Wisconsin entered the fall amid fairly low expectations from the outside. The Badgers were coming off a very disappointing 2008 season, needed to replace the core of their defense and had another quarterback competition on their hands. Some placed fourth-year coach Bret Bielema on the hot seat, though he never faced any danger of losing his job. Fast-forward three months, and Wisconsin is in position for a solid bowl, perhaps a 10-win season and, most important, even loftier goals in 2010. The Badgers have a young core that includes Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year John Clay and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland, and found their quarterback in Scott Tolzien. The team wraps up the regular season Saturday night against Hawaii (ESPN2, 11:30 p.m. ET).
I caught up with Bielema this week to get his thoughts on Hawaii and the season to date.
It's a little unique for you guys with a game this late following a bye week. Does it alter your preparation at all?
Bret Bielema: This is actually the fourth trip [to Hawaii] that we've done at Wisconsin. I was part of it as a D-coordinator, when we went over there with [head coach Barry Alvarez]. We've used the same approach that we did with our first bye week, when we came off the loss to Iowa and took two weeks before we played Purdue. So we modeled it after that.
You guys obviously responded well after that first bye [a 37-0 win against Purdue]. Did you get a sense about the team that they knew how to handle it and could maybe respond the same way Saturday?
BB: A little bit, but on the same account, this is totally different. It's not a Big Ten team. You have the Thanksgiving holiday in there, throws some things off. And the last time was a home game for us. Now we're going on an 11-hour trip to Hawaii. There are a lot of other X factors in there that we've got to get focused in on.
A lot of people on the outside didn't have huge expectations for you guys coming into the season. Are you where you thought you'd be? Are you ahead of that point?
BB: As a head coach, I have very high expectations for them. I don't really put merit on what the outside world thinks of us. I just go off of what I know. I thought we'd play well. I thought we had a senior class that was small in number, but great in leadership. And I really was very pleased with a lot of our young players. You've got a guy like Chris Borland, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and I know we were the only ones offering him a scholarship. It makes me feel good about how we can evaluate and where we can move forward as a team, with guys like David Gilbert and John Clay, a sophomore who's [Big Ten] Offensive Player of the Year. So I know we've got young talent, but it's one thing to have talent and not produce. But the guys produced and won some games. Of course, I would have loved to have won the three we lost, but we've got to learn from those things and move forward. If this team can make as much improvement in the offseason that last year's team did, we're going to be in good shape.
A lot of people see young players and get worried about the team's prospects. You knew them better than anyone. Was there something about this group of freshmen or sophomores that got you excited?
BB: I think they were hungry. They wanted to make a name for themselves individually and then also, it was very important for them to help restore Wisconsin football into a good light. We didn't do it all well, but we definitely made some strides from where we are, and hopefully, we can continue to move forward.
Did you guys get back to what made you good at Wisconsin, with stressing the accountability and some of the changes you made in the weight room, or was it new? Is this the old Wisconsin way or is it your own spin on it?
BB: One of the reasons coach Alvarez put me in the position I am is he knew I thought like he did in a lot of areas. There's certain things we think differently on, but also, a lot of the things I believe in are going to help us win: ball control, being smart. One of the best things we did was help ourselves in the penalty department, something that was very frustrating for us a year ago. And then [limiting] turnovers. Those are the two things that really jumped out to me because that's based off a lot of what we did from January to where we are today. And then to play as well as we did against the run, and then as well as we did running the football, made me happy as well.