Badgers keeping eye on Big Ten title despite long odds

MADISON, Wis. — Chris Borland isn’t ashamed to admit he had a significant rooting interest in Saturday’s Northwestern-Ohio State football game. For the sake of Wisconsin’s Big Ten championship hopes, he was pulling for the Wildcats to spring an upset.

“I was, yeah,” said Borland, the Badgers’ fifth-year linebacker. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say that, but I’m pretty much sure everyone can assume.”

It’s only October, but Wisconsin players have been put in the unfavorable position of watching and hoping for a near miracle — two regular-season Ohio State losses for an opportunity to return to the Big Ten championship game.

Saturday was one of the rare games in which Ohio State appeared vulnerable, even trailing with less than six minutes remaining. The Buckeyes would go on to edge the Wildcats, 40-30, in Evanston to maintain their stranglehold on the Leaders Division.

This week, Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) returns to action against No. 19 Northwestern (4-1, 0-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium, and there won’t be time to lament missed opportunities. Wisconsin, which lost 31-24 at Ohio State two weeks ago, must continue winning games to have even a miniscule chance at a fourth consecutive conference crown when the season ends.

The fact the Badgers don’t control their own postseason fate could create an emotional letdown from players. Still, they refuse to fall prey to such an effect with seven regular-season games remaining on the schedule.

“I think one of the biggest things we’ve focused on is in the past years if you do things the right way, you’re going to be rewarded for it no matter what you do,” Badgers linebacker Brendan Kelly said. “So yeah, there are two losses on our record right now and those are going to stick with us no matter what the rest of the season. But you can’t focus on what is and what isn’t, what team is and what team isn’t. You’ve just got to focus on what you can do today to get better.”

Last season, Ohio State faced a one-year postseason ban, while Penn State was in the first of a four-year ban, which allowed Wisconsin to sneak into the Big Ten title game with a 4-4 conference record despite the Buckeyes going undefeated. This season, a 7-1 Big Ten mark may still not be good enough for Wisconsin given the way Ohio State is playing.

There is perhaps only one game remaining on the conference schedule that Ohio State could lose — the regular-season finale at Michigan. Still, a loss wouldn’t deter the Buckeyes from advancing to the Big Ten championship because they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against Wisconsin.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said he didn’t have concerns his players would sag given where they stand in the Big Ten race.

“I know that you can say Ohio State wasn’t in it and Penn State wasn’t in it last year,” Andersen said. “I understand that, and I get Ohio State’s undefeated, but I think these kids are worried about themselves and they’re not chasing anybody, which is a credit to them. 

“At the end, it will all work out. We’re all going to be where we may be at the end of the year. I don’t think there’s anything in their mindset saying, ‘Well, now we can’t go win the championship.’ I don’t think we feel like that.”

A victory Saturday against another top-25 opponent certainly would be a step in the right direction for the Badgers.

Care packages received: Andersen used part of his bye week to send out Badgers football clothing items to some former UW players now in the NFL.

Among the players to tweet photos of the gear last week were Houston Texans tight ends Garrett Graham and Jake Byrne, Atlanta Falcons fullback Bradie Ewing and Cincinnati Bengals right guard Kevin Zeitler.

“I think it’s important for those NFL players and really all the ex-players to be involved as much as they can,” Andersen said. “Obviously, I can’t send a care package out to every guy that’s played here. I would if I could, but we can’t get that done. So it’s something that we can just sit back and say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about you. We’re with you.’ 

“I hope they enjoy it, and I hope it’s something they wear in those NFL locker rooms that they’re proud of. They wear it around their communities. They remember where they came from. It’s a good thing for those kids to have. I want them back here. I really do. I want them in front of our kids. I want them to spend time with them. Whether it’s by position group, offense or defense, or whether it’s with the whole team. I can’t wait to shake all their hands.”

On the mend: Andersen said players who have dealt with nagging injuries the past couple of weeks were healthy enough to return this week against Northwestern, including center Dallas Lewallen (leg), tight end Jacob Pedersen (knee) wide receiver Kenzel Doe (hamstring) and running back Melvin Gordon (knee).

“Injuries should be pretty well up to speed,” Andersen said. “… I feel good about those kids being back for the most part. I guess, from that standpoint, the bye came at a good time.”

Kelly was limited to only 11 plays from scrimmage against Ohio State because of a hamstring injury he suffered in practice. But he, too, is expected to be at full strength.

“Feeling great,” Kelly said. “Bye week was awesome. I think a lot of guys got their legs back. It was great for the team. I think it was great to step away for a couple days. Coach Andersen gave us Friday, Saturday and Sunday off, which is huge for a Division I team at this time in their season. I think it gave guys a new freshness, and they’re back ready to get to work.”

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