including recovering three fumbles and intercepting two passes against Indiana.

"I never lost confidence in our young team," cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "We have so much talent that I was really confident that we would be able to pick things up and rebound. It was a tough loss going to Penn State and the hostile environment that we didn't want that to define our season. We rebounded well and showed our true potential towards the end of the season."

The main reason for the turnaround in his eyes, head coach Bret Bielema believes that the Badgers finally started to take what they absorbed in practice and translated that into success on the field.

"All year the guys practice and prepared well, but what we talked about going into the Northern Illinois game was that what we practice has to carry over and forward," Bielema said. "That really didn't happen until the Northern Illinois and Indiana game.

"I was really worried how they would prepare for Michigan because we got so beat up physically," Bielema added. "They probably had as an intense practice that week moving forward that showed them they could do that."

Once written off in terms of a decent bowl game and turning the ship around, the Badgers find themselves in a fourth-straight January bowl game - something once two other schools (USC and West Virginia) can say they've done.

Surprised or not, the Badgers have a chance to culminate the turnaround with their third-straight January bowl victory.

"Looking back, we came together after that game," senior Taylor Mehlhaff said. "It is tough playing on the road and getting behind like that, things fell apart for some reason. That really wasn't our team at all playing that game and we all knew we were a much better team. I am totally surprised that we're playing in a January 1st bowl. That's always out goal at the beginning of the year and we got that."

Badger Nation Top Stories