MADISON, Wis. — The grind was long and draining, both physically and mentally. For 10 consecutive weeks, Wisconsin’s football team prepared for games with no breaks. And each week, those games grew in importance as the Badgers embarked on a historic season that reached the brink of the College Football Playoff.
When Wisconsin lost to Ohio State 27-21 in the Big Ten Championship Game two Saturdays ago, there was understandable devastation as Badgers players addressed their performance outside the locker room. The following day, Wisconsin learned its bowl destination and opponent: Miami in the Orange Bowl.
But before the Badgers shifted their focus to playing one more game, you’d better believe they took advantage of the opportunity to do absolutely nothing for a change.
“Just being able to chill at home in the apartment, focus on school and watch a lot of TV and kind of unwind a little bit after the season, it was pretty nice,” Badgers linebacker Ryan Connelly said recently.
“I haven’t been trying to think about football until we practiced [Sunday], really,” Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “It was nice to get a little time to relax our bodies.”
Wisconsin returned to practice Sunday, and the Badgers won’t practice again until Thursday. That time off already has proven to be beneficial for a team that was in need of a breather.
“I think guys will come back ready to go again and feeling fresh,” Wisconsin tight end Troy Fumagalli said.
When Wisconsin does reconvene, the Badgers will be able to dive fully into the scouting report on the Hurricanes. First, players must handle end-of-semester final exams and papers. And while the time away has been good, it also has provided ample opportunity for players to reflect on what went wrong during the Ohio State game.
The Buckeyes recorded 449 yards of total offense — the most against Wisconsin’s defense all season — and eclipsed the Badgers’ defensive average less than 4 minutes into the second quarter. Meanwhile, the offense struggled to consistently move the ball and averaged just 1.9 yards per rushing attempt.
“It’s pretty hard,” Tindal said. “It always runs through the back of your mind every time you see anything that says ‘ten’ or ‘big’ in it, it just reminds you of the game. We were able to bounce back and feel pretty good now. I just watch me some cartoons. I’ll be all right.”
Badgers defensive end Alec James said several little things added up to Ohio State recording big plays, whether it was a busted coverage or missed tackles. Ohio State finished with four plays of at least 50 yards, which was more than Wisconsin had surrendered all season. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett carried 19 times for 60 yards with a touchdown, six days after undergoing right knee surgery to remove a piece of torn meniscus. Miami quarterback Malik Rosier is another rushing threat. He has gained 427 rushing yards with 5 touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s going to present some of the same challenges,” James said. “But we learned from the Ohio State film, and we know what we’ve got to fix and where we can do things different.”
Tindal noted he was looking forward to showing the country just how good Wisconsin’s defense can be. Last season, the defense faltered in a 38-31 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten title game but responded by surrendering just 280 yards in a 24-16 Cotton Bowl victory against previously undefeated Western Michigan.
“I feel like we’ve got the best defense in the nation,” Tindal said. “If Tim Tebow wants to say it or something, I’m still not going to change my motivation of how I feel about my team. I’ve got so much trust in these guys, I know they’re going to bounce back. I love them and I know what my brothers are going to do.”
One of the early topics surrounding the Orange Bowl game is that Miami gets to play in its own stadium, where the Hurricanes are 7-0 this season. But the Badgers have expressed little, if any, concern about that setup.
“First of all, it’s exciting,” Connelly said. “They’re a team that’s getting a lot of national attention. It’ll be a fun game. Honestly if I were them I’d be kind of mad. They’ve just got to stay in their own. That’s kind of the fun thing about bowl trips. You get to go somewhere, explore a new city and get a new experience. But at the end of the day, it will be fun.”
What Wisconsin sees is one more opportunity to play together and to send its senior class out the right way. Wisconsin has a chance to win 13 games for the first time in program history and to cap a special season with an Orange Bowl victory against one of the best teams in the nation. A rejuvenated Badgers team appears eager for the matchup.
“It’s exciting to be able to go down to Miami and play a game,” Connelly said. “I think guys are starting to get pumped for it.”
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