It was a productive bye week for the University of Wisconsin football team.
The Badgers returned to practice Sunday, with several injured players having a chance to heal and the entire team catching its collective breath after back-to-back victories over Ohio State and Iowa.
“We got a chance to give the young guys a lot of practice, got a chance to hopefully get some guys healthy and we got some recruiting done,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said prior to Sunday’s practice. “So, it was a productive week.”
Oh, yeah, the Badgers also jumped into the thick of the Big Ten Conference title race following Michigan State’s 37-6 loss at Iowa on Saturday. That left UW (7-1, 3-1) as one of four conference teams with one loss. Michigan State and Ohio State are both 4-1, while Iowa joins the Badgers at 3-1.
That sets up what should be a wild final month of the regular season, highlighted by the Nov. 20 meeting in Iowa City, Iowa, between the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes.
“I learned a long time ago, the games you remember are the games in November,” UW running backs coach John Settle said. “Those are the ones that make a season special. We have a chance. The guys have done a heck of a job embracing everything we’ve thrown at them. They’ll have a chance to do something special.”
Of course, coaches will make sure the focus this week is only on the game on Saturday at Purdue (4-4, 2-2), even as the outside factors continue to escalate.
The Badgers suddenly find themselves as the top-ranked team in the conference, moving up two spots to seventh in the media and coaches’ polls. Since one of the Big Ten tiebreakers is the Bowl Championship Series standings, those suddenly take on added significance. That made ESPN’s “BCS Countdown” must viewing for Badgers fans — if not the coaching staff.
“Is that what time it is?” Partridge said when asked if he would be perched in front of a television at 7:15 p.m. Sunday for the release of the BCS rankings. “I’ll get a chance to take my daughter and go trick-or-treating, so I’m looking forward to that.”
The Badgers moved up one spot in the BCS rankings to No. 9, with Ohio State 11th, Michigan State 14th and Iowa 16th.
UW holds head-to-head tiebreakers against Ohio State and Iowa thanks to the past two wins. The problem comes if the Spartans — they beat UW 34-24 on Oct. 2 — are involved in any tie.
A three-way tie between UW, Michigan State and Ohio State would resort to the BCS standings.
In order for the Badgers to win their first Big Ten title since the 1999 season, they will probably need another loss by Michigan State, which has games remaining at home against Minnesota and Purdue and on the road at Penn State.
The last three times UW has won titles, it has needed help on one of the final two weekends of the conference season to overcome an earlier loss.
Ohio State’s loss to Michigan on the final weekend opened the door for the 1993 team, which lost its fourth league game at Minnesota.
The Badgers thought their hopes in 1998 were dashed after losing at Michigan in their next-to-last conference game. But Ohio State defeated Michigan the following week and UW did its part by beating Penn State.
UW needed a victory over Iowa, coupled with Michigan’s win over Penn State, on the next-to-last weekend in 1999 to make it to its last Rose Bowl after losing its conference opener to Michigan.
None of the tiebreaker scenarios will matter to UW coaches, who undoubtedly will remind the players their focus on the task at hand has helped them reach this point.
“Obviously, with everything you’re asking about, the challenge increases,” Partridge said of BCS implications. “So, we’ve got to do everything we can to keep all of our focus on nothing but having a great Sunday, a great Monday, et cetera.”
The Boilermakers were one of the Big Ten’s surprises before being outscored 93-10 and outgained 880-313 in losses the past two weeks to Ohio State and Illinois. They have been ravaged by injuries, especially on offense.
“I feel bad for them, but I don’t feel too bad, because we’re dealing with it on defense,” UW defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said of the injuries. “You’re dealt the cards you get. As coaches, you’ve got to find a way to utilize what you’re left with. I know they’re trying everything they can. They’re very creative on offense, but I know it’s hard.”
Doeren said the injury report should look much better this week. “As healthy as we’ve been (recently), there’s no doubt,” he said.
Freshman running back James White would not have been able to play last week due to a sprained knee. He made significant improvement, Settle said.
“I know he made a lot of progress last week, resting and rehabbing,” Settle said. “He did a lot of pool rehab, didn’t put a lot of weight on it. We’ll come out Tuesday and see where he is.”