Wisconsin walked off the field with Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday, but what the Badgers really gained after rallying to beat Minnesota might be far more valuable.
“We got punched in the mouth and we tasted our blood a little bit,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We got gritty and punched them right back.
“That just shows who we are as a team and it can show opponents we’re not going to give up.”
That grit served the Badgers well in locking up the Big Ten West division and earning a spot in the conference championship game against Penn State. It could serve them well if they happen to win that game and find themselves in a College Football Playoff few believe they’ll ultimately end up playing in.
But none of that would be especially earth-shattering for Wisconsin, a team that has often been taken for granted in a conference dominated by Ohio State and Michigan for years, regardless of records and accomplishments.
While prognosticators are already putting the Buckeyes in the playoff and trying to create a spot for the Wolverines, neither will play at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. Instead, it will be Wisconsin back in a place it’s been more than any team in the Big Ten.
The Badgers will have played in the conference title game four times in its six years of existence, one better than Michigan State’s three appearances. And Wisconsin has fared well, beating Michigan State in a thriller in the inaugural game in 2011 before blowing out Nebraska in 2012. The Badgers saw the downside in 2014 when they lost, 59-0, to Ohio State.
The new College Football Playoff rankings will come out Tuesday and give both Wisconsin and Penn State a better idea where they stand with the committee — Wisconsin was No. 6 and Penn State No. 7 entering the weekend — but the Badgers served themselves well by bolstering their resume with a win over Penn State to go along with a victory over LSU to open the season.
For now, however, the focus for Wisconsin remains on Penn State.
“We’ll push the reset button and we’ll get ready to play Penn State and that’s the opportunity that we have in front of us,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “And this team has done a great job of staying in the moment. I think it’s the best way to enjoy the season, and I also think it’s the best way to play.”
Of course, Penn State will be conceding nothing when it takes the field Saturday. While the Badgers weren’t expected to get to this point, the Nittany Lions were an even longer shot.
Before the season began, Wisconsin was picked third in the West and Penn State fourth in the East in a media poll conducted by Cleveland.com. But both are in, and Penn State is dialed into winning this game before worrying about a playoff spot.
“We’re focused on Wisconsin and excited about this opportunity,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Whatever the (playoff) powers that be decide we’ll be happy and excited for whatever that opportunity is. ... I think you can make the argument that the Big Ten is stronger than any conference.”
Both teams have question marks entering the game.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook was knocked from the Minnesota game after a hit to the head and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley left the win over Michigan State in the second half with an apparent leg injury.
Chryst said Hornibrook is day-to-day and Franklin said Barkley is expected to play.