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Wisconsin enjoying its time in center of spotlight

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September 16, 2011
— Wisconsin is rarely going to be mistaken for one of college football’s “glamour” teams.

Its roster isn’t loaded with blue chip recruits. Its offense isn’t flashy enough to have its own nickname. Its defense is built on size and strength, not gimmicks. Its uniforms are only slightly less boring, er, traditional than Penn State’s or Alabama’s. Even when it’s had great teams, they weren’t considered the equal of an Oklahoma or Texas or USC.


Thanks to new quarterback Russell Wilson and scandals that have upended the traditional Big Ten order, however, the Badgers are hearing what sounds an awful lot like — dare we say it? — buzz these days.


Up to No. 7 after the first shutout of a BCS team this season, the Badgers (2-0) are getting a taste of life in the big leagues this week when they play Northern Illinois (1-1) at Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon.


“I think it’s fun,” offensive lineman Peter Konz said. “You normally don’t get recognized for what you do, at least here. We haven’t been a national team, you don’t hear about Wisconsin every other day on ESPN. So it’s just fun to be recognized. It’s sort of a respect thing.”


Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten every year but one since 2004, and it won a share of the conference title last year. It’s had 10 or more wins four of the last six seasons, including a Wisconsin-best 12 in 2006, Bret Bielema’s first season as coach. It’s gone to bowl games every year since 2002.


Yet ask college football fans to name the premier programs in the country, and odds are Wisconsin’s name won’t be near the top of the list.


Part of the reason is Ohio State and Michigan are so steeped in tradition, not to mention talent, they tend to monopolize the Big Ten spotlight. But Wisconsin’s style of play hasn’t done much to boost its star status, either. The Badgers don’t go for fads or innovation, preferring to stick with a formula that’s worked since the days of leather helmets: run the ball behind a big, bruising offensive line, and stop opponents with a rugged, physical defense.


They’re college football’s version of “Groundhog Day,” the names on the backs of the uniforms the only way to tell one year from another.


“Wisconsin is what it is,” Bielema said before the season began. “We’re not real sexy.”


What they do, however, they do awfully well.


Montee Ball and James White already have combined for almost 300 yards rushing and six touchdowns, and the season is only two games old. The Badgers are 11th in the country in scoring defense, and in the top 30 for both rush defense and total yardage. They haven’t turned the ball over yet this year, and have had only five turnovers over the last 13 games.


“You can ask any coach in the country. When you play Wisconsin, they’re not about tricking you,” said Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren, who spent the past five seasons in Madison as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. “They’re about playing better technique, and being stronger and tougher than you are. That’s what’s made them a good program for a long time.”


The Badgers haven’t lost a non-conference game during the regular season since 2003 — 30 in a row for those counting — and they have no interest in seeing that streak end this week.


Not when people are finally paying attention to them.


The country took notice of the Badgers last season after they knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State, and the addition of Wilson has only added to their appeal. The transfer from North Carolina State is a quarterback unlike any other Wisconsin has had, a multidimensional threat that gives the Badger offense some flair.


Wilson has a great arm — he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round last year — and is 27 of 34 for 444 yards and five touchdowns in his first two games with the Badgers. He’s rushed for an additional 73 yards, including a 46-yard scoring run against UNLV after he rolled out and, seeing no one coming after him, took off.


“(He) manages the game the same way that Scott Tolzien did, but he’s a better athlete,” Doeren said. “So there’s another dimension there when things break down, or if things are covered up.”


And if there’s ever a year for the Badgers to shine, this is it.


Ohio State is reeling from its offseason woes, Michigan is rebuilding under new coach Brady Hoke and Michigan State, even with the progress it’s made, is still a basketball school. Plenty are curious to see how Nebraska fares in its rookie Big Ten season — the Cornhuskers’ trip to Madison on Oct. 1 is one of the hottest tickets in the country — but things are shaping up nicely for the Badgers to claim another Big Ten title and earn a spot in a second straight BCS bowl.


Do that, and Wisconsin will be seeing a lot more of itself.


“I think we are building a national reputation,” Wilson said. “That’s a positive thing. But at the same time, we’re not focused on that. We’re focused on what we need to do every single day, and that’s to make sure every single play, we’re playing the best we can play. Execute our offense, execute our defense, special teams — and just keep working hard.”



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