OSU is ineligible for postseason play, and the three-loss Badgers have already backed into a berth in the Big Ten championship game.
Yet when a reporter asked Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema if he considered resting some of his starters this week, the coach looked as if the inquisitor had just requested he fork over his playbook.
“I might have a mutiny on my hands if I tried to pull anybody out,” Bielema said.
He added: “I want to win in the worst way.”
The feeling goes both ways.
Rarely has a game that ostensibly meant so little meant so much.
This year’s edition of Ohio State-Wisconsin fits snugly into the recent tradition of one of the Big Ten’s most tightly contested rivalries.
For sixth-ranked OSU, it marks the latest chapter in a potentially historic foundation year for coach Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) need just two more wins to compete the sixth unbeaten and untied season in the program’s 123-year history. (OSU was also perfect in 1916, 1944, 1954, 1968, and 2002.)
Not to mention Ohio State can also clinch the Leaders Division championship outright, an outcome square on the minds of the Badgers.
Wisconsin (7-3, 4-2) sees today as an opportunity for a validating victory against its foremost division rival. The Badgers clinched a trip to Indianapolis with a 62-14 victory against Indiana last week, but a loss Saturday would drop them three games behind Ohio State.
Think Bielema — who exclaimed, “I hate losing to these guys,” after OSU throttled the Badgers 31-13 in 2009 — and his team are cool with the chatter they don’t belong in the Big Ten title game?
“We really don’t want people to say we made it there by default if we lose,” Wisconsin running back Montee Ball said.
Meyer considered selling this game to his players as their Big Ten championship game, then treating Michigan as a bowl game. But he realized last week no gimmicks were needed.
The Buckeyes dislike but respect Wisconsin, a sentiment demanded by recent history — OSU is 6-5 against the Badgers since 1999 after dominating the series for decades, and it was vanquished from the top of the polls with a loss at Camp Randall Stadium in 2010 — and the present. Quarterback Braxton Miller will be the most dynamic player on the field today, but two programs that rely on bullying fronts on both sides of the ball are fairly even elsewhere.
Ohio State and Wisconsin have the Big Ten’s No. 2 and No. 4 rushing offenses, respectively, and the league’s top two rush defenses. UW’s defense is first at 103.4 yards per game; OSU yields 107.9 yards. (A caveat: Junior linebacker Chris Borland, the Badgers’ top defensive player, is questionable with a hamstring injury.)
Meyer said the stakes and the film provide all the motivation Ohio State needs.
“I was all prepared to do that," Meyer said of building up today’s trip to Madison as the de facto league championship game. “It depends on what kind of team you have. I've had a couple of team meetings getting ready for this game. I watched the way they approached practice, and I don't believe I am. … I don't think we're going to have to make any special T-shirts or talk about bowl games or championships.
"We have to go play a very good team in a very tough environment. I usually [motivate based] on how I read the team, and there’s no issue with our players getting ready for this game.”
Bielema feels the same way.
Rest his players like an NFL coach already guaranteed a bye in the playoffs? Yeah, right.
“Not for this game,” Bielema said.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.