Wisconsin at a Crossroads: Can the Badgers Bounce Back?
Bielema's Badgers came into the Horseshoe on Saturday confident, sporting a 5-0 record, and expecting to go 6-0 for the first time since Barry Alvarez roamed the sidelines in 2004.
Wisconsin, under Alvarez, enjoyed tremendous success on the field and other than Michigan, no team has beaten the Buckeyes more often in that time frame (1990-2005) than the Badgers.
Bielema was the defensive coordinator for Alvarez's 2004 team and knows what it takes to beat Ohio State. He also knows that the underdog Badgers were victorious against the mighty Buckeyes four times in six attempts from 1999-2004.
The message to his team was clear; relish the underdog role, have confidence in your teammates, and play Wisconsin football.
"As a player in the Big Ten, I was a walk-on," Bielema said. "I was told I couldn't play at this level. I kind of like to motivate myself off people telling me I can't do something. One of our mottos we've used this season is, 'We're a team that's looking to gain respect, rather than lose respect.' That's what we're trying to do step by step."
Saturday, the Badgers out-gained Ohio State by nearly 200 yards, had 22 first downs to the Buckeyes' eight, and held the ball on offense for nearly three quarters (42:47). Yet, none of it mattered in the end.
Bielema, like in his previous two attempts against Ohio State, would leave the field with a loss after arguably outplaying the Buckeyes for most of the game.
In 2007, it was Beanie Wells who had touchdown runs of 31, 30, 23 yards in the final 17 minutes to erase a Wisconsin seven point lead and in 2008 it was Terrelle Pryor's 11-yard touchdown scamper with 1:08 remaining that sealed the victory for the Buckeyes.
This season, it was the Buckeyes' defense and special teams that spoiled the day and soiled the Badgers' perfect record.
Ohio State safeties Kurt Coleman and Jermale Hines had interception returns for touchdowns and Ray Small sunk the dagger with a 96-yard kick-off return for a touchdown with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
"I hate losing to these guys," Bielema said. "Absolutely, it's something I can't stand for whatever reason."
But Bielema did know the reason and later expounded on the topic saying he hates losing to Ohio State more than any other Big Ten team.
"Because they've been in four straight Big Ten championships," Bielema continued. "If you want to be considered a player in this league you've got to beat Ohio State. That's something I'll definitely be able to personally think about for another year and have our players be ingrained with that as well."
For the Badgers, putting this kind of loss behind them is something they have struggled with in the past. Just last season, Wisconsin faced a similar situation when a 19-0 halftime lead turned into a 27-25 loss to Michigan.
The loss came after starting the season 3-0 and the Badgers, who would lose four of their next five games, never fully recovered from it. The 2008 Badger squad would finish the season 7-6, including a blowout loss to Florida State in the Citrus Bowl.
"This is disappointing for our guys," Bielema said. "At this point it's important we know what we did today. I'm glad to be heading back home to Wisconsin. It's a minor setback for us and now we just have to respond."
But, how will this Badger team respond?
Will it go into the toilet à la the 2008 squad or the way of those strong Badger teams of the past, including Bielema's first Badger squad which lost a heart breaker to Michigan in week four, then finished the season 12-1.
If the reactions of tight end Garrett Graham and linebacker Culmer St. Jean are any indication, the Badgers plan on the latter.
As the Badgers walked off the Ohio Stadium field, the players passed by a group of Wisconsin fans who, despite the disappointing outcome, shouted well wishes to the forlorn players.
One fan picked out Graham in particular.
"Garrett," the Badger fan shouted. "Keep your head up and beat the Hawkeyes next week."
Graham, turned his head in the direction of the comment and without really knowing who it had come from, nodded his head and flashed a thumbs up.
St. John, in the post-game interview room, simply said, "We expected to win and it was a tough loss. Now we have to gather ourselves. We will be ready for next week."
I have a feeling all of Madison will be ready as well.
This article is featured on First and Big Ten, a Bleacher Report Blog dedicated to everything Big Ten Football.
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