In November, shadows lengthen, so it’s very much a paradox that the Wisconsin Badgers and Nebraska Cornhuskers are trying to escape shadows when they meet inside Camp Randall Stadium on the third Saturday of college football’s cruelest month.
Everything about this game evokes the image of shadows… and the accompanying need to leave them behind.
Last Saturday, the clash between Ohio State and Michigan State represented the culmination of what had been a season-long focus on the Big Ten’s East Division. The balance of this college football season has focused on the Eastern half of the Big Ten, all while the West has lingered in the shadows. Wisconsin’s inability to protect a 17-point lead against LSU on Aug. 30 has dramatically affected the way in which this season has been perceived. Just imagine how different the whole landscape would be if LSU immediately stumbled. The “SEC West is God” narrative might not have gotten off the ground. Moreover, Wisconsin might have had only one loss coming into this game (maybe even none), and Badgers-Huskers might have become a Big Ten divisional showcase with a level of stature on par with Buckeyes-Spartans last Saturday.
A lot of perception-affecting dominoes fell as a result of Wisconsin’s loss to LSU — that much is clear. Of equal if not greater significance on the list of dominoes is that Wisconsin wouldn’t have absorbed a massive psychic blow, one that’s been hard for the Badgers to deal with. This point deserves extra amplification, because it ties into yet another shadow lingering over Saturday’s game.
The last time the Wisconsin Badgers played a November home game, their outlook under new coach Gary Andersen was quite bright, the antithesis of the darkness shadows represent on both real and metaphorical levels. The Badgers just needed to take care of Penn State at home to become the likely recipient of an at-large BCS bowl bid. Penn State had an actual offensive line last year, but the Nittany Lions still should have been easy pickings for the kind of team Wisconsin fielded in 2013. The Badgers might not have been expected to play their very best in that late afternoon game, but no one could have seen the face-plant which unfolded in Madison.
Joel Stave couldn’t shoot straight against Penn State. What had been a decent but hardly spectacular season just needed to stay on that basic trajectory. Stave didn’t have to win games — his mandate was to avoid losing them. Yet, Stave promptly proceeded to lose this consequential contest for Wisconsin, throwing three interceptions and causing the Badgers to fall behind, 31-14, early in the fourth quarter. The Badgers scored 10 late points but weren’t able to tally a tying touchdown. Their dreams of a premier bowl game in Andersen’s first season were shattered. Just as significantly, Stave’s confidence evaporated.
Today, here and now, the Badgers are still trying to figure out how they can get one of their quarterbacks to perform at a high level in a moment of considerable magnitude. As they return to Camp Randall for their first November home game since that Penn State disaster, the Badgers are aware of the shadows they need to escape.
The other shadows in this game are also readily apparent: Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah have watched the nation’s top quarterbacks — men named Winston and Mariota and Boykin and Prescott — hog the Heisman spotlight all season long. Now, the nation’s two best running backs get to meet in a showcase that could vault the winner (and better performer) into a bright spotlight.
The two coaches, Andersen of Wisconsin and Bo Pelini of Nebraska, are trying to crowd their way into the discussion of the Big Ten’s best sideline sultans. Urban Meyer and Mark Dantonio rightly occupy the top two spots, and while Wisconsin has a history of winning both conference and division titles, Andersen has not been a part of that story — not yet. He and Pelini both have so much to prove, so many shadows to walk away from. This game will profoundly shape the way in which this season is remembered by both men, and so it becomes an important marker in both careers.
Nebraska. Wisconsin. It’s a day for dreams, but also a day for fear and apprehension among two fan bases.
One fan base, of course, will remain trapped in the shadows that have lingered over the Big Ten West throughout the 2014 college football season.