No. 5 Wisconsin gets final say in Big Ten race
A sign hangs above the exit of the Wisconsin Badgers' practice facility that says, ''The road to the Rose Bowl begins here.''
''I've been looking at that sign since I got here,'' senior tight end Lance Kendricks said. ''We've all hit it, and now it's right here. What are we going to do about it?''
Kendricks and the fifth-ranked Badgers (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) believe they have a rematch to settle with Northwestern (7-4, 3-4) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium before they can talk about a potential trip to Pasadena for the first time since the 1999 season.
Wisconsin holds the inside track to the Big Ten's automatic BCS berth if both Michigan State and Ohio State win on Saturday, because the Badgers are the highest ranked conference team in the BCS standings. The Badgers hold a tiebreaker over the Buckeyes for their Oct. 16 win, but do not against the Spartans because of an Oct. 2 loss in the conference opener.
Both teams play before Wisconsin does on Saturday.
Coach Bret Bielema has tried to keep discussions about a Rose Bowl trip quiet most of the week and only let his seniors be interviewed, but he's also not trying to keep the information out of his players' hands.
Kendricks said it's hard because everyone reminds them about it.
''My parents talk about it all the time,'' he said earlier this week. ''We have a few more days, leave it alone. Then after that, we can talk all about it.''
There's one other goal the Badgers want to accomplish first.
If they beat Northwestern, they'll have topped every team that beat them in a 10-3 campaign after previously winning against Ohio State and Iowa.
Northwestern defeated Wisconsin 33-31 in last year's game.
''There's a lot of reasons to focus - my last game, they beat us last year at their place, a little revenge - but honestly it's just wanting to win,'' left tackle Gabe Carimi said. ''That's the No. 1 goal.''
The Wildcats can play spoiler, but coach Pat Fitzgerald said they can learn lessons from watching Wisconsin play this season.
''They're taking the schemes and playing well. It's something we aspire to have said about us and at times we've played that way,'' the coach said. ''You don't have 10 wins after 11 weeks by accident. The guys are well-coached, it's an outstanding football team in all three phases.''
The Wildcats are coming off their wild, one-way game at Wrigley Field that they lost to Illinois 48-27 without quarterback Dan Persa (ruptured Achilles' tendon).
Fitzgerald liked the way freshman Evan Watkins settled into the starter's role, but there wasn't much production against the Illini. He was 10 of 20 for 135 yards and an interception.
''I thought he handled the in-game speed pretty well as it went along. I think when we came out in the second half he had to go back to what he learned again and it took him a couple series,'' Fitzgerald said. ''He'll be much better this week than he was last week.''
Still, Northwestern may not be able to match Wisconsin score for score. The Badgers are averaging nearly 41 points, well ahead of their school-record pace of 34.3 set in 2005.
Wisconsin is averaging three penalties per game and has committed nine turnovers all season, and the Badgers are the only team in the country to have three running backs who have gained at least 600 yards on the ground this season.
Even if John Clay (929 yards, 13 TDs) doesn't play because of a sprained right knee, freshman James White (895 yards, 13 TDs) and Montee Ball (686 yards, 13 TDs) haven't missed a step. White has the trio's only fumble in 448 touches when he tried to dive into the end zone for a touchdown in a win over San Jose State more than 2 1/2 months ago.
Scott Tolzien, the fifth-year senior quarterback who is 20-4 as a starter, is completing 73.9 percent of his passes this season and completed 26 of his last 27 throws.
''If there's one word to probably sum up Scotty, it's an easy way to say it, but he has an uncanny way of just being a winner in everything he does,'' Bielema said.
''He wanted to be a winner on the football field. He's already taken care of the academic world. I can't tell you how many e-mails I get where he took a minute to stop and talk to somebody or he went and visited somebody or he wrote somebody a note. He's priceless.''
Wisconsin will already know the tiebreaking scenarios when they play, and Bielema said he'll let those out-of-town scores show up on Camp Randall's scoreboard.
''Human nature tells you (that) you want to know,'' Kendricks said.
Not that everyone really wants to know.
''I don't need to be on the sidelines against Northwestern wondering what every other team in the Big Ten is doing,'' lineman John Moffitt said. ''All we need to do is win and everything else will pan out.''