HOUSTON — Gary Andersen notices it every time he leaves Madison.
After two decades of sustained success, the University of Wisconsin has become a household name in the world of college football.
“I don’t think anybody would sit back and say Wisconsin’s not an elite program in the Big Ten and, quite frankly, in the country,” UW’s second-year coach said recently. “I can walk any hallway — any assistant coach can — in any high school and nobody looks at the Motion W and says, ‘Where you from?’ It doesn’t happen.”
Never has the growing acceptance of UW as a national power been more evident than this season. The Badgers had new starters at 14 of the 22 positions, including the entire front seven on defense, when they played 13th-ranked LSU on national television Saturday night at NRG Stadium in Houston, yet they were still ranked 14th in the preseason poll.
But is UW also seen as a program that can beat the very best teams from the Deep South and Far West?
The answer is no. Going into its game against LSU, UW had proved it could compete with truly elite teams but not that it could beat them. That’s what made this game so compelling. If the Badgers could knock off an SEC powerhouse that won two national championships in the past 11 seasons and had 18 players drafted by the NFL the past two years, it would be a tremendous boost for their national reputation. If they could do it in the Tigers’ backyard, it would carry even greater weight.
Of course, no outcome against LSU was going to permanently alter anyone’s perception of UW. It would still be considered a program on the periphery of the national landscape until it can consistently win games like this. And this year, with major college football going to a playoff for the first time, style points matter more than ever.
Unfortunately for UW, the rare early season game against a strong opponent followed the pattern of so many before it. The Badgers seized control early, but just when it seemed like they could finally break through against an elite team, LSU scored the final 21 points to storm back for a 28-24 victory.
Outside of Big Ten play, UW hasn’t stepped onto the national stage that often. Usually, it only meets elite teams from other parts of the country in bowl games.
UW hasn’t fared well in those games. In high-profile bowl matchups over the past four years, the Badgers lost to No. 3 TCU by two points, to No. 6 Oregon by seven, to No. 6 Stanford by six and to No. 8 South Carolina by 10. None of those outcomes was decided until the final few minutes of the game, but none went in UW’s favor, either.
True, UW has scored some major victories in spotlight Big Ten games during that time. Beating No. 1-ranked Ohio State at home in 2010 and routing Nebraska in its first-ever Big Ten game in 2011 resonated across the land. So did victories over Michigan State and Nebraska in the first two Big Ten championship games.
Impressive as they were, however, those victories had little impact nationally. With the Big Ten’s national image at an all-time low, games matching its top teams are viewed as intramurals these days.
The only way Big Ten teams can boost their stock is to do some damage outside the conference. That hasn’t happened enough in recent years, not for UW and not for the Big Ten.
Even though UW had control of the game throughout the first half and zoomed to a 24-7 lead early in the third quarter, its loss qualified as a major disappointment. Once again, the Badgers couldn’t get over the top, and the discouraging part was the changes Andersen made to put UW on more equal footing with the big boys backfired in the second half.
Among other things, Andersen named dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy the starter over incumbent Joel Stave in the hopes he can generate more big plays with his feet and also help get tailbacks Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement room to run on the edges. He also developed a smaller, faster, more aggressive defense, an approach designed to create more turnover plays and help the Badgers contend with speed on the perimeter.
Most of those changes worked against LSU — but only for awhile. UW’s running game was unstoppable early but LSU shut it off after Gordon’s 63-yard run to open the second half.
McEvoy was simply unable to make the Tigers pay for ganging up on the run, though LSU’s outstanding cornerbacks had something to do with that. He made some plays with his feet in the first half, but finished the game completing only eight of 24 passes for 50 yards with two interceptions.
UW’s defense also took control early, swarming to the ball and stuffing LSU’s vaunted power running game for three quarters. It even set up a touchdown when Joe Schobert forced a fumble. But after senior linemen Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring went out with injuries, UW’s small lineup wilted against LSU’s massive, experienced line and started giving up long runs. LSU scored the game’s final 21 points.
In the end, LSU wore down the Badgers, beating UW at its own game. Of course, that isn’t really UW’s game anymore.