How would Wisconsin respond after having to sit on its hands for a weekend while its opponents gained more momentum than they had all season?
The answer? With a vengeance.
The Badgers came out of the gates ready to inflict three weeks of anger and Purdue never had a chance. Wisconsin ran the football with confidence, its defense didn't waver and the special teams added its second touchdown of the year … and that was just in the first half of football.
"Winning is good for the soul," said Head Coach Bret Bielema after UW's 37-0 victory over Purdue Saturday. "It cures a lot of elements."
Wisconsin's first conference shutout since a 59-0 victory over Indiana in 1999 makes the Badgers (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) bowl eligible for a program-best eighth straight season, but the results were clear – they have a lot more to accomplish.
"Nobody is really focused on bowl eligibility," sophomore cornerback Devin Smith said. "If we set out what we set out to at the beginning of the season, everything will take care of itself … We got knocked off course, but we're a very strong team."
Going against a rush defense that ranked ninth in the Big Ten, giving up an average of 156.2 yards per game, the Badgers game plan was to run, run, run. The results were Wisconsin carrying the ball 29 times for 160 yards in the first half, capping two drives with a one-yard John Clay touchdown.
"We knew that nobody had really done what we do against them to this point," said Bielema, as the Badgers rush for 266 yards on 53 attempts. "It was taking advantage of what we saw on film. We wanted to run the ball, wear them down and I couldn't see them match-up with us in the run game."
The defense controlled the No.3 passing attack (254.6 yards per game) in the conference and Ralph Bolden, who entered the game as the Big Ten's second-leading rusher with 720 yards.
In 30 minutes, the Badgers held fifth-year senior quarterback Joey Elliott to 5-of-16 passing for 59 yards and an interception while Bolden was limited to 24 yards with a 3.0 average.
"We were hungry, we were just ready to play," said linebacker Chris Borland, as the Badgers out gained Purdue 210-to-101 in the first half and 381-to-141 for the game. "Guys were ready to play. You could tell we were hungry to get back on the field. Every guy wanted to win that game. Not having the feeling in the month, it was exciting to get it back."
Elliott was pulled with less than three minutes left in the third, being held to a season-low in completions (5-of-23) and yards (59). Unfortunately for him, he was the victim of seven drops by his receivers while Bolden never gained traction, being held to only 37 yards.
"Our goal is to not let anybody rush for 100 yards against us," said sophomore J.J. Watt, as the Badgers still have yet to allow a Big Ten running back to gain 100 yards against them. "That's our goal every week, to shut down the run game."
Wisconsin established its turf early, using a combination of Clay, Montee Ball and even Lance Kendricks, who got the ball on two fake handoffs up the middle, march 80 yards on 11 straight run plays to open the scoring on a one-yard dive by Clay.
It wasn't a one-hit wonder, as 20 of UW's first 23 plays stayed on the ground, allowing UW to rack up 12 minutes, 4 seconds time of possession in the first quarter.
"It was definitely good to establish the run right away," Kendricks said. "That established the tone for the rest of the game, just knowing we would be able to run the ball."
After a replay review overturned his first-quarter forced fumble, Smith made sure no replay was necessary in the second, as the sophomore jumped an Elliott pass to give UW possession on the Purdue 20. UW needed only four plays to get Clay his second rushing touchdown from one yard to boost the lead to 17-0.
UW's good fortunes didn't stop there. Earlier in the season, freshman David Gilbert was the benefactor of recovering a block punt in the end zone for a score. This time, he created the madness, going up and over a three-man wedge to block a punt, allowing Aaron Henry to score his first collegiate touchdown on a nine-yard scoop and score.
"It was amazing. It lasted all of three seconds," Henry said. "Once he blocked, my eyes got huge. The main thing I was thinking about was, ‘Aaron, don't kick the ball out the back of the end zone and Aaron, don't just fall on it.' My main thing was scoop and score."
Even when UW coughed up the football, it still benefitted the Badgers. After a 54-yard run by Kendricks, Clay fumbled the ball at the one-yard line, only to secure it over the goal line for his third score, putting UW up 31-0 and never looking back.
"It was important to establish the running game and we just took the most of our opportunities when we starting running the ball," Clay said. "Once we start rolling, we are hard to stop. We just have to work together as an offensive group."
Posting its largest margin of victory over Purdue since a 41-0 victory in 1912, the Badgers enter the final five-game stretch with their ‘1-0' mentality still intact. With aspirations of a 10-win season and a January bowl game still within their reach, the Badgers hope this dominate performance is a springboard for the remainder of the season.
"We considered this the second half of the season," junior linebacker Culmer St. Jean said. "We just had to start off fast, get off that two game losing streak and get a good start to the rest of the season."