It was two years ago that the University of Wisconsin football team went to Iowa — you remember the Hawkeyes, don't you? — and did something it had never done under coach Bret Bielema.
It beat a ranked Big Ten Conference team on the road.
UW's 31-30 victory over Iowa on Oct. 23, 2010, propelled it to its first Big Ten championship since 1999. In my column afterward, I praised Bielema effusively for calling a risky fake punt that Brad Nortman turned into a 17-yard gain, a play that kept alive UW's game-winning drive against No. 13 Iowa. The contest remains Bielema's only victory over a ranked Big Ten opponent in a true road setting.
"The Badgers were 0-5 in such games," I wrote that day, "but they ended that streak and thrust themselves into the race for the Big Ten title because they learned it takes more than toughness, focus and execution to beat an elite team on the road. It also takes guts. It takes playing to win instead of playing not to lose.
"Even though he was coaching a short-handed team, Bielema was as bold as he's been since he put on his red windbreaker. Between the fake punt and another gutsy second-half call — going for it on fourth-and-1 at the 2 when a field goal would have tied the score — Bielema adopted the kind of aggressive approach needed to put his team over the hump."
I bring that up on the eve of the second Big Ten title game because Bielema and the Badgers could use a reminder of the lesson that was learned that day.
When unranked and unloved UW plays No. 14 Nebraska on Saturday night in Indianapolis, it will be seeking its third consecutive Big Ten title. But after a season dominated by close losses to good teams — five in all, three in overtime — the Badgers need something to put them over the hump.
They need to take a few chances.
Whether it's on offense, defense or special teams, they need to think outside the coach's box against the Cornhuskers because the conservative approach they've taken all season simply hasn't gotten the job done. They've been competitive with the better teams on their schedule, but they haven't been able to beat them because big plays have been few and far between.
Actually, it's hard to blame Bielema and his staff for taking a conservative stance this season. When transfer Danny O'Brien, who had started 17 games at Maryland, was benched at halftime of the third game, it doomed UW to a season of inexperience at quarterback.
Whether it was redshirt freshman Joel Stave or oft-injured fifth-year senior Curt Phillips calling signals, the Badgers had to do things to compensate for their lack of game experience at the position. It affected the way UW approached the game on both sides of the ball, often limiting its options.
But that was the price Bielema paid for sacking O'Brien before the quarterback even had a chance to settle in at UW. Stave made his second career start at Legends Division champion Nebraska and Phillips made his second career start against Leaders Division champion Ohio State. Sorry, but that's not a recipe for winning close games against good teams.
For the most part, Bielema followed the approach his predecessor and current boss, Barry Alvarez, used so successfully for 16 seasons. On defense, UW tried to keep everything in front of it and not give up the big play. On offense, it tried to eliminate turnovers and control the ball almost entirely on the ground. On special teams, it tried to be sound and not give up game-turning plays.
There are a number of problems with that safety-first approach and this UW team, however.
First, college teams score more points than they did during Alvarez's time, which makes it harder to win 20-17 games. Second, after losing five offensive linemen to the NFL draft in the past two years, UW doesn't have the dominant running game needed to make that strategy work against all opponents. Finally, the current Badgers are more error-prone than Alvarez's teams were, especially at quarterback and in the kicking game.
Bielema admitted this week that Phillips still isn't seeing things in the passing game quickly enough, which is to be expected from an inexperienced quarterback. But the Badgers have no choice now. They can't play it safe any longer. They have to trust that Phillips can make the correct decisions and throw the ball down the field more than he did against Ohio State and Penn State.
It's easy to take chances when your quarterback is Scott Tolzien or Russell Wilson. It's a lot harder when your quarterback is just getting his feet wet. But that's the hand Bielema dealt to himself and now it's his job to figure out how to win a close game.
UW and Nebraska are evenly matched, which means the Badgers will need to be deceptive and daring to put themselves over the hump. As they did at Iowa in 2010, they need to start playing to win instead of playing not to lose.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.