Wisconsin aims to end Big Ten drought

MADISON -- Bret Bielema has been on the University of Wisconsin sideline 51 times since joining the staff as defensive coordinator before the 2004 season.

MADISON -- Bret Bielema has been on the University of Wisconsin sideline 51 times since joining the staff as defensive coordinator before the 2004 season.

One game during that time overshadows all others:

The 2004 regular-season finale at Iowa.

Wisconsin took the field knowing it could secure a share of the Big Ten Conference title, its first since 1999, and a trip to the Rose Bowl.

A crushing 30-7 loss left UW in second place and bound for the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.


"I make reference to that with my staff," said Bielema, 21-5 in two seasons as UW's head coach. "I'll bring it up to our players. You had it right there in your hands.

"That is as close as I've been since I got here."

UW, which opens the college football season Saturday against visiting Akron, has gone eight seasons without winning a Big Ten title.

Since UW's last crown in 1999, seven different Big Ten teams have won at least a share of the league title. The three teams in addition to UW that have been on the outside looking in are Minnesota, Michigan State and Indiana.

UW officials tout that, beginning with the 2004 season, the Badgers, with 40 overall victories, trail only Ohio State (41) among Big Ten teams and that UW's total is tied for 10th nationally.

That is accurate. What UW officials don't mention is that during that span Ohio State has won at least a share of four league titles, is favored to win its third consecutive outright title this season and has played in three BCS bowls, including the last two title games.

UW won the 2006 and '07 Capital One bowls but hasn't sniffed a BCS bowl since the 2000 Rose Bowl.

And with a disappointing 9-4 finish last season still fresh in their minds, the players are eager to end the drought.


"I'm beyond excited," senior linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "I wish I could just fast-forward through everything to the first game.

"I'm eager to see what guys are going to produce. ... We haven't really accomplished anything yet."

UW's 2006 title hopes died in the Big Ten opener, a 27-13 loss at Michigan.

UW's 2007 title hopes died with consecutive losses at Illinois and Penn State in Weeks 6 and 7.

The Badgers have a daunting early league schedule this season, with games against Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa and Illinois in the first five weeks.

However, the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Illini must visit Camp Randall Stadium, where UW is 14-0 in the last two seasons and 25-1 since 2004.

More important than a home-field advantage will be whether UW, which returns 24 players who started at least one game last season, gets consistent play at several key positions.

Those include: quarterback, where Allan Evridge enters his first season as UW's starter; defensive line, where the unit's three seniors are coming off injuries; secondary, where UW has two cornerbacks coming off knee surgery and two others largely untested; wide receiver, where UW has no proven playmakers; and the place-kickers, who were inconsistent throughout pre-season camp.


"When you have (that many) starters coming back," Bielema said, "the ingredients tell you that you should be good."

So does UW have the necessary mix to challenge Ohio State?

Several UW players were asked to identify some of the traits all championship teams must have.

For sophomore strong safety Jay Valai, winning football begins with passion.

"If you're not passionate about what you do, you don't belong out there on the field," Valai said. "That is what I believe. You don't love it? Get out of here."

Valai, who hopes he can help infuse passion and toughness on a defense that at times lacked both in 2007, was just warming up.

"Another thing, you've got to have a winner's mentality," he added. "You've got to have that swagger. When you go on the football field, confidence is everything."

Senior cornerback Allen Langford, a key starter on UW's 2006 team that went 7-1 in league play and 12-1 overall, pointed to the need for good health but also talked frankly about leadership. That was something several returning players said was lacking in '07.


"You need great leaders, and I don't (just) mean vocal leaders," Langford said. "I mean that you need leaders who do things the right way on and off the field."

Evridge listed coaching, players executing their assignments flawlessly and a lack of injuries as essential.

He quickly added an intangible.

"Chemistry is huge," he said. "If you believe in each other and you trust in each other. I think that might be one of the most important things you have to have."

Senior defensive tackle Mike Newkirk cited several factors but focused on perseverance. Great teams don't let one loss spill over into the next game and lead to a second loss. UW made that mistake last season, when it played poorly at Penn State after losing a close game to Illinois.

"A lot of things in life, like nature ... it's a constant grind, like water on rocks," Newkirk said. "A lot of times when you grind on something it fades away and breaks down.

"But that is how you polish a rock, too. You bring out its brilliance."

The first UW team with Bielema as head coach was brilliant in all but one game -- the Big Ten opener at Michigan.


That team, which had a small core of senior leaders, grew stronger as the season progressed and beat a talented Arkansas team in the Capital One Bowl to cap a 12-1 campaign. If not for a rule that prohibits more than two teams from a conference from playing in a BCS game, UW might have been playing on a grander stage than in Orlando, Fla.

"If you take that team and that record the next year we might be playing in the national championship game," Bielema said. "It's a lot about timing and a lot about what you do and how you handle your business."

UW hasn't been able to handle its business properly, for a number of reasons, since the '99 team won its last seven regular-season games, after stumbling to a 2-2 start, and then beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

One year after UW fell short in Iowa City in 2004, Barry Alvarez's final team saw its title hopes end with losses in its final two league games, Penn State and Iowa.

Twelve months ago, UW opened the season ranked No. 7 in both national polls and expected to contend for the league title.

A soft defense, unsteady leadership and a touch of overconfidence, perhaps even arrogance, contributed to a season that did not live up to the expectations within the UW locker room.

"We're not desperate but we're hungry," Valai said. "We came in overconfident last year and that brought us down a level. We just want to go out there and be aggressive and prove to ourselves that we know what we can do.

"We'll start in Game 1 and go game by game. We can't look ahead. I think we did a little bit of that last year.


"We did that a lot last year."

-- Copyright (c) 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

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