Badgers grow from stumbles in Sparta

The Wisconsin Badgers who enter Spartan Stadium on Saturday night barely resemble the bunch that staggered out of the place on Nov. 1, 2008.

You might recognize the head coach, many of the assistants and some of the players. They're the same guys. The players will still wear all-white unis and helmets with the distinctive motion "W" on the sides.

But the similarities pretty much end there.

These days Wisconsin is a program on the rise, approaching historic heights and hoping the final chapter of its story is written Jan. 9 in New Orleans. But if you want to know how the Badgers got here, you have to go back to when they reached rock bottom: Spartan Stadium, Nov. 1, 2008.

"It was a low point," coach Bret Bielema said. "I don't know if it was the lowest point in my coaching career, but that was a difficult one."

Wisconsin came to East Lansing at 4-4, already assured of a disappointing season. Considered a potential Big Ten title contender entering the fall, Wisconsin won its first three games and climbed to No. 9 in the polls.

Then the Badgers blew a 19-0 lead at Michigan and lost. Three more losses followed, including a 48-7 humiliation at home against Penn State. Bielema, who had gone 12-1 in 2006, came under fire, and many questioned whether Wisconsin could ever handle high expectations.

Wisconsin stopped its four-game slide against Illinois, setting up a game at Michigan State that, perhaps more than any other, showed how far the program needed to go.

Wisconsin built a 24-13 lead with 9:19 to play. But Michigan State's next possession began with an odd delay of game penalty on the defense, as Wisconsin was flagged for obstruction when safety Jay Valai bumped an official on his way to the field. Bielema, incensed by the call, earned a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for unloading on the official.

Rather than starting the drive at its own 36-yard line, Michigan State began on the Wisconsin 44 and marched to the end zone.

Wisconsin was flagged for eight penalties in the fourth quarter, including a holding call on future All-American John Moffitt, which nullified a run that likely would have sealed the win. Instead, Michigan State won 25-24 on a field goal as time expired.

"It was a game we thought we had in hand," Bielema said. "It was a difficult one, one we all grew from."

Wisconsin had significant edges in total yards (430-312) and rush yards (281-25) but came up short. The Michigan State loss stood out during a season of hard lessons for Bielema and his players.

"That was a challenging season, to say the least," senior wide receiver Nick Toon said. "We had a lot of penalties, a lot of mistakes, and didn't capitalize on our opportunities. It was a lack of discipline.

"That's not how we do things around here."

What has changed in the past 35 months?

Bielema cited three areas:

  • Improved communication on the road

  • Greater discipline, which begins in the types of players recruited

  • Opportunistic play on both sides of the ball

The Badgers drew 12 penalties against Michigan State in 2008. They drew 41 penalties all of last season, the fewest in the nation.

They finished 97th nationally in turnover margin in 2008 (minus-8). They improved to 47th in 2009 (plus-3), soared to sixth last season (plus-14) and rank tied for 11th nationally so far this season (plus-6).

Wisconsin football has become as much about not beating itself as beating the opponent with the power run, the play-action pass and opportunistic defense.

Still, the sight of Spartan Stadium on Saturday night might bring up bad memories. The Badgers have lost three consecutive games there, including their only regular-season loss in 2010, a 34-24 setback.

"Things just haven't swung our way the last couple times we were there," Toon said. "That's on us. We've got to go in, do what we do, prepare like we've been preparing all year."

Bielema often has pointed to last season's loss at Spartan Stadium as the springboard for Wisconsin's Rose Bowl run, saying, "I didn't know going into Michigan State if we had a championship team, but I knew leaving that locker room we did."

Wisconsin's only loss since then came in the Rose Bowl, and the Badgers have recorded road wins in places like Iowa City and Ann Arbor.

Rarely do college players get three opportunities to play in a road stadium. After falling short twice, Toon and his fellow seniors are anxious to change the script -- and continue a storybook season.

"Obviously, we didn't get the results we wanted to have the last couple times we were up there," Toon said. "So to go back and have a chance to make that right in my senior season would be great."