By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - For the past two seasons the University of Wisconsin was the one playing on Championship Saturday. They were the ones taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium to play for the Big Ten title. So when Michigan State shocked the Buckeyes to punch their ticket to their first Rose Bowl since 1988 what were the Badgers doing?
“I didn't watch the game,” safety Dezmen Southward said on Sunday.
“It was weird,” added tight end Brian Wozniak. “It definitely wasn't normal.”
No instead of playing for a championship the Badgers began focusing on the future and moving past the anguish of losing on Senior Day to Penn State. They are looking forward to their matchup with South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, which was announced on Sunday night.
The team leaders say there are things to learn from the film of the loss to the Nittany Lions. But it’s not a matter of ifs and buts. They can’t go back and change anything – and in the grand scheme of things it wouldn’t have mattered. Wisconsin is going to the same place they would have – Orlando – win or lose on that final day of November. With Ohio State losing to Michigan State – sending the Spartans to the Rose Bowl against Stanford and the Buckeyes to the Orange Bowl against Clemson – the Badgers were not going to a BCS game. That doesn’t make the loss any easier.
“Personally I don't look at it that way,” nose guard Beau Allen said of the loss not affecting their bowl plans. “I think nothing can change the disappointment we feel after that loss to Penn State and everything like that. But obviously we've got a big time game and a big time opponent coming up. So we're not even focused on the past. We're not going to dwell on that at all.”
They may not dwell on it but there are still questions to be answered and problems to be fixed before taking on a Gamecocks squad that finished ninth in the BCS.
A defense that was great all year – and dominant at home – gave up 31 points to a Penn State team that had significant struggles on the road. And they did it by giving up the four longest plays of the season.
“We had a lot of little breakdowns that turned into big plays,” Southward said. “I don't think you can have that if you expect to be a big time defense, which is in my opinion, what we are and what we've been for the majority of this season.”
Southward watched the tape and didn’t like what he saw.
“It's kind of annoying because you see a lot of opportunities to make plays as well,” he said. “And that's something that hopefully will make our fire burn a little bit more in this instance to where we prepare that much harder, we work that much harder in practice in order not to make those little mistakes that turn into big plays.”
Allen watched the tape right when he got home from the game and he also saw the big plays. But he, for one, was all about looking forward.
“You can use that film as kind of motivation I think at this point,” the senior said. “I don't know how good it is, how beneficial it is for everybody to go back and think about what if we could have done this defensively we should have done that. I think that's what it's about at this point, just watch the film, learn from the film, learn from the Xs and Os, but I think we just got to move forward.”
Allen also delivered a promise.
“I think defensively across the board we know we're better than that, too,” he said. “We just want to play to our potential and that's definitely not it. We know we're better and we're going to play better than that.”
UW coach Gary Andersen, who was minutes from walking into a recruit’s home when talking about the bowl game on Sunday night via teleconference, said getting healthy on the back end should help in the big plays department. And that includes getting back safety Michael Caputo, who missed the Penn State game with a head injury.
But Andersen seemed much more focused on fixing the issues on the other side of the ball. That’s where the Badgers have two running backs – Melvin Gordon (1,466) and James White (1,337) -- over 1,000 yards and are ranked No. 8 in the country in rushing yards at 283 yards per game. But the lanes started to clog in the last two games with Penn State holding them to 120 yards, while they had 197 at Minnesota but just 4.4 yards per carry.
“In the last couple of football games we played on the offensive side of the football, people have basically said we dare you to throw the ball.
“And it worked out for them, even in the Minnesota game, you sit back and look at it and they dared us to throw the football and Penn State did the same thing. We've got to be able to run the ball more effectively. To be able to do that at this point you are going to have to be able to throw the football better and open up the offense a little bit and get some of the other people involved.”
Getting others involved may mean quarterback Joel Stave looking for other players not named Jared Abbrederis. Clearly the sophomores’ security blanket, and for good reason, Abbrederis caught 73 passes this year. The next closest was White with 37 catches and tight end Jacob Pedersen with 36.
“We've got great running backs and very talented offensive line, good blocking tight ends and good blocking wide receivers, all the stuff that comes with it,” Andersen said. But when you're plus one and plus two in the box it becomes very difficult”
The problems need to be addressed and will be over the next several weeks. It won’t be easy to forget the last loss but the opportunity to play a team from the best conference in the country should put the players minds in the right place.
“This is a very powerful senior class,” Andersen said. “They've had some great opportunities in their career, and what a better way to send them out than to play a big time opponent and have an opportunity to win a bowl game.
“I'm sure Badger Nation, as well as these kids and all the coaches and everybody that has anything to do with Wisconsin football, is excited about the game. And it's a January 1st bowl game. Really, if you can't get excited for that I don't know what you can get excited for.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin