Northwestern-Wisconsin Preview

Bret Bielema was at Camp Randall Stadium the last time Wisconsin
won a Big Ten title, watching the Badgers’ offensive attack roll
over Iowa 41-3 in 1999 as a member of the Hawkeyes staff.

Bielema, in his fifth year as head coach at Wisconsin (10-1,
6-1), sees similarities in his offense and the one from 1999 that
featured Ron Dayne.

”I remember the way that Wisconsin played, basically imposing
their will on us,” Bielema said in his weekly news conference from
Madison. ”I think the last two weeks, I’ve been able to see that
on the field, but also on film when I watch on Sunday to realize
what was happening and the way our players are playing, but also
the reaction of our opponent. (It) is a very gratifying
experience.”

Or a humbling one for opponents.

On Saturday, the fifth-ranked Badgers face Northwestern (7-4,
3-4) with a share of the conference title at stake. They have been
on a roll since a 31-18 win over then-No. 1 Ohio State.

Wisconsin has put up 131 points and 695 yards rushing against
Indiana and Michigan and has won six straight games, scoring at
least 31 points in each to set up a chance to at least share the
Big Ten title.

The Badgers, looking for their first Rose Bowl appearance since
2000, have done it recently without reigning Big Ten offensive
player of the year John Clay, who is still recovering from a
sprained right knee suffered three weeks ago.

If Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all win on Saturday,
they’ll split the Big Ten title. The tiebreaker for the
conference’s spot in the BCS will go to the highest ranked team in
the BCS standings, which has been Wisconsin (7th) followed by Ohio
State (8th) and Michigan State (10th).

”We’re in a great position headed into Northwestern to put
ourselves right where we want to be,” defensive end J.J. Watt said
after the 48-28 win over Michigan on Saturday.

And they haven’t needed Clay in the process.

Bielema switched Clay with backups James White and Montee Ball
on the depth chart, and Clay remains questionable. The three backs
have combined for 39 rushing touchdowns.

”John really hasn’t done much. No fault of John’s. I think he
has pushed himself as hard as he can,” Bielema said. ”(We’re)
planning on just James and Montee but John, I went through the
training room this morning, he was braced up and ready to go run.
He was telling me how good it felt.”

Bielema said Clay would likely practice on Tuesday and
Wednesday.

No matter, Ball is averaging 155.6 yards rushing in his last
three games. He said preparing for the Wildcats wouldn’t change
despite the bigger implications.

”(It’s the) same thing we’ve been doing every week,” Ball said
after the game. ”Fix our mistakes, come in Tuesday ready to work
and have the 1-0 mentality.”

That 1-0 mentality has been Bielema’s overused catch phrase his
first five years as coach. He even received practice shorts
stitched with the slogan, but he hasn’t needed to repeat it much
now.

”There hasn’t ever been a talk about a jump to the championship
or anything like that,” Bielema said. ”That’s why I really
believe in what we’ve done now – just maintaining each week’s
focus.”

When Wisconsin went 12-1 in Bielema’s first year as head coach
in 2006, the Badgers’ record was push aside because they didn’t
play Ohio State and lost in an ugly game at Michigan.

Wisconsin failed to reach a BCS bowl because both the Wolverines
and Buckeyes were selected. But this Wisconsin team has a much
better resume, beating Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa in the same
season for the first time in 51 years.

”I understand everybody’s going to ask the questions,” Bielema
said. ”I know where the media attention is, but our focus in our
house, in our room is about Northwestern and the details of winning
that game.”

It only took 13 minutes to get to a question about the Wildcats.
Then it was back to the bigger topic at hand, a final query about
what a Big Ten title would mean for the program.

”Rather talk about it after the game,” the coach said. ”It’s
great to be in this position, we’ve worked very hard to get where
we are, but none of that really matters until we get through
Saturday.”

Northwestern played a key role in the Big Ten race two weeks
ago, essentially knocking then-No. 13 Iowa out of contention with a
21-17 victory over the Hawkeyes. The Wildcats, though, lost
quarterback Dan Persa to a ruptured Achilles’ in the game, and
their defense was shredded in a 48-27 loss to Illinois at Wrigley
Field on Saturday.

The Wildcats gave up 330 yards rushing to Mikel Leshoure, and
Evan Watkins, starting in place of Persa, was just 10 for 20 with
an interception for 135 yards.