One of the underappreciated strengths of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and his assistants has been their ability to keep the players focused and prepared regardless of the level of competition.
UW has played 34 games since Chryst took over the program before the start of the 2015 season. The Badgers have won 28 of those games.
Not one defeat came as the result of a head-scratching performance against a clearly inferior opponent.
The players have excelled at putting the blinders on and resisting the urge to look down the road, past the next game on the schedule.
They’ve ignored the outside noise and refused to listen to where they should be at the end of the season, choosing instead to focus on how to get there.
Those traits will be critical this week as No. 5 UW (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) prepares to face host Illinois (2-5, 0-4) at 11 a.m. Saturday.
The Illini are in full rebuilding mode in Year 2 under Lovie Smith. They have victories over Ball State and Western Kentucky and five consecutive losses.
UW then faces host Indiana (3-4, 0-4), which has drastically improved on defense under first-year coach Tom Allen but is also struggling on offense.
The Hoosiers’ Big Ten losses have come against Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State, teams that are a combined 14-2 in Big Ten play and 24-4 overall.
UW will be favored to win both games, setting up a critical three-game stretch run against Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.
“Anytime we’re on the field, we expect to win,” junior safety D’Cota Dixon said after UW’s 38-13 victory over Maryland. “Every single time we expect to win. That is the mindset.
“There is a lot of football left so we’ve just got to keep it going.”
UW lost three games apiece in 2015 and ’16.
The losses in ’15 came against Alabama by 18 points, against Iowa (four) and Northwestern (six).
The losses in ’16 came against Michigan (seven), Ohio State (seven) and Penn State (seven).
The combined record of those teams in 2015 and ’16 was 68-14.
UW under Chryst has avoided the inexplicable losses such as a 10-7 defeat to Oregon State in 2012 under Bret Bielema, a 27-25 defeat to Michigan in 2008 under Bielema, a 23-5 home loss to UNLV in 2003 under Barry Alvarez, a 32-29 loss to Indiana in 2002 under Alvarez or a 63-32 loss to Indiana in 2001 under Alvarez.
UW has found ways to defeat lesser teams under Chryst and his staff even if the performance is flawed.
UW’s victory over Maryland was the latest example.
The defense was fantastic early as T.J. Edwards returned an interception 54 yards for a touchdown just 2 minutes 42 seconds into the game and UW then allowed only a 23-yard field goal after the Terrapins after Jonathan Taylor lost a fumble at the UW 5. That was the second turnover by the offense in two possessions, the first an interception Alex Hornibrook.
UW’s offense recovered to score on five of its final seven possessions, including three touchdowns during a span of four possessions for a 28-3 lead.
“I thought the offense did a nice job of answering with a score and putting things together,” Chryst said. “It takes a lot of guys to step up and contribute and proud of the way they played and kept playing…
“I don’t think you can always plan to score on every drive. It would be good, though. But you just want to play good football.”
UW should be a double-digit favorite against both Illinois and Indiana.
Expect UW’s players to approach both games in the same business-like manner they have since Chryst took over the program.
Like their coach, they loathe looking ahead, answering questions about the Big Ten title game and a potential berth in the College Football Playoff.
“I think they’re having fun playing,” Chryst said on The Badger Sports Report, taped after the victory over Maryland. “I appreciate right now the group is staying locked into the moment.
“I think that is the way to enjoy the moment. You never can take anything for granted.”