INDIANAPOLIS — They've weathered an in-season assistant coaching change, three starting quarterbacks and five gut-wrenching losses by a total of 19 points.
Now, the football players from the University of Wisconsin must go one-on-one with another potential problem.
After taking the most improbable route imaginable to the Big Ten Conference championship game, the Badgers have a chance at a third consecutive league title and the Rose Bowl berth that goes with it. But if the Leaders Division representatives hope to beat Legends Division champion Nebraska on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, they'll have to shed a lot of baggage acquired during that journey.
The first meeting between UW and Nebraska was a 30-27 victory for the Cornhuskers and, on paper, the rematch figures to be just as close. But there is no blueprint for a team dealing with three overtime losses in its last four regular-season games, which is what UW has a experienced.
The Badgers have maintained an air of confidence throughout their tumultuous season, but how many emotional hits can a group of college kids withstand before it all comes crashing down upon them? If the Badgers find themselves in another fourth-quarter game Saturday night, will they start to doubt their ability to win it?
"That's a very hard thing for us to fight," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "At this point, we've had so many close games. In the past we've showed great determination to come back and play our hearts out every week and it just doesn't go our way. This week will be the biggest challenge of all, to be able to come back and have perseverance for the biggest game of the year."
But while there is a chance UW could finally collapse under the weight of a disappointing season, it is more likely the Badgers will bounce back with a strong effort. Indeed, their track record shows they come back ready to go no matter what happened the week before.
The notion that UW could be emotionally spent is real enough that the coaches discussed it among themselves and addressed it with the players. Coach Bret Bielema said Friday the coaches didn't browbeat the players mentally nor push them to the limit physically this week.
"Everybody is human; you have a breaking point that's there," Bielema said. "(But) not with this group. I know I'm the only one here that gets to be around them 24/7. I've been in their living rooms. I've seen the parents that they come from. I know their own personal adversities. And that part has really, believe it or not, never concerned me. I mean, I get it, I think about it, but it never really concerned me, and these guys have reinforced that every week."
The other half of the equation is out of the Badgers' control. If UW has been the hard-luck team in the Big Ten, Nebraska has been the most charmed.
The Badgers are 2-5 in games decided by seven points or less; the Cornhuskers are 5-1 in games decided by 10 points or less. And while UW has coughed up second-half leads in three of its four Big Ten losses, Nebraska has come from behind during the second half in five of its seven Big Ten wins.
Clearly, Nebraska has been the more comfortable team when the game gets tense in the fourth quarter.
"Our kids have shown a lot of character and a lot of resolve," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "And let's face it, we've had some good fortune in a couple of situations where we've had to come back. It comes down to making enough plays to win the football game, and we've been fortunate enough to do that in a number of cases. … It's difficult. But I believe our experience in those close games and having some success there, hopefully that will help us (tonight)."
But if Nebraska is brimming with confidence in close games, UW has more confidence than its 7-5 record warrants.
"It's been devastating," Bielema said. "I kind of remind myself that we're a really good football team. I know this, it's the best 7-5 team I've ever been a part of, hands down. I don't know if that's a great thing to say or not, but it's the truth. And these guys don't have a loser mentality or anything that's negative. They're just a very, very resilient, positive group of young men that have bonded together."
They'll need that bond against Nebraska, which is 10-2 and ranked 14th. The game should be a battle between UW's tough, disciplined defense and Nebraska's playmaker-laden offense. Or it could simply boil down to UW's ability to remain positive at crunch time.
"It's realizing we're so close," defensive end Brendan Kelly said. "You can't be like, 'Oh, we lost, so we did everything wrong.' We did some good things at the end of those games. Yeah, obviously, some decisions we'd like back. Everything's clear in hindsight. That's why we've got this weekend to play."
And why they have one new obstacle to overcome.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.