Bret Bielema is a man who likes his catchphrases.
"After a win, it's never as good as it looks, and after a loss, it's probably never as bad as it looks," the Badger football coach remarked at his weekly press conference on Monday. That message was directed at the legion of Badger fans leaping from the team's bandwagon following the 38-7 whuppin' their team suffered at Penn State last Saturday.
But like many sports clichés, Bielema's little quip is meaningless, particularly in light of how the Badgers limped to a 5-0 record to start the season. In fact, the Badgers' inability to dominate cupcake opponents like UNLV and the Citadel had national pundits and feverish fans alike questioning the legitimacy of Wisconsin's inclusion in the top five of national polls two weeks ago. Those wins, along with two squeakers at home against Iowa and Michigan State to open the Big Ten season, looked more like fortunate escapes than triumphant victories.
So while it wasn't shocking to see consecutive road losses to Illinois and Penn State, for the first time since Bielema took over as coach last year, optimism is not the prevailing tone surrounding the program.
"When you're in this type of situation, normal people or people who haven't been in situations of pressure, where all eyes are on you, flinch," Bielema said. "I've been able to gather the information, sort through the facts, understand personnel issues as well as team chemistry, and I really believe some of the errors we're making are not lack of ability or lack of knowledge, but lack of confidence and things going on between the ears."
Bielema said his team needed "a little bit of a gut check" to get back on track.
Does checking one's gut help stop the run on defense? The Badgers are giving up an average of 202 yards per game on the ground and 5.3 yards per carry against Big Ten teams. In four conference games, Wisconsin has coughed up the ball 10 times, but forced only two turnovers by its opponents. And penalties have cost the team an average of nearly 50 yards per game.
That lack of discipline had Bielema calling attention to the Badgers' youth: "Of our 22 starters [against Penn State] on offense and defense, only three were seniors."
On Saturday, the Badgers play a reeling Northern Illinois (1-6 overall), which should provide an opportunity for the team to excel, thus allowing its young players to gain a little swagger. The Huskies, usually very competitive in the Mid-American Conference, are undergoing a rebuilding season and aren't expected to provide much of a challenge for the Badgers.
"They're like a Big Ten school," said Bielema, complete with a straight face. "They've been winning there for a long time, unfortunately going th-rough some bumps this year. But they're a team I know is going to come in here ready to play on Saturday."
Will his team be similarly prepared? Some feel the Badgers, now out of the picture for a conference title or Bowl Championship Series appearance, have little left to play for. But Bielema dismissed that opinion when it was offered by a reporter at Monday's press conference.
"The season is a journey, and the more you focus on the end of the journey, the further off it will become," he said, offering another of his go-to bits. "There's nothing in this program that we believe in more than a 1-0 mentality, to focus on what we need to do."
Bielema now wishes he would have stressed this more before last week's game, "that the only thing we had to focus on was Penn State. We didn't have to focus on where we are in the Big Ten race, where we're at nationally or anything else."
Really? Was that what went wrong in this 38-7 loss? Maybe Bielema needs to develop some new material.
Getting to the Point
Football fans on the hunt for a more competitive match-up might consider making the trek this Saturday to UW-Stevens Point, where the undefeated Pointers (6-0) host the UW-Whitewater Warhawks (5-1) in a game that will likely decide the champion of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Goerke Field. Tickets are $7.