STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The University of Wisconsin football team may have trouble performing adequately at the end of close games, but seldom does it have problems at the start of games.
Since the calamity-filled 2008 season, the Badgers have held themselves to a standard of performance in which they treat every opponent, every game the same. As a result, they haven't suffered from the occasional emotional letdowns that plague teams. Without fail, UW has shown up on Saturdays ready to play.
Saturday, however, UW's one-game-at-a-time approach will be tested like never before. When the Badgers close their regular season against Penn State at Beaver Stadium, they will have almost nothing tangible to play for.
With Leaders Division rivals Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for the postseason, the Badgers have already qualified for next week's Big Ten Conference title game in Indianapolis. With three Big Ten losses, they aren't in contention for the division title. With four losses on the season, all by a touchdown or less, they are not a player nationally. And their bowl destination will be affected only slightly, if at all, by what they do against the Nittany Lions.
Indeed, about all that will be on the line Saturday for UW is pride.
"It's a pride game, it definitely is," linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. "Obviously, we still have a lot to prove. We left four games out there now. We lost four games and we didn't want to lose those games. We want to go into Indy on a high note, playing our best football. It's definitely a pride game."
Is that enough motivation for the Badgers to play with a sense of urgency against one of the true surprise teams in the nation?
If the past four years, which included Big Ten titles in 2010 and 2011, are any indication, motivation shouldn't be a problem. The Badgers adopted a mindset after the 2008 season that everyone in the program will be held accountable every play, every practice, every day. That culture has helped them develop a noticeable consistency in their preparation for games, big and small.
Despite the upcoming Big Ten title game and the lack of meaning attached to Saturday's game, coach Bret Bielema said he wouldn't hold out players who are physically able to play. Linebacker Chris Borland, who has been battling a hamstring injury, said he would be angry if he was healthy but wasn't allowed to play.
"I don't think a champion is someone who is going to go in and take a game for granted," Borland said. "I understand we're already in Indianapolis, but you play to win the game. ... We're not stupid. We understand the implications — there's not much at stake — but it has everything at stake at the same time. You don't go into a game not to win it. It would be a disservice to the foundation of the program. You go in to win every game, just for the fans and for each other."
Even if UW does come to play, victory is not guaranteed. Its 7-4 record may be a huge disappointment, but Penn State's 7-4 record is cause for celebration in the former Happy Valley.
Penn State was expected to take a swift and sudden fall in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, but it has overcome the loss of longtime coach Joe Paterno and key defections at quarterback, halfback, wide receiver and kicker to forge a remarkable season. The Nittany Lions rallied behind the banner of school spirit, a dynamic group of senior leaders and the pro-style offense of first-year coach Bill O'Brien to go 5-2 in the Big Ten, one game better than the Badgers.
UW faced a number of opponents this season who were playing their so-called biggest game of the year, including Nebraska, Purdue, Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State. However, the Badgers haven't seen emotion like they will see Saturday from a group of Penn State seniors who have been lauded for sticking with the program through its hard times. With no bowl to look forward to, they will be playing their final college game.
"They know they're not doing anything beyond this weekend, so it's an emotional push," Bielema said. "Very, very strong. Great stadium, great fan base. So it will be a very, very tough venue. Our guys have had a lot invested in every game this year. And the part I've said all along is they're a very resilient group."
Resiliency will be needed for a UW team that lost two of its past three games, both at home, both in overtime. More important, the Badgers could use some momentum going into the Big Ten title game against Nebraska.
If they win the title game, they will go to the Rose Bowl. But if they lose next week, they seem locked into the Outback Bowl or the Gator Bowl given the dearth of bowl-eligible and BCS-worthy teams in the Big Ten. That's just another sign that little is at stake Saturday.
"The most important game is our next game," Armstrong said. "I think everyone in this program has bought into that. With that, it's not like we really need anything (more) to play for, because that's all there is to play for. This next game is the most important. It's THE game. It's the next one on our schedule."
It will be interesting to see if that culture remains intact at UW after a season filled with close losses.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.