Badgers must embrace other half of 1-0

1-0.  Since Bret Bielema was named the head football coach at Wisconsin, players and fans have probably seen and heard that mantra more than they would like.  Bielema's edict to "go 1-0 in every game" is just his way of preaching the same message most coaches try to send.  Its meaning is obvious - focus on the upcoming game and only the upcoming game.  Devote 100 percent of your effort and energy to beating the next team on the schedule, regardless of how competitive that team is, and the season as a whole will be successful.

This is a critical juncture, both in the 2009 Badger football season as well as in Bielema's tenure at Wisconsin.  The Badgers are coming off a bye week following two consecutive losses, but they have a realistic shot at winning each of their next five games to finish 10-2.  Holistically speaking, Bielema's teams have lost their last three home games against ranked opponents.  This is not a good thing when Wisconsin has historically defended its home turf extremely well, and Bielema's once-sparkling record at Camp Randall Stadium was one of the few things he could consistently rely on.

Several years ago, when Barry Alvarez announced his retirement from coaching, fan expectations may have become a bit unrealistic.  No doubt, the future was bright.  Alvarez had ushered in a remarkably fruitful era for Wisconsin football, one that saw three Big Ten titles and three Rose Bowl victories.  His last two seasons as coach were surprisingly successful, from a 9-0 start in 2004 that had the Badgers ranked as high as fourth in the country, to a scrappy 10-3 team in 2005 that beat Auburn in the Capital One Bowl.

Bielema was supposed to not only carry the torch but build on what Alvarez had accomplished.  It was thought that a younger coach would particularly help in recruiting and perhaps make the play calling more innovative.  Records of 9-4, 7-5 and 5-2 are now met not with applause but with indifference and even frustration.  The acceptability of these finishes is certainly up for debate, and there are quality arguments on both sides.  Much has been written and said about it.  Many contend that the state in which Alvarez left the program is such that expectations should be sky high.  Others cite Wisconsin's inferior in-state football talent, cold climate and lack of winning tradition prior to 1990 as legitimate obstacles for any coach to overcome.

Rather than debate what the expectations should be, I am today more interested in how Bielema's teams have measured up to his own standards.  And when discussing Bielema's benchmarks, it starts and ends with '1-0.'  This is the philosophy he has instilled into his teams over the past four seasons.  He, therefore, should be judged by his team's ability to play with a '1-0' mentality.

 

The idea of focusing exclusively on one opponent carries with it two implications.  The first is that the team should never get caught "looking ahead" to a potentially bigger game.  Here, give Bielema credit.  Rarely in his three-plus seasons at Wisconsin can a Badger loss be attributed to the team daydreaming about a future match-up.  The only possible example of the Badgers looking ahead would be in the second half of the game against Michigan last season.  Wisconsin had a 19-0 halftime lead and imploded in the fourth quarter to lose 27-25.  Still, it is more likely that the Badgers were lulled to sleep by the Wolverines' ineptitude for three quarters rather than distracted by the prospect of a huge night game with Ohio State a week later.  Moreover, prime "letdown" opportunities - home games against weaker opponents prior to more high-profile games - have never been a problem under Bielema.

 

The Badgers have not yet mastered the second phase of the 1-0 philosophy, however.  While they are very good at resisting the urge to look ahead to future games, they have demonstrated a recurring inability to shake off the lingering effects of previous games.  A team that truly buys into '1-0' would play the same way coming off a 49-0 loss as it would coming off a 49-0 win.  But after losses, we've seen the Badgers play hungover, if you will, and, as with an individual hangover, it isn't fun. 

 

In each of the past three seasons, including this one, Wisconsin has immediately followed up its first loss of the season with another loss.  In 2007, the Badgers went into Illinois ranked fifth in the country and ended up losing a tough game - and their starting wide receivers.  The very next week, at Penn State, PJ Hill fumbled on literally the first play from scrimmage and Bucky never had a chance.  In 2008, after that heartbreaking loss to Michigan, the Badgers returned home to Camp Randall to face the Buckeyes.  While Wisconsin would play a tough game, Ohio State drove down the field to jump out to a 7-0 lead that may have been the difference.  That year, the two losses jump-started a nightmarish four-game losing streak, en route to a 7-6 season.  Finally, the team returned home after a loss in Columbus this season with a prime opportunity to control its own destiny in the Big Ten.  Beat Iowa on Homecoming and the Badgers would be favored to go 11-1 and win at least a share of the conference title.  Wisconsin lost and, as Adam Hoge wrote this week, it will be interesting to see whether the Badgers' recent trend of letting negative momentum build will continue when they play Purdue Saturday.

 

Bielema does not help his own cause with the second aspect of the 1-0 philosophy by changing his approach after losses.  Obviously play-calling and personnel adjustments are to be expected any time the team is not successful.  But since when should the fundamentals of practice, preparation and routine be altered by the result of a week ago?  The day after the team's fourth straight Big Ten loss to Iowa in 2008, Bielema did not make the customary four player representatives available for media questioning.  His explanation was that the team had hit a rough patch and that he felt the best way for them to focus their attention on the upcoming game against Illinois was not to be subjected to media scrutiny.  What better way to demonstrate the significance of the Iowa loss than to let it alter the weekly routine for the upcoming game?  After selecting members of the team to face the media week after week, season after season, win, lose or draw, would a departure from that practice not serve to signify the impact of what had happened in the players' minds even more?  Bielema misses his own point when he does things like this.  His message that the results of before have no bearing on the task at hand today loses weight when his reaction to a loss affects the way the team heads into the next game.

The Badgers generally have not lost games they have absolutely no business losing under Bielema.  They have been good about not looking ahead.  They don't drop home games to Indiana while thinking about the next game against Ohio State.  Most of their defeats have come at the hands of highly regarded teams.  Still, they have lost winnable games.  And a good portion of those winnable games have come after losses, when the Badgers just don't seem to have buried history sometimes.  Mastering that aspect of the 1-0 mantra is this team's next step.  It is Bielema's job to get his players - almost all of whom are his recruits at this point - to buy into it.

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