WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It was a dream scenario for the University of Wisconsin.
Post impressive victories over Ohio State and Iowa on consecutive Saturdays to raise your record to 7-1, have a bye week to recover from the party and heal your wounds, then hit the weaker second half of the Big Ten Conference schedule rested and ready.
Problem is, things seldom work out the way they're supposed to in college football.
When seventh-ranked UW began its final push toward a possible Big Ten title with a game at Purdue Saturday, it didn't look rested and it certainly didn't look ready. Instead of a team on a roll, it was as flat as, well, northern Indiana.
Only you didn't have to be able to see for miles and miles to tell that the juice that fueled the Badgers against Ohio State and Iowa just wasn't present at lifeless and partially filled Ross-Ade Stadium. All you had to do was look at the halftime score: Purdue 10, UW 6.
"We were pretty flat," UW safety Jay Valai said. "I think Purdue came out with a lot of motivation and they woke us up."
Just in time, too. After some choice words by the coaches in the locker room, the Badgers were both opportunistic and determined in the second half as they rallied to beat the down-on-their-luck Boilermakers by the incredibly misleading score of 34-13.
As praise-worthy as UW's second-half recovery was, it was obvious from the start that this was a different UW team than the one that had partied at midfield after the Ohio State game and swiped the Heartland Trophy at Iowa.
UW was fooled by an attempted onsides kick to open the game. Scott Tolzien threw an interception on the first drive. Reliable Philip Welch missed a 40-yard field goal attempt. The defense couldn't get off the field on third down and allowed Purdue to control the ball. Not even a big play by the defense — Antonio Fenelus' fumble recovery and long return — could snap the Badgers out of it as they gained zero yards on their next three plays and settled for a field goal.
Afterward, several theories were offered as to why the Badgers came out so lethargically when they should have been refreshed. Most players said it took the team awhile to shake off the rust after not playing for 14 days. Coach Bret Bielema said the Badgers spent so much time worrying about a letdown that they might have talked themselves into one. It is also possible the Badgers simply overlooked a team they were expected to dominate.
"The frustrating thing is that one thing we had emphasized in the bye week was that we wanted to start fast because that's always a concern when you have a week off," Tolzien said. "We didn't do that, but on the same account I thought we put it together in the second half."
Indeed, they did. And in the end, their second-half response — three long-lost takeaways, surer tackling and hard running by third-string tailback Montee Ball — allowed the Badgers to fly home feeling pretty good.
That was possible because the Badgers, at Bielema's urging, relaxed and just started doing their jobs in the second half. When asked how they were able to switch gears so effectively, Bielema referred to the title — "Don't Flinch" — of the autobiography penned by his mentor and boss, UW athletic director Barry Alvarez.
"I'm not trying to sell books for our AD, but they don't flinch," Bielema said. "They just handled the situation. They're in a mode where you can just shift them into gear and let them go play football. They're a really fun team to be around. I told them last night, ‘I don't worry about this team showing up and not being physical. I don't worry about them going out and (not) executing.' Sometimes the older guys have got to set the example of just being focused, and I think that was our first-half problem."
It wasn't a problem for long. Senior linebacker Culmer St. Jean made a perfect read to intercept a pass by freshman Sean Robinson on the third play of the second half and the Badgers controlled the game from there.
In the final analysis, that response revealed more about this UW team than the letdown at the start.
"It says we have some good character, we have guys who understand the situation and when we get down, we can't get (knocked) out," defensive end J.J. Watt said. "We came back in the second half and played like a first-place team plays. That's what we need to do from here on out."