Oregon State Football Reser Stadium file photo

The Oregon State football team takes the field at Reser Stadium in this 2011 file photo.

Don Ryan - Associated Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. — If you're not thrilled with the escalating ticket prices and accompanying extortion fees the University of Wisconsin demands for home football games against non-conference patsies, you can take some small solace in this:

The Badgers' non-conference road schedules haven't been any better.

When 13th-ranked UW meets Oregon State at cozy Reser Stadium Saturday, it will be the first time the Badgers have played a true road game against a team from a BCS conference during Bret Bielema's seven seasons as coach.

Indeed, the last time a UW team voluntarily ventured into the stadium of an opponent from its own weight class was in 2005, when coach Barry Alvarez's final team played at North Carolina.

Including last week's season-opening victory over Northern Iowa, the Badgers are 25-0 in regular-season non-conference games under Bielema. Yet only four of those 25 have come in true road games — UNLV twice, Hawaii and Fresno State.

The fifth will come Saturday against Oregon State, which is expected by most Pacific-12 Conference observers to rebound this fall from an uncharacteristic 3-9 season. If nothing else, Oregon State should provide UW with some valuable experience away from the friendly confines of Camp Randall Stadium.

The Beavers, whose opener was postponed by weather, are the Pac-12's traditional overachievers, their loud stadium has generated its share of major upsets and coach Mike Riley is calling this "as big a non-conference game as Oregon State has ever hosted." Throw in the Big Ten Conference's lengthy record of futility in Pac-12 stadiums and it makes Saturday's roadie the legitimate test of nerves and will that UW has been missing on its non-conference schedule under Bielema.

It almost goes without saying that such a test is needed more than once every seven years. Unfortunately, playing tough non-conference games to steel yourself for the rigors of the conference season has become a quaint notion in the money-driven world of college football.

But the Badgers showed just last season that dealing with the travel routine, unfamiliar surroundings, a charged-up crowd and an opponent that has the energy to play hard for 60 minutes takes some getting used to. So does learning to play with the us-against-the-world mindset needed in foreign stadiums.

"Any kind of challenge you can have is good for the team," wide receiver Jared Abbrederis said. "Especially last year, we had a couple away games that were real close and we didn't come away with (a win), so it'll definitely be a test for our team."

UW never left its comfort zone the first half of last season, playing five games at home and one at a neutral site (Northern Illinois at Soldier Field) before it went to Michigan State and Ohio State in back-to-back weeks. After going 6-0 and winning by 40.5 points per game, the Badgers lost both road games in the final minute.

While few in the program will admit it, going into those supercharged situations without any preparation played a role in those losses.

"It was probably a factor," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "This will be a good challenge for us. Oregon State's a good team. We've got to go in there with a good mindset and play well on the road."

Win or lose, Saturday's game will help UW down the line because Oregon State will be hard to beat. The Beavers lost a 35-0 decision to the Badgers in Madison last season, but the game marked quarterback Sean Mannion's first significant playing time. Riley's quarterbacks historically make sizable jumps in their second season.

In addition, Riley has a history of pulling off at least one big upset per year. Oregon State has beaten USC three times in the last six years, all in Corvallis. And though it has lost seven of its last eight non-conference games, Oregon State has a sparkling 53-20 home record since 2000. Finally, Reser hasn't hosted a Big Ten team since 1971.

"It's unusual, but we appreciate it," Riley said. "It should be a great atmosphere here."

Learning to play in hostile atmospheres is something the Big Ten needs more of. Big Ten teams are only 5-17 in true road games against the Pac-12 since 2000.

It's also something UW needs more of. Excluding Nebraska, which joined the Big Ten last year, the conference's five toughest places to play have been Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Iowa. The Badgers' record on those campuses under Bielema is 3-10.

Perhaps that mark would be different if UW put itself in more tough environments in September.

"If you want to find out about some kids, throw them in the pit," wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "Let's go find out. Put 'em in a closet, who's going to come out the winner? Oregon State is a great football team. All of those guys are back. I know they didn't get worse; they only got better. It's going to be a really good test for our guys."

A test UW badly needs.


Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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