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 toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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(9) comments

Fflambeau

Excellent column. BB should have gone for outright wins (2 point conversions) in the last two losses. Reason: a poor kicker. You don't go into overtime with the kind of kicker UW has (and not unexpectedly, he missed both critical kicks in key games to lead to losses). Take a shot at a 2 point conversion. Mix in some trick plays. A good offense should also keep people guessing and Wisconsin's has become too predictable.

truedat

Poor sports journalism here, and sorry posters below but most of you are wrong.

Oates, you contradict yourself: be more aggressive as coaches, but you agree with being conservative with sub par talent combined with no experience? Plus 2010's O and D line had far better talent and depth. If bielema did as you suggest, they'd get their a$$es kicked and every Sunday you'll call him reckless and stupid.

Other than a couple poor choices like clock management and obvious bad calls, for the most part the coaches have managed their team as best they can in the game. Players make coaches more than coaches make players.

** - Warning - i am not in coaches meetings or at practice, so i have no idea what the badgers are actually doing, nor does Oates or any of you. My opinions are from what i see on the boob tube:

However, offensively i cannot discern that Stave/Phillips/Obrien are given at the LOS options, such as 'check with me' for a run/pass/bubble screen option at the line. What's called in the huddle is ran at the line. I do see built in-play-options for each play, but still it is static. For reference Chryst, whether it was Tyler Donovan or Russel Wilson coached his qb's to be an extension of him on the field. QB "has the chalk last" against the other teams D-Coordinator.

Example - at the line the qb would have the option of 3 plays based on what the D presents. We don't have numbers or leverage to run the power to the TE side? then we will run inside zone or stretch to the weak side., if that's not there then that means the have box loaded and overhang defenders, then we have numbers and leverage outside, AND/or the corners are alone 7-8 yards off the ball. So we can throw a stand-up screen to a single WR, or a bubble screen to two WR's in the slot with leverage.

In my honest opinion, the badgers line and limited qb talent is not suited to a 2 pack power game, the whole game. They would be better served in a one back under center spread, 1 TE, 3 WR"s about 50% of the time. Create lanes, clear up the picture in the box for the Lineman and TE by removing defenders from the box.

Canada's not bad, but he's severely limited by his talent and consistency at QB.

pjh16

Nice comments w8rh3wk5...you sum up nicely what I said way back when the Cornhuskers bottlled up the (very) conservative play calling of OC Canada...great view by Oates on what they need to do to win...the Badgers are a program that has experienced immense turnover the last two years (players and coaches) and very young on overall veteran experience but yet we compete very well with the best of the Big Ten...the critiques and crybabies need to cool their heels...I think this year Coach B is proving that even in a 'down' year that our program is still strong enough to compete for a Big Ten title...not his fault that some programs can't play within the rules of the NCAA (National Communist Athletic Assoc.)...On Wisconsin!!!

w8rh3wk5

I actually think this team has plenty of talent.... I just think piss poor coaching has hinder this team. If OC Canada mixes up the play calling and keeps the huskers defense guessing, they will win. Phillips has shown some ability to lead drives. Ball, White, and Gordon can run well. They have some athletes on the outside.

But u still need to help the offense create mismatches and make things easier for Phillips. Its asking too much to try deep on third and long routinely. Its alot easier to through the ball on first down when there is 7 or 8 defenders in the box, and man to man on the ouside

seered

warhawk; that all sounds great, but to do that we would need to replace the team.....ha.
And you forgot the kicking game too.

No doubt our D will keep us in the game for 3 qts, but then when they wear out at the end of the game will our offense finally show up? Or take another conservative, between the tackles,
powder?
And please sh-t can the barge!

brown

Badgerz suck, B.B. And his coaching staff are coaching their last game hopefuly..

bpro

Agree with you Tom. However, unfortunately I think the probability on Saturday is the Huskers offense shall score >30 & engage the defensive scheme that won the first game & our Badgers will not shake out of their pattern enough to keep pace.

w8rh3wk5

So add in the MSU game last year, and the Nebraska game this year, BBs record against ranked teams in true road games is 1-7. Goes with all the other stats I have been saying about BB. But hey, some fans are okay with failure. Im not though.

Now going into tomorrow nights game, UW needs to find a way to get others involved besides Montee and Jared. Im sick of the offensive running up the middle on first down, run off tackle on second down, and throw a deep pass into double coverage on third and long. OC Canada needs to be more creative with the offense. Do a play action pass to the TE Pederson on first down, run a misdirection with Gordon on third down. Confuse the Husker defense. Don't run, run, pass, punt. Find ways to get mismatches for Gordon, White, Doe, Pederson.

Defensively, they need to create turnovers. Keep Martinez in the pocket, so the DEs need to keep their rushing lanes. Bump the WRs at the line, get phyiscal with them. And then the linebackers need to make their tackles. Can't have missed tackles from the linebackers bc the Huskers are a big play offense. Don't let a 3 or 4 yard gain turn into a 30 or 40 yarder

jmc43

I couldn't agree more with w8rh3wk5. It has been painful to watch the offensive play calling. It simply will not work against good teams. Phillips has been ok at the end of the OSU and PSU game if he is given the chance to pass...not perfect by any means, but he did lead two keys drives with passing. When it is run, run and then pass long, it puts him and the receivers in a very difficult situation. Even last year, we survived this kind of approach mainly because Wilson had a terrific arm and was able to escape pass rushers. I fully agree with the point about mixing up play calling, and taking more risks. Not optimistic it will happen, but I dread the possibility that the play calling will settle into the same 'run, run, pass, punt' routine...

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