Madison, Wisconsin – During the most challenging moments of a holiday season filled with artificial adversity, Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickel kept coming back to the reason behind it all. He made it clear to his players that he wanted to make training as difficult as possible for one big reason.
“We were 1-4 last year in games decided in the fourth quarter,” he told the team as players knelt inside the McLean Center after a practice in late February in a video captured by the program’s social media team. “That’s the difference in the season.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. And we’ve got a lot of work to do to finish when you get punched in the face, when you get down by 10, when you get down by 14. That’s what it’s about. We want to see who the dogs are when it becomes It’s really hard.
At every turn, that message was ingrained in the players, from January’s mat workouts to spring workouts to June’s Squatfest workout led by strength and conditioning coach Brady Collins to running the steps of Camp Randall in the July heat.
“That’s what got me through those drills,” said Ricardo Holman of the Badgers.
All of which brings us to what this week represents for the team. No. 19 Wisconsin (1-0) is set to play Washington State (1-0) at 6:30 p.m. CET on Saturday at Jessa Field in Pullman, Washington. It’s the preseason game that should best indicate just how far the Badgers go. Accept. Because that was last year’s game that started the downward spiral that led to the sacking of coach Paul Crist.
A year ago this week, Wisconsin went into a home game against Washington State with a score of 1-0 and ranked 19th in the country. The Badgers then put together one of their weakest performances in recent memory, committing 11 penalties for 106 yards, turning the ball over three times, allowing 73-yard kick returns and two missed field goals. Wisconsin, which led 14-7 at halftime, scored zero points in the second half and lost the game 17-14 despite being favored by 17 points.
“I definitely remember going back to the locker room and looking around and saying, ‘Wow. What happened here?’” Tight end Hayden Roche said. “This was definitely not something we expected.”
Three weeks later, after embarrassing losses to Ohio State and Illinois, Crist was fired. The Badgers faltered the rest of the way as interim coach Jim Leonhard admirably tried to fix the crumbling season. Wisconsin lost a double-overtime game to Michigan State, scored no points in the second half of the loss to Iowa and then watched Minnesota come from behind in the fourth quarter of the regular season finale to throw away Paul Bunyan’s axe.
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For many years, Wisconsin was a team that prided itself on wearing down opponents over the course of four quarters of a game. But Badgers seem cumbersome and lack urgency and discipline.
“I know for myself and for the players who have been here, over the past year, that we will have difficult moments in matches and it was difficult to escape from that,” Rocci said. “You’ll feel this feeling like, ‘Oh crap.'” “The other team would score or there would be a turnover or something. It seemed insurmountable last year, whether it was the coaching staff or whether it was just the players.
Fickell’s first order of business was to make sure he did everything he could to change the way Wisconsin handled those situations. It’s a message players say resonated with them. Badgers running back Braelon Allen said he based his personal coaching this season on the idea of finishing the season strong. Wisconsin led Buffalo only 14-10 at halftime last Saturday before the Badgers pulled away for a 38-17 victory.
“I think we’ve seen just in the past week that a lot of that pays off,” said Allen, who ran for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the opening game. “Those physical punches, powerful runs in the first half, you come out in the second half and the defense plays you differently. They don’t want to deal as much. They’re not as eager to put their nose in the box. So I think it all came full circle really.
Wisconsin knows that the challenge in Fickell’s first road game will be much greater. Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward threw for 451 yards and three touchdowns in the season-opening 50-24 win against Colorado State.
Although Wisconsin’s defense largely put Washington State in check last season, the Badgers also surrendered passes of 31, 38, and 43 yards. The knock came when Wisconsin running back Nakia Watson caught the go-ahead 31-yard touchdown run, his second score of the day, in the third quarter to tally up the final points. Wisconsin, who had the ball 38 minutes into the game clock, fizzled with a missed field goal and a pair of turnovers, including a narrow Clay Cundiff fumble at the Cougars’ 12-yard line, to seal the game.
“This is one of the games where we talked about how we could finish it,” said Fickel. “So the focus on finishing the season is going to be all week and I would tell you that’s probably going to be tough for the whole season.”
Wisconsin needs no extra motivation for this week’s game. Allen called the loss to Washington State last season “the most painful game for me since last year.” He said the players assumed they would start the season 3-0 to set up a massive road showdown against Ohio State in Week 4. Instead, Washington State exposed major flaws in Wisconsin’s program and celebrated with a remarkable victory for Cougars coach and Wisconsin native Jake Deckert.
“I remember them storming the field and jumping on the west side,” said Badgers indoor player Maima Ngongmita. “I remember their social media was exactly what social media does. Kind of the story of Kiki (Nakia Watson) coming back and winning against his former team. That’s the whole story. I’m so excited to go to their house and make things right again.
Wisconsin’s schedule includes games against five of the six opponents the Badgers lost last season: Washington State, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota. Rocchi said he believes the team has regained the confidence to take on the tough moments in those matches thanks to the accountability period under Fickel. Wisconsin will find out how confident it is on Saturday.
“The truth is, you’re going to have to win those tough games if you want to have a special season,” said Badgers wide receiver Chimer Dyke. “The way we’ve prepared in the offseason and the way we’ve handled things, we’re kind of designed for that.”
(Photo: Dan Powers/USA Today)
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