Bret Bielema still had Tim Brewster's outrage ringing in his ears when he was hit with the first Ohio State question.
Hey Bret, are you ever going to beat the Buckeyes and be able to say you've beaten every team in the Big Ten Conference?
Indeed, the University of Wisconsin football coach was just minutes removed from a postgame confrontation initiated by Minnesota's Brewster last Saturday when he was forced to turn his thoughts to Saturday's game against Big Ten superpower Ohio State at Camp Randall Stadium. Not that he needed much prompting.
You see, if beating arch-rival Minnesota is Bielema's crusade, beating Ohio State is his Holy Grail.
UW is 0-3 against Ohio State under Bielema and the Badgers can't even think about supplanting the five-time defending champion Buckeyes atop the Big Ten until they beat them. Of course, winning isn't easy for any team that plays the Big Red Machine Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has assembled, but it has proved impossible for Bielema.
Saturday's buzz-worthy showdown demonstrates why that is. The Buckeyes have the nation's No. 1 ranking, this week's leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy in dual-threat quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a high-speed defense that ranks third in the nation. The 18th-ranked Badgers, on the other hand, have yet to live up to their preseason hype as one of the Big Ten teams most likely to challenge the Buckeyes.
Bielema called the game a measuring stick for UW and Ohio State's ascension to No. 1 after Alabama lost last week gave it significant national appeal. But as far as UW is concerned, the ranking that precedes Ohio State's name this week should be just another number.
The reason? It's not only Ohio State that has been hard for Bielema's Badgers to beat, it's any Big Ten team with a number in front of its name.
During Bielema's five seasons, the Badgers are 1-8 against ranked Big Ten opponents and 20-5 against the rest. That includes their 10-point loss to then-No. 24 Michigan State two weeks ago.
If UW has designs on becoming an elite team in the Big Ten this season or in the conference's realigned future, it simply must start beating ranked opponents. Of course, there is no time like the present and UW has done some very good things against Ohio State the past two years.
The are several reasons why UW struggles against top Big Ten teams, but let's give Bielema the first crack at it.
"It probably has a lot to do with the guys across from us," he said. "If there's one common denominator, I think it's that we've done things well but we haven't done things well enough. ... When you're playing against high competition, you've got to continue to do the things that give you success against the teams that maybe aren't ranked, but also understand it's a different game because maybe you can't take as many risks. Risk and reward kind of change in games like this."
Translation: Really good teams like Ohio State make you pay for your mistakes more often than others do. Their speed and athleticism turns interceptions, blown coverages and poor kicks into touchdowns and often it is those big plays that determine games between quality teams.
Not since the latter Barry Alvarez years, when the Badgers had Jamar Fletcher, Chris Chambers, Michael Bennett, Lee Evans, Jim Leonhard and Brian Calhoun, has UW had anything approaching the big-play ability of Ohio State. Therefore, it can only win by playing a disciplined game, controlling the ball with the run, being fast and physical on defense and holding its mistakes to the bare minimum.
Alvarez used that game plan to compile a 4-2 record against Ohio State from 1999 to 2004, but Bielema's teams have had neither the discipline nor the playmakers to beat the Buckeyes. As a result, tight games have gone Ohio State's way.
"Each game has been a little bit different, but the common denominator in all of them was we weren't able to hold together what we need to for 60 minutes," Bielema said. "The game is a 60-minute game. It's 60 minutes of reactions to what happened and we have to handle it better, longer — and for four quarters — than we have in the past."
Should this veteran UW team get that done against the first No. 1-ranked team to visit Camp Randall in 13 years, Bielema will no longer have to answer questions about beating Ohio State — or any ranked Big Ten opponent for that matter.