MADISON, Wis. — During the most challenging moments of an offseason filled with manufactured adversity, Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell kept returning to the why behind it all. He explained to his players that he wanted to make workouts 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 McClain Center following a late-February workout in a video captured by the program’s social media team. “That’s the difference in a season.
“We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do. And we’ve got a hell of 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 this is about. We want to see who the dogs are when it really gets tough.”
At every turn, that message was ingrained into players, from January mat drills to spring practices to a June Squatfest workout led by strength and conditioning coach Brady Collins to running the Camp Randall Stadium steps in the July heat.
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. CT Saturday at Gesa Field in Pullman, Wash. It is the early-season game that should best indicate how far the Badgers have come. Because this was the game last year that began the spiral that led to head coach Paul Chryst’s firing.
A year ago this week, Wisconsin entered a home game against Washington State at 1-0 and ranked 19th in the country. The Badgers then put together one of their sloppiest performances in recent memory, committing 11 penalties for 106 yards, turning the ball over three times, allowing a 73-yard kick return and missing two field goals. Wisconsin, which led 14-7 at halftime, scored zero second-half points and lost the game 17-14 despite being a 17-point favorite.
“I definitely remember heading back to the locker room and looking around like, ‘Whoa. What just happened here?’” tight end Hayden Rucci said. “It was definitely not something that we expected.”
Three weeks later, following a pair of embarrassing losses to Ohio State and Illinois, Chryst was fired. The Badgers floundered the rest of the way as interim coach Jim Leonhard tried admirably to fix a crumbling season. Wisconsin lost a double-overtime game to Michigan State, scored no points in the second half of a loss at Iowa and then watched Minnesota come from behind in the fourth quarter of the regular-season finale to take away Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
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For so many years, Wisconsin had been a team that prided itself on wearing down opponents over the course of a four-quarter game. But the Badgers appeared to be worn out and lacking urgency and discipline.
“I know for me and for guys who have been here, through last year, we would get into tough moments in games and it was hard to escape that,” Rucci said. “You’d get that feeling like, ‘Oh crap.’ Like the other team scored or there’s a turnover or something like that. It almost seemed like un-overcome-able last year, whether it was from the coaching staff down or whether it was just on the players.”
Fickell’s first order of business was to ensure he did everything in his power to change the way Wisconsin approached those situations. It is a message that players say has resonated with them. Badgers running back Braelon Allen said he based his personal training this offseason around the idea of finishing strong. Wisconsin led Buffalo just 14-10 at halftime last Saturday before the Badgers pulled away for a 38-17 victory.
“I think we saw just this past week that a lot of that’s paying off,” said Allen, who ran for 141 yards and two touchdowns in the opener. “Those body blows, hard runs in the first half, you come out in the second half and the defense plays you a different way. They don’t want to tackle as much. They’re not as eager to stick their nose in the box. So I think all that has kind of come full circle already.”
Wisconsin recognizes that the challenge in Fickell’s first road game will be far more substantial. Washington State quarterback Cameron Ward threw for 451 yards and three touchdowns in a 50-24 season-opening victory against Colorado State.
Even though Wisconsin’s defense largely held Washington State in check last season, the Badgers also surrendered pass plays of 31, 38 and 43 yards. The backbreaker came when former Wisconsin running back Nakia Watson hauled in the go-ahead 31-yard touchdown catch, his second score of the day, in the third quarter to account for the final points. Wisconsin, which had the ball for 38 minutes of game clock, fizzled with a missed field goal and a pair of turnovers, including tight end Clay Cundiff’s fumble at the Cougars’ 12-yard line, to close out the game.
“This is one of the games that we’ve talked about how to finish,” Fickell said. “So the emphasis on finishing will continue to be pounded the entire week, and I would tell you that it’s probably going to be pounded the entire season.”
Wisconsin hardly needs additional motivation for the game this week. Allen called the loss to Washington State last season “the game that stings the most for me from last year.” He said players assumed they would begin the season 3-0 to set up a massive road showdown against Ohio State in Week 4. Instead, Washington State revealed major flaws in Wisconsin’s program and celebrated a signature victory for Cougars coach and Wisconsin native Jake Dickert.
“I remember them storming the field and jumping on the W,” Badgers inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta said. “I remember their social media was just what social media does. Kind of the narrative of Kiki (Nakia Watson) coming back and winning against his former team. That whole narrative. I’m very excited to go to their house and make things right again.”
Wisconsin’s schedule features games against five of the six opponents the Badgers lost to last season: Washington State, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio State and Minnesota. Rucci said he believed the team had regained its confidence to withstand difficult moments in those games thanks to an offseason that preached accountability under Fickell. Wisconsin will find out just how much confidence on Saturday.
“The reality is you’re going to have to win those tough games if you want to have a special season,” Badgers wide receiver Chimere Dike said. “With the way that we prepared in the offseason and the way we approached things, we’re kind of built for that.”
(Photo: Dan Powers / USA Today)