Wisconsin football a big red machine

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2011 - 12:47 AM

Led by dynamic quarterback Russell Wilson and a fearsome offense, the Badgers are trying to roar back from a pair of tough losses.

Badgers QB Russell Wilson leads a potent offense that blasted its first six opponents by an average of 41 points before faltering at Michigan State and Ohio State. The Badgers still have their sights set on the Big Ten title.

Photo: David Stluka, Associated Press

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A Hail Mary pass knocked the Wisconsin Badgers out of the national title picture. A 40-yard touchdown pass in the final seconds the following week knocked them on their keister.

The one-two gut punch derailed a potential dream season and forced the Badgers to re-adjust their outlook. Those two weeks, coach Bret Bielema said, felt like an "eternity" as they relived their mistakes and late-game fireworks by Michigan State and Ohio State on an endless loop in their collective psyche.

"There's no prizes for second place," Bielema said. "It's that empty, hollow feeling."

Ditto for his players.

"I don't think too many people in college football have lost games the way we did," quarterback Russell Wilson said.

That's not a badge of honor the Badgers want, but they carry it nonetheless in their attempt to salvage a return visit to the Rose Bowl. This is not the scenario they envisioned as they climbed to No. 4 in the rankings by bulldozing their first six opponents by an average margin of 41 points.

"You can't linger in the past," Wilson said.

The Badgers began to pick up the pieces last week by throttling Purdue 62-17, a victory that allowed them to release some frustration while also breathing a sigh of relief. It also kept them in the hunt for the conference title, albeit in need of help in the Leaders Division. In order to reach the inaugural conference championship game, the Badgers must win their remaining three games and have Ohio State lose once and Penn State twice.

Wisconsin enters its annual border battle against the Gophers on Saturday as 27-point favorites and with a renewed sense of purpose.

"[The Purdue victory] definitely gave us -- I'm not sure if you'd call it swagger -- but our confidence back in terms of our abilities and what we can do on offense and defense," Wilson said.

Or as Bielema put it: "Winning soothes the soul."

So does having a player of Wilson's caliber leading the charge. The senior quarterback is on pace to set several NCAA records, including pass efficiency.

He already has tied the school record for touchdown passes in a season (21) and he's thrown for at least one touchdown in 33 consecutive games -- three shy of the NCAA record.

He's doubly dangerous when he tucks the ball and runs. Wilson has rushed for 276 yards and four touchdowns and puts pressure on defenses with his ability to make something of nothing when the play breaks down.

The story of Wilson's journey to Madison is well-known in college football circles. A three-year starter at North Carolina State, Wilson pursued a professional baseball career last summer after being drafted by the Colorado Rockies. He had one season of football eligibility remaining, but his baseball season forced him to miss spring practice and offseason workouts.

N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien decided to go with a different quarterback and released Wilson from his scholarship, despite the fact Wilson had passed for 8,545 yards and 76 touchdowns in his career and was widely praised for his leadership qualities.

Wilson was eligible to transfer without penalty because he already had graduated, and he chose Wisconsin over Auburn. The Badgers, coming off a Rose Bowl season, had a glaring hole at quarterback but otherwise were loaded with talent.

On paper, it looked like a perfect marriage, but that didn't guarantee things would click on and off the field with his new teammates.

"From the outside world and even from me not knowing Russell to begin with, I had reservations without a doubt," Bielema said. "Bringing in somebody for a one-year stint, you're not bringing him to sit on the bench. You're bringing him to hopefully win football games. Everything that I was concerned about basically vanished once I got a chance to really get to know Russell. He's just been a tremendous fit. It's like he was born here. He's been natural in everything he does. He's truly a very, very special human being."

Wilson's mission was to learn the entire playbook before the start of fall camp, which essentially amounted to a 30-day cram session. From there, he let his talent guide the rest.

"My goal is to be the best [quarterback in college football]," Wilson said. "That's my mindset on a daily basis. That's what I strive for, that's my motivation."

Wisconsin's two losses hurt Wilson's Heisman Trophy chances, but his impact on the program in one season cannot be overstated. The Badgers are one of only three teams nationally that average at least 240 yards rushing and passing, and they rank fourth nationally in scoring at 47 points per game.

"As a head coach, I'm blessed to be around him," Bielema said. "He's made me better as a head coach. He's made our team better. He'd be the first to tell you that we've all made him better. It's just a fun thing to be around."

  • GOPHERS VS. NO. 16 WISCONSIN

    2:30 p.m. Saturday • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: Big Ten Network (100.3-FM)

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