If Saturday's game against Purdue was considered a test to see if this year's group could handle adversity better than last year's team, then the Badgers passed the test with flying colors.
Behind 381 total yards and a stellar performance by the defense, the Badgers shutout Purdue 37-0 at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday afternoon.
UW outplayed the Boilermakers in every facet of the game, running for 226 yards, holding a good Big Ten offense to only 141 total yards and even adding a special teams touchdown.
More importantly, the Badgers did not turn the ball over until the game was well out of reach and they did not make any silly mistakes. Wisconsin left that up to the away team, which dropped at least seven passes in the game.
Saturday appeared to be a fork in the road for this year's team and maybe even Bret Bielema's program. The win puts Wisconsin in prime position for a 5-0 regular season finish with a bright future for next season, while a loss would have brought out many of the demons that bothered the Badgers last season when they finished 7-6.
Not only did Wisconsin pick the right road, it did so in inconvincing fashion with its first shutout since Sept. 2006 when the Badgers shutout San Diego State 14-0.
Bielema has talked about a return to Wisconsin football all season long and the first quarter certainly looked like old-fashioned, pound-it-out Wisconsin football when UW ran the ball on 11-straight plays to go ahead 7-0 on a 1-yard touchdown run by John Clay.
"It a beginning," Bielema said in regards of returning to Wisconsin football. "We've made strides. We're a good football team."
Clay, who finished with three touchdowns and 123 yards on 23 carries, added his second touchdown run in the second quarter to put UW on top 17-0. And if fans were worried about the Badgers surrendering the lead like it did against Ohio State and Iowa, true freshman David Gilbert ended those chances when he leaped over three blockers to block a punt on Purdue's next possession. Aaron Henry scooped the ball up and scored to put Wisconsin on top 24-0.
"Happy 18th birthday. Today was [Gilbert's] 18th birthday. It's kind of amazing," Bielema said. "David looked at me right before that play and said, 'Coach, can I jump this one?' And I said, 'Absolutely. Knock yourself out.' And he did ... Unbelievable play."
It was the first time all season the Badgers seemingly executed their gameplan to perfection. The Boilermakers never had an answer for Paul Chryst's persistent end-arounds. Lance Kendricks gained 91 yards on four end-arounds, including a 54-yard gain on a play where he stiff-armed Purdue linebacker Joe Holland and sent him flying to the ground.
Purdue had a chance to score their first points of the game late in the fourth quarter, but J.J. Watt knocked down Caleb TerBush's pass on 4th and goal to perserve the shutout.
"I'll tell you what fellas. We're a good football team now," Bielema said. "We're all sophomores and freshmen. We got a couple of really good seniors giving us great leadership, but our youth and the ability that they have is very, very good."
It appears Bielema is right. Going into Saturday's game it felt like either way the Badgers were show their true identity. Badger fans should be pleased, because it looks like Wisconsin has a realistic shot at finishing 10-2 and heading to their fifth New Year's Day Bowl game in six years.