September 30, 2008

Conference title is never decided in Sept.

MADISON, Wis. - You could hear it, you could sense it and you could feel it. When UW's four senior captains finished practice Sunday evening, the last thing they wanted to do was field questions from reporters regarding what had transpired just hours earlier. Saturday's shocking, unforeseen, gut-wrenching loss to Michigan after squandering a 19-0 halftime lead was not sitting well with some of the Badger key players.

"The hardest part?," defensive tackle Mike Newkirk solemnly responded when asked by a reporter. "It's probably trying to forget about it, not letting it beat you twice. There's a challenge put in front of you. Like I said before, there's only two ways, you go up or down.

"Now is the time when we really find out what kind of team we are, find out what we're made of."

The Badgers finally return home Saturday after a very battle tested month away from Camp Randall Stadium where UW has won 16 straight games. With their homecoming, the Badgers still have an opportunity to climb up the Big Ten ladder.

Back to back night games against two of the conference's top teams, No. 14 Ohio State and No. 6 Penn State will offer the Badgers a chance to rectify their hiccup in Ann Arbor, Mich. and get back on the path towards a possible conference title and a trip to Pasadena.

"We're (captains) just basically trying to encourage each other that his season isn't over," fullback Chris Pressley said. "If we let this loss to Michigan kind of define who we are or kind of give us any sort of identity, then it will beat us in the end.

"We have to make sure that we rally around each other and say look, 'We have a whole lot more to play for.'"

If symmetry matters in a situation like this, following a very difficult road loss, one can take a peak at the 2006 season. In Bret Bielema's first conference game as a head coach, the Badgers went to Michigan Stadium and lost a 27-13 grinder to the Wolverines. They then rallied off nine straight wins to cap off a 12-1 season.

Granted, that Michigan team was older, more experienced, and probably better than the team the Badgers just played, and Ohio State was not on the schedule that year, but this UW squad is talented and has the potential to bounce back.

Look at the landscape of college football from 2007 and early 2008. Higher ranked, favored teams have, and will continue to lose. LSU, a two-loss team many considered on the outside looking in, made the national championship, and eventually won it over one-loss Ohio State just a season ago.

"Michigan probably won't go undefeated in the Big Ten," Newkirk said. "It's still up in the air as far as our goals. The biggest thing is you can't let a team beat you twice.

"They beat you once, but shame on you, but you can't let them beat you twice, that's shame on me."

Maybe now, more than ever Bielema's 1-0 mantra can resurrect what seems to be a season teetering on the brink of disaster. Starting with the Buckeye's, should the Badgers ride the home momentum and fluster a freshman quarterback starting his first hostile road game and claim victory, the Michigan disaster would be delegated to the review mirror.

"Well, I believe they're (the players) excited to play a football game," Bielema said. "Any time you play the game that you did on Saturday and have it end the way they did, they're going to be excited to play anywhere.

"And to have it be in Camp Randall, to have it be at night, to be in an environment that they're had a lot of success in, I'm sure makes them all feel better, including the head coach."

Surely Saturday can't come soon enough for Wisconsin, but when it does get here, the bright lights of Camp Randall may just brighten the outlook of the 2008 season. Perhaps Newkirk put it best in regards to the rest of the season.

"Anything can happen."

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