MADISON, Wis. — When the pulse of a town and ultimately one’s job security hinges on the outcome of football games each Saturday in the fall, a college coach will delve to great depths to summon an answer for a loss.
Sometimes, he may even turn to a higher power.
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has endured a season unlike any in his seven-year tenure with the Badgers. Six new assistant coaches. Three different starting quarterbacks. And perhaps most stunning, five losses by a combined total of 19 points, including three in overtime.
It’s been enough for Bielema to ask why his team can’t catch a break this season — enough for him to seek out a biblical line from the book of Luke: Chapter 14, Verse 11 to summarize his feelings.
For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The way Bielema sees it, his Badgers have certainly been humbled this season. One play here or there, and maybe Wisconsin is staring at an undefeated season. Top-ranked Notre Dame, after all, won five games by seven points or fewer, including two in overtime.
“I do think good things happen to good people,” Bielema said Monday during his weekly press conference. “Not that the people that we’ve been playing aren’t good people. I want to make our guys understand that perseverance will prevail.”
It certainly will make for quite a story if Wisconsin (7-5, 4-4 in the Big Ten) can persevere and prevail against Nebraska (10-2, 7-1) on Saturday in the Big Ten championship. The teams will play on FOX at 8:17 p.m. ET at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Nebraska, an early three-point favorite, is here because it edged Michigan by a game to win the Legends Division. The Cornhuskers won their final six games of the regular season, beating Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State along the way. Nobody can dispute Nebraska earned its way into the title game.
The same can’t be said for Wisconsin, which represents the Leaders Division despite having lost the second-most games in Bielema’s tenure and finishing in third place. Only NCAA sanctions that resulted in postseason bans to undefeated Ohio State and Penn State allowed Wisconsin to back its way into the title game.
Bielema has tried to downplay the idea that the Badgers don’t belong, and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said the game hasn’t lost its luster.
“Wisconsin is there because they deserve to be there,” Pelini said Sunday during a Big Ten championship teleconference. “Last I looked in college football, (Ohio State) is not there for a reason. That’s not taking anything away from Urban Meyer and the kids who played at Ohio State and played their tails off. There’s a reason they’re not there.”
Added Bielema: “When the two teams take the field on Saturday, neither is going to care how the other team got there or what their record is.”
What Bielema does care about is his team’s inability to win close games this season.
Wisconsin lost, 10-7, at Oregon State on Sept. 8 and then blew a 17-point lead at Nebraska three weeks later to lose, 30-27. The Badgers closed the regular season by losing three overtime games in the span of four contests: 16-13 to Michigan State, 21-14 to Ohio State and 24-21 to Penn State.
“One thing Coach B told us all is 7-5 or 12-0, we’d still be in the same position right now, playing the same team,” Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said. “That’s kind of how we’re approaching it.”
A year ago, Wisconsin won the inaugural Big Ten championship game to reach its second straight Rose Bowl by coming from behind to beat Michigan State, 42-39. But that team also had five players on offense drafted by NFL teams in the offseason, led by quarterback Russell Wilson.
Pelini, whose teams are 4-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season, suggested it helps to have an experienced quarterback to add cohesiveness and confidence for late-game situations. Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez has started 37 games, and Wilson started 50 games at North Carolina State and Wisconsin.
Wisconsin quarterback Curt Phillips, a fifth-year senior, will make his fourth career start in the Big Ten championship game. Backup Danny O’Brien, a Maryland transfer, started three games for Wisconsin this season before being benched and injured redshirt freshman Joel Stave started six games.
“Let’s face it, there’s some luck involved,” Pelini said. “I don’t know if there’s a magic formula that helps you win football games in those close situations. You’ve got to make plays when the time comes.”
On the field, Bielema pointed to finding a greater sense of urgency earlier in the game. A drive that ends in a field goal instead of a punt, for example, could put the Badgers in position to win at the end rather than force overtime. Wisconsin’s late-game scores against Ohio State and Penn State merely sent the game to overtime, where the offense stalled.
“Obviously, all those losses were very tough, close losses,” Phillips said. “At the same time, if we go and make the most of this opportunity, at the end of the day, people aren’t going to remember these last two games. We just have to make the most of our opportunity and try to get back to the Rose Bowl.”
Given the Badgers’ results in close games this season, a little prayer probably wouldn’t hurt, either.