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Charboneau: Badgers have shot at Big Ten West title

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Wisconsin's Troy Fumagalli, left, and Eric Steffes celebrate after an overtime win over the Cornhuskers at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin.

The gauntlet has ended, or so it seems, for Wisconsin and the Badgers have come out of it with a legitimate shot at winning the Big Ten West and getting back to the conference championship game in Indianapolis.

Before the season began, Wisconsin was staring at a five-game stretch to open conference play that was unlike any other team in the Big Ten would face. It looked like this – at Michigan State, at Michigan, home against Ohio State, at Iowa and home against Nebraska.

We know now the first on that list was never as daunting as it seemed and the Badgers walked out of East Lansing with a fairly easy 30-6 victory. But every other week has been brutal, and the fact Wisconsin comes out of it with three wins is impressive, the latest coming Saturday over Nebraska in overtime.

The Cornhuskers entered the game unbeaten and ranked No. 7 in the country and rallied from a 10-point deficit to force overtime against the Badgers.

But defense has been Wisconsin’s calling card all season, and even though it botched the extra point after scoring a touchdown to open the overtime, the 23-17 win was sealed with a defensive stop as D’Cota Dixon knocked a away a Tommy Armstrong Jr. pass intended for Stanley Morgan Jr. in the end zone.

“Extremely proud of the way our kids battled and played and overcame all the adversity that usually comes in a game,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "Guys have got to step up and they find a way to step up. It doesn’t matter what happens. They keep playing the next play.”

There was some question whether Wisconsin had what it took in a tight game. Yes, the Badgers held off LSU to open the season, but in tight games against Michigan and Ohio State, they came up short.

Those games could have been the difference in scrapping for a division title and scrapping for a playoff spot.

But the division is still there if Nebraska loses again, and the Huskers still have Ohio State and Iowa on the schedule. So finishing against an unbeaten team ranked in the top 10 was critical.

“It was big,” running back Dare Ogunbowale said. "Guys have been playing tough all season. To come up short in situations…you don’t want to. For us to win a close game like that, playing 60-plus minutes, was awesome.”

And there seems little doubt the tough losses to Michigan and Ohio State helped on Saturday.

“I (expressed) some frustration two weeks ago as far as coming up short in big games," cornerback Sojourn Shelton told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We were able to pull it out as a team. That’s what it's about.

“We were in the same predicament two weeks ago. We knew how to finish it out.”

Now the Badgers need to finish out the final four weeks of the season and see what happens from there. They’re tough schedule shows they can play with just about anyone and the remaining four games will likely see them favored in each.

That’s not to say it’s a cakewalk. Wisconsin travels to Northwestern next week and hasn’t won in Evanston since 1999. And Minnesota awaits at the end of the season and currently has an identical record to Wisconsin – 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten.

“We made enough plays,” Chryst said on Saturday. “I appreciate this group and what they did to give us a chance tonight. They found a way to win.”

Finding a way four more times might land the Badgers back in Indy.

Buckeyes tested

Can it be that there is some doubt creeping in at Ohio State?

After the upset last week at Penn State, the Buckeyes had all they could handle in a 24-20 win over Northwestern on Saturday, milking the clock to close out the victory after limiting the Wildcats to a field goal late in the fourth quarter.

“We’re a dogfight team, I guess,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “That’s fine. It builds a little character. Ages your coach, but builds character for your players.”

That character is being tested right now as the Buckeyes started quickly against Northwestern but stalled offensively until late in the game. It’s a concern with games still to come against Nebraska and Michigan to close the season but the fact the Buckeyes rose up with the game on the line is important.

They kept Northwestern out of the end zone from inside the 10 and then picked up a key third down on the final drive to put the game away.

“I just love the way we finished it off,” Meyer said. “The fact is that we had to go score a touchdown, and we did. And then we had to hold them to a field goal, and we did. And then we had to eat the clock and finish the game on offense, which is a sign of a good team, and we did.

“None of it was perfect. But we’re going to enjoy this one.”

Getting a bit closer to perfection, however, would serve Ohio State well down the stretch.

Penn State rolls

It took some time to get going, but Penn State eventually shook off the euphoria of beating Ohio State last week and commenced to dismantling Purdue, 62-24, the most points ever scored by an opponent at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“We were talking at halftime about having a sense of urgency, and we came out in the second half with that in mind," quarterback Trace McSorley said. "Everyone kind of loosened up in the second half. In the first half, we were playing tense. We weren't playing loose. We came out in the second half and played loose.”

The Nittany Lions certainly did that, scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter to run away after a slow start. They’re only a game back in the West and if the unthinkable happens and Michigan loses twice in the final four weeks, Penn State could be the team left standing.

It’s far-fetched, but it’s a sign how far the Nittany Lions have come the past few seasons.

“We put up 62 points,” running back Saquon Barkley told the Centre Daily Times, “and we started off so slow. We’re such a better team than we were last year, and we’re starting to believe that. We’re making strides.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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