Badgers keep single-minded focus after comeback
Not long ago Wisconsin had be wonder it any of its goals were still attainable.
Back-to-back heartbreaking losses were a stain on what had been an unbeaten record, and the Badgers' shot at playing for a national championship was gone.
But after Saturday's 28-17 comeback win over Illinois, No. 15 Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) is a win away from taking the Big Ten Leaders Division and playing in the conference's first championship game against Michigan State. Next up, a home game with No. 20 Penn State.
''Obviously, we know that there's a lot on the table,'' Badger coach Bret Bielema said. ''It's Senior Day, and it's an opportunity to play in another game if we play well next Saturday.''
After the losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, Bielema has preached what might be the oldest coaching cliche: Take things a game at a time. But the Badgers have bought in and, after finishing off the Illini, they were saying what their coach no doubt wanted to hear: The only game on their minds is the next one. And they insist they are giving no thought to a possible rematch Dec. 3 against the Spartans in Indianapolis.
''We just have to keep the blinders on,'' linebacker Chris Borland said. ''There's always going to be a lot of outside attention, but we have a lot on our plate if we go day by day. The way we practice, the way we work and the way we watch film, that's going to keep us on track.''
While Wisconsin was looking forward to the week ahead, Illinois (6-5, 2-5) was left to answer questions about what the last week of the regular season and a game at Minnesota might mean for a coaching staff already under heavy pressure. An emotional Paul Petrino, Illinois' offensive coordinator, told reporters that he wanted badly to win the game for coach Ron Zook, and defended the head coach and his staff.
''I've been around football my whole life,'' he said, warning against being too eager to fire Zook and his assistants. ''There are a lot of good football coaches on this staff.''
Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas has said he'll evaluate Zook after the season. Whether a win over Wisconsin would have swayed Thomas isn't known, but a winnable game that got away from them weighed on the weary Illinois players.
''Can't sleep!'' senior running back Jason Ford wrote on Twitter early Sunday morning. ''Losing that game still hurts!''
The Badgers talked about their strict single-game focus before the Illini game, too, and, whether they thought past Illinois or not, Wisconsin was off its game and beatable for the first 30 minutes Saturday.
Illinois was up 17-7 halftime, had 224 yards to the Badgers' 93 and had kept quarterback Russell Wilson, running back Montee Ball and the rest of the Wisconsin offense off the field for all but 12 of the first 30 minutes.
The Badgers' only points had come on a 2-yard drive, a gift courtesy of a dropped snap by Illinois punter Justin DuVernois as he tried to punt off his own goal line.
But when Illinois coughed up the ball at its own 30 early in the third quarter, the Badgers were ready to pounce. Or plod. It took the Badgers more than six minutes to find the goal line, and they had to convert two fourth-down plays to get there, but when Ball caught Wilson's short touchdown pass, the game suddenly had the feel of a Wisconsin win. Never mind that the Illini were still up 17-14.
''You couldn't have asked for a better start to the second half, and our offense capitalized on it,'' Bielema said. ''And then we really kept our foot on the floorboard from there on out.''
Wilson barely threw the ball on a windy day in Champaign - he finished with 90 yards - but Ball wound up with 224 yards on the ground, 164 of them in the second half.
Wilson said he and Ball talk regularly about what the two of them can do.
''We're not afraid to push each other and see how far we can take this thing,'' Wilson said. ''We have that connection, we talk about it all the time and it shows up on the field.''
While Wilson spent the first few weeks of the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, Ball is surely part of the discussion, now.
The 5-11, 210-pound junior is averaging 133.3 yards a game (1,466 overall), third best in the country. His 30 rushing and receiving touchdowns is a Big Ten record. During Wisconsin's three-game win streak, he is averaging just over 200 yards a game.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidMercerAP