There are plenty of reasons for University of Wisconsin players to relish the opportunity to play in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game against No. 8 Ohio State.
The fourth-ranked Badgers could win their first conference title since 2012 and secure a spot in the College Football Playoff while also redeeming themselves after blowing a 21-point lead to Penn State in this game last year.
For senior defensive ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy, simply taking the field could serve as a special moment. The two were both injured for that loss to the Nittany Lions last season but enter the weekend healthy and coming off impressive regular seasons.
“We actually talked about it on Monday,” James said. "I made a comment to (Sheehy). I was like, ‘Man, this time last year, you had a broken arm and I had a high ankle sprain.’ It’s good that we’re here now. We’re definitely excited, but at the same time you want to kind of just stay and play within yourself and not try to be someone who you haven’t been all year."
Both James and Sheehy participated in pre-game warm-ups last year before ultimately not playing and watched Penn State’s crushing comeback from the UW sideline.
The Nittany Lions scored 28 points in a span of less than 18 minutes to take the lead after trailing 28-7 in the second quarter, and they did it against a defense that had been one of the best in the country to that point in the season.
“Just watching the whole thing go down, you always think to yourself if you can make an impact, even if you’re hurt,” James said. "It was tough, but I was there for the guys. The guys who did play did an amazing job, so you can’t take anything away from them."
The absence of depth on the defensive line in that game severely stood out. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt even play some snaps at defensive end, and the Badgers failed to apply nearly as much pressure on quarterback Trace McSorely in the second half as they did early in the game.
UW experienced more injury concerns on the defensive line this season. Senior Chikwe Obasih sat out six games with a left leg injury, while redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg) missed three games before returning against Iowa on Nov. 11.
Both appear to be at least nearing 100 percent entering Saturday’s game, however, eliminating some of the issues they had last year at this time.
“It’s huge,” UW outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. "We love those guys up front, and to have Chikwe and Loudermilk back in the mix is huge because (Ohio State’s) a fast-tempo offense, so you’ve got to make sure your guys are fresh. To have them in the rotation definitely helps out our defense."
James and Sheehy have started all year at defensive end. James enjoyed a breakout regular season with 5.5 sacks, while Sheehy more quietly put together an impressive 12 games that earned him second-team All-Big Ten honors by the conference’s coaches this week.
With only two or three games left in their UW careers, it doesn’t get much bigger than Saturday for James and Sheehy. Still, they’re doing their best to remain level-headed.
“It’s always good to be healthy, but we’re just taking it like it’s any other game,” Sheehy said. "You can’t make it too big."