Tom Oates: Unlike last week, Wisconsin will be ready to play against Iowa, but will it be good enough to win?
IOWA CITY, Iowa — One by one, they repeated the mantra of the day.
As the University of Wisconsin football players were being interviewed following the shocking, three-point home loss to BYU last Saturday, the same line was heard again and again: This will add fuel to the fire for their game at Iowa.
On the plus side, the Badgers must have been paying attention to coach Paul Chryst because they parroted his postgame message. Still, such comments are a departure from UW’s normal approach. Building a bonfire of emotion for a game isn’t the UW way, even if Saturday night’s game is at traditional rival Iowa and might impact its postseason goals more than any game it plays all season.
That’s not to say UW is an entirely flatline operation under Chryst. However, the emphasis has always been on preparing meticulously and playing intelligent, mistake-free football on every snap, every possession, every practice and every game as opposed to building toward an emotional peak for a handful of special opponents.
The thought behind that is you can’t rely on emotion because emotion ebbs and flows but consistent execution shows up every week. It is an approach that has served UW well under Chryst, who has a 36-8 record at UW, with only two of the losses coming to unranked teams — Iowa in 2015 and BYU last week.
Wisely, the Badgers appear to be making an exception to their usual approach this week. By coming out last week as flat as a Chryst team has ever been, executing haphazardly in every phase of the game and then being unable to recover against a better-than-advertised opponent, the Badgers learned a harsh lesson about being ready to play every week.
It’s not a mistake they’re likely to make again. Indeed, the best prediction one can make about tonight’s game at Kinnick Stadium is that the Badgers will be as prepared to play as they have in a long time. They will have an edge. They will have a well-fueled fire burning inside.
“I think people’s perspective on the outside probably may see us as even-keeled,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “But we know how we feel about losing and we know how we feel about certain plays being executed or not executed and how we feel just as a group. So, yeah, I feel like it is fire. No one likes to lose. I don’t expect to lose any game. So I think it does add fuel to the fire.”
The Badgers had better be fired up because the Hawkeyes are off to a 3-0 start, they’ve been known to make some magic in night games at Kinnick and the Big Ten Conference West Division title might be on the line even though it’s the conference opener for both teams. The rivals don’t normally meet in September, but this looks like a typical early season Iowa team — finding its way on offense but excellent along both lines and solid all over on defense.
The Badgers know the Hawkeyes are hard to beat at any time of year, but their approach this week doesn’t have all that much to do with Iowa. It has to do with them. As they stoke their fire, they’re doing it with what appears to be embarrassment over last week’s performance.
“We really wanted to learn from what happened last Saturday,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “I think the biggest takeaway you can have is, how can everyone improve? Every single person on this team, from the front to the back, how can you improve and how can you get better day to day? I think it shows people we can’t just walk out there and win. We’ve got to go out and work and do what we do. I think it is fuel. It stings.”
It should. The suspected problems in UW’s first two games, walkovers against outmatched opponents, showed up even more against BYU’s big, physical team and led to the loss.
UW’s offense has seen drive after drive stalled by turnovers, penalties or missed blocks. Still searching for a pass rush, the defense isn’t getting off the field on third down as frequently as it did the previous five years. The special teams have offered little in the return game and kicker Rafael Gaglianone uncharacteristically missed a late field goal attempt that likely would have sent the BYU game to overtime.
Almost no one is exempt from the mistakes that have kept UW from clicking. They’ve come from all over — offense and defense, veterans and first-year contributors.
Chryst’s philosophy is simple: There are five to eight plays that make a difference in every game, but you never know which ones they will be so you have to be ready to play on every snap. That’s why the Badgers are focusing on themselves this week instead of the Hawkeyes.
“I don’t think you ever want to rely on losing as a source to go win,” guard Michael Deiter said. “That’s never going to end well. But if you do have hiccups or just days where it’s not all clicking, it should be a feeling that you never want to feel again. You always expect to win, but when stuff like that happens, you really harness that gut-wrenching feeling because you never want to lose. You don’t work all week to lose. That’s always a bad feeling. But it’s not like that’s the only fuel we’re getting. We want to win.”
The Badgers might not win tonight, but if they don’t, it won’t be because they weren’t ready to play. It will be because they weren’t good enough.