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Roundtable: Is it a successful season for the Badgers if they beat Minnesota?

We discuss the Badgers win over Nebraska in the latest roundtable installment.

The Wisconsin Badgers overcame a three-game losing streak, coming back from behind to defeat the Nebraska Cornhuskers in a 24-17 overtime win, which allowed the former to finally gain bowl eligibility.

There were several takeaways from the win, including thoughts on the win, and what makes this season a successful one for Wisconsin.

For this roundtable, I combined with our football writer Scary Alvarez once again to answer some critical questions.

Q: What did Saturday’s win tell you about the team?

Rohan: It told me that this team does have some fight in it, which had been lacking over the last two losses.

There wasn’t much that changed personnel-wise or scheme-wise over the last two games or even in the ugly first quarter of this game. Instead, it was more so a change in execution from the players, who showed true heart and grit in this victory.

Now, the Badgers didn’t accomplish their initial goal, which was starting fast, and that is a pretty big problem. But, they willed through to a comeback victory and showed themselves that they can pull out an ugly victory.

That hasn’t really happened yet this season, but Wisconsin was able to get that done on Saturday, and credit goes to Luke Fickell and his coaching staff for getting their players back on track.

Scary: It told me that this team is capable of closing.

Besides the Illinois game, I’ve seen very little evidence this season that this version of the Badgers has the ability to finish games in the second half against a competent opponent. But, after being down big early and still trailing at halftime, Wisconsin rallied and showed some overdue steel, both during regulation and in overtime. I’m hopeful that last Saturday (after the first quarter) was a small window into what this team can be going forward. While it was never pretty, there were so many clutch moments—offense, defense, and coaching—that it’s hard not to be encouraged by both the fight and execution shown by the team and its coaches.

Of course, the first test covering what this means longer term will be on Saturday in Minneapolis. A loss there would undo a lot of the goodwill the team earned with its thrilling victory over the Cornhuskers.

Q: Player of the game vs. Nebraska?

Rohan: To me, it has to be Tanner Mordecai.

Coming into this game, the Badgers knew how tough running the football would be, given that the Cornhuskers came in with the fourth-ranked defense in the country at stopping the run.

That meant Tanner Mordecai was going to have to make plays through the air and with his legs if the Badgers were to move the football downfield. And that’s exactly what happened.

Like I said above, it wasn’t pretty, as the quarterback threw for 160 yards on 18/28 passing, while rushing for another 60 on seven carries. The Badgers only scored 17 points through the first 60 minutes.

But, they don’t win this game without Mordecai making a number of clutch plays and serving as a leader for his team, which head coach Luke Fickell acknowledged was a major factor after the game.

Scary: Tanner Mordecai and Braelon Allen share this one, with Preston Zachman getting some votes.

While neither Mordecai nor Allen had a vintage statistical game, they each gutted it out through painful injuries and provided several incredibly clutch and impactful moments. I know that 2023 hasn’t been what either player was looking for, both in terms of personal and team performance, as each attempted to shine up their draft resumes with decidedly mixed results. But, at least on this night, they overcame the pain and disappointment of a subpar Badgers season to forge a victory against a hungry and motivated opponent, and I could not be prouder of them.

While Luke Fickell obviously isn’t a player, his decision (and, let’s be real, it was 100% his call) to go for it on 4th down was gutsy, showed tremendous confidence in Allen and the offensive line, and was one of a handful of plays that were key to bringing home a victory in this slugfest.

Honorable Mention: DC Mike Tressel. The first two defensive series for Wisconsin were amongst the worst of a season full of brutal defensive moments, but after those were over, the defense played inspired, smart football and was mostly outstanding. Tressel and his unit that was down its best player for most of the game deserve a big hat tip.

Q: Will a win over Minnesota deem Wisconsin’s season a successful one?

Rohan: Unfortunately, my answer is no.

Now, would a win over Wisconsin place some true momentum for the team going into the offseason after an ugly last month? Yes.

But, the Badgers had a prime opportunity to make the Big Ten Championship in Luke Fickell’s first year, and both him and Athletic Director Chris McIntosh were not shy of naming their goals upon the head coach’s hiring. With a weaker schedule and an influx of talent, there was a window of opportunity and the Badgers struck out.

Winning against Minnesota places the Badgers at seven regular season wins amidst a weak schedule, which is just one more than last season’s disappointment.

Then again, a win against Minnesota is absolutely crucial, as it brings the Axe back to Madison, placing a light under the program once again as it transitions into the important part of the Fickell era.

But, I don’t think the Badgers can have a “successful” season after the way this year has gone. Injuries and acclimation certainly play a part into it, but this year hasn’t been up to expectations for Wisconsin.

Scary: I think what is or is not a successful Wisconsin Football season has been a moving goalpost over the last 3 months, so even a win over PJ Fleck and his lads to finish 7-5 has to be considered incredibly disappointing relative to preseason expectations. There’s no way to sugar coat that.

But if I’m grading after the Northwestern debacle, a win over Nebraska followed by getting the Axe back would be a very positive regular season finish for this team. Not that message boards are an accurate or particularly insightful window into a fan base, but after Northwestern, there were many who were convinced that Wisconsin would lose both games to go without a bowl for the first time in a generation. So ending our Big Ten season with two wins (including one over our biggest rival) and a second place West Division finish would feel pretty good. Said another way, it matters.

On the flip side, a Minnesota win would be their third straight and fourth in six seasons, and the Badger fan base will be apoplectic if this happens. So one would logically think that the same fan base would be happy, even if mutedly so, if the Badgers take the Axe back to Madison for a well-needed cleaning.