The game plan for No. 14 Wisconsin for Thanksgiving Day sounds simple: Practice early, then feed the Badgers.
”Eat lots, take care of their business” coach Gary Andersen joked Monday.
Then it’s back to business on the practice field to get ready one for last game in 2013 at Camp Randall Stadium, the senior sendoff Saturday against Penn State.
The Badgers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) are rolling with a six-game winning streak that has them one spot out of the top 14 in the BCS standings and the plateau needed to qualify for an at-large berth in a premier postseason game.
As if this team needed any more motivation in the last game for Chris Borland, James White, Jared Abbrederis and 23 other members of a solid, dependable senior class that helped ease Andersen’s transition in his first season as head Badger.
The running game remains as dependable as always. Going into the 12th game of the year, Wisconsin needs 34 yards rushing to break the school record of 3,309 set last season in 14 games.
Andersen made the regime changeover from Bret Bielema as ”smooth as possible,” White said. ”He’s a guy that’s a player’s coach … we couldn’t ask for anything more.”
The switch to the 3-4 defense hasn’t been a problem, either. With Borland spearheading the charge, the Badgers have become stingier through the year. They’re fifth in the FBS in scoring defense at 13.4 points and sixth in total defense at 278.5 yards. Minnesota last week was the third straight Big Ten opponent to be held without an offensive touchdown.
Andersen, who has invited all the players to his house for Thanksgiving, said he’ll be forever indebted to the seniors ”for believing in us. I truly do not remember a young man rolling his eyes or saying what are we doing?”
Steady on and off the field. A head-down, blinders-on kind of focus through adversity - like the 32-30 loss in September to Arizona State tainted by an officiating error in the final seconds - and success.
But there’s a sort of role reversal from last year heading into the finale. Last year, Wisconsin backed into the Big Ten championship game despite finishing third in the Leaders Division behind Ohio State and Penn State. Those schools were ineligible due to NCAA sanctions.
The Badgers ended up routing Nebraska in the conference championship game to win a third straight league title. The team finished 8-6 with a loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
This year, Wisconsin has a much better record, but can’t win the Big Ten following the 31-24 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 28.
Still, BCS bowl hopes remain as long as they get into the top 14. And if the unbeaten Buckeyes can vault into the title game, maybe Wisconsin makes it to yet another Rose Bowl as an at-large pick.
Quarterback Joel Stave said his brother has been keeping him updated on the postseason scenarios, though Stave himself isn’t taking anything for granted.
”Most importantly, we need to win or we take ourselves right out of it,” he said.
Penn State beat the Badgers in overtime in last year’s season finale to improve to 8-4 in coach Bill O’Brien’s rookie year.
After last Saturday’s 23-20 overtime loss to Nebraska in the home finale, the Nittany Lions (6-5, 3-4) will need to win at Wisconsin to avoid a .500 season.
“Our team realizes that we still have one more game,” offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said. “You could still see (in the locker room) in everyone’s eyes that we’ve got to fight and get our seventh win here.”
Penn State, 0-3 on the road, had a good shot to get win No. 7 last weekend, but Sam Ficken missed an extra point in the first quarter and a 37-yard field goal attempt in overtime. The Nittany Lions also allowed a 99-yard kickoff return for a score in the third quarter and had a punt blocked.
”We’ll continue to work hard in special teams,” O’Brien said. ”They’re good kids working hard.”
Christian Hackenberg had another solid showing, throwing for two touchdowns and running for a score to earn Big Ten freshman of the week honors for a fourth time.
“I’m frustrated I couldn’t get it done for (the seniors),” he said, “but we’ve still got one more shot.”