MADISON, Wis. — It’s been said before that what you do when no one is watching defines who you truly are. Wisconsin’s football program will put that mantra to the test in the coming weeks.
With the first month of the season now over, the Badgers have fallen completely off the national radar screen. Following a 30-27 loss against Nebraska on Saturday, Wisconsin dropped to 3-2 and didn’t receive a single vote in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. The team garnered just six points in the USA Today poll, and at No. 38, is ranked behind teams such as Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe.
Not exactly the start Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema had in mind.
“The only thing you can deal with is the situation you’re in,” Bielema said Monday during his weekly press conference. “We’re 3-2. Would we rather be 5-0? Absolutely. We could also be 1-4.”
The loss to Nebraska stings in particular because Wisconsin blew a 17-point third-quarter lead and didn’t score over the final 26 minutes of the game. In the past two seasons, the Badgers have lost three regular-season conference games by a combined margin of 13 points.
Even in defeat, of course, life goes on. Wisconsin must prepare for its first Leaders Division game this Saturday at home against Illinois. And with six of the next seven games for Wisconsin taking place against Leaders Division teams, now is the time for the Badgers to play to their potential.
“Obviously, to win a game that’s not in our division that’s in our conference is critical in the race, but it’s not probably paramount,” Bielema said of the Nebraska loss.
Wisconsin hasn’t started a season 3-2 since 2008. That team won its first three games, then lost four in a row in Big Ten play. The Badgers finished 7-6 and lost, 42-13, to Florida State in the Citrus Bowl.
Bielema is hoping to avoid a similarly poor start to the Big Ten season.
“It’s frustrating to lose a football game, but you can’t let Nebraska beat you twice,” Bielema said. “That’s a very, very real thing in the world of college football. I’ve seen it happen time and time again . . . There’s been a lot of teams that have played us and, whether they win or lose, a lot of times have failure after us because of the brand that we play and the way we go about things.
“It’s all in front of us. We control our own destiny and that’s a great thing to be able to say.”
Explaining the QB situation: Bielema stuck to his guns on Monday, reiterating that quarterback Danny O’Brien was the right man for the job of running Wisconsin’s two-minute offense late in Saturday’s game against Nebraska.
O’Brien, not starter Joel Stave, was on the field with 2:55 remaining and Wisconsin facing a first-and-10 at its own 10-yard-line. He completed 3 of 4 passes for 25 yards but also misinterpreted a naked bootleg call near midfield on fourth-and-one. O’Brien attempted to hand off to running back Montee Ball, who wasn’t ready for the football. Wisconsin lost the fumble and never saw the ball again.
“As a coach, you can’t rethink as far as how you handled Saturday,” Bielema said.
Bielema has said for weeks that O’Brien is Wisconsin’s best quarterback in two-minute offense scenarios. He also said it helped that O’Brien was in on the previous series, although it was for one play to hand off to Ball.
On that drive, Stave absorbed two significant hits and came off the field for a third down play.
“That’s when we said, ‘Hey, he’s not right here,'” Bielema said. “We’ve got third-and-26, let’s run a play. We named the run we were going to run and then we punt if we don’t get it. We were going to give a chance for our defense to stop the play and come back with two-minute with Danny. That’s exactly how it laid out from that point forward.”
Bielema said he’d wait to decide how he would handle any similar late-game scenarios this week against Illinois based on how both quarterbacks practice. He expressed just one regret about his decision against Nebraska.
“It’s a shame it ended up the way it did,” Bielema said.
Injury update: Bielema indicated defensive end Pat Muldoon could return to play this Saturday against Illinois. Muldoon hasn’t played since suffering a fractured left hand against Oregon State on Sept. 8. Bielema said Muldoon was expected to have pins taken out of his hand tomorrow.
Defensive end Brendan Kelly also could be cleared this week. Kelly has battled hamstring issues the past few weeks and did not play against Nebraska.
Strong safety Shelton Johnson could return as well. Johnson broke his right arm against Oregon State and has missed the past three games.
“If he feels good to go during the course of the week,” Bielema said, “he’ll be back out there on Saturday as well, which will be a nice addition back there for us.”