October 27, 2009

Senior captains lead team through slump

MADISON - Three weeks ago, the Wisconsin football team looked to be a team poised to do something special this season. While that opportunity still exists with a favorable schedule left to close out the year, the realistic chance of winning a Big Ten title is minimal at best.

So, after moving through the opening portion of the schedule with a flawless 5-0 record, the Badgers have suffered back-to-back hiccups. Though losses are never a good thing, particularly for a team with high expectations year in and year out like Wisconsin, they tend to either bring out the worst in a team, or the best in a team. For this particular team, one can it assume it would be the latter.

And it all starts with the approach of the four senior leaders.

"I talk to all the guys and I step up and say stuff all the time," UW senior safety Chris Maragos said. "You don't want to over do it because you don't want to make this panic where the sky is falling. It's not. We're playing good football, we're just not taking care of the little things.

"We don't need to sit here and start changing everything and reinventing the wheel."

With the core of captains the team has this year, these two losses (to teams with a combined 14-2 record) have done nothing but fuel the team. It was in those games that the Badgers played well enough to put itself in position to win.

However, after a few miscues here and there in each game, the potential wins turned into definite losses.

Still, if any good comes from those two downfalls, it's the fact that the Badgers know they are capable of playing with anyone in the conference. The talent and leadership are there. They just have to execute.

And it all starts with the approach of the four senior leaders.

"Guys really watch and see how you hold up," UW senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield said. "They see if you have your head down or see if your mind is somewhere else. My mind is on winning."

For that simple fact one should expect the Badgers to come off the bye week as one with renewed energy, focus and passion from top to bottom. After a week where several players not in the normal rotation got work, it was also a chance for the veterans to get together and make sure they were on the same page.

Now, when playing host to Purdue this weekend on Halloween, UW will get a chance to put that mindset on display.

And it all starts with the approach of the four senior leaders.

"I know two of them came and saw me and wanted to talk to just the seniors," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "I thought they were just going to want to talk to the whole group, but they wanted to talk to the seniors. They kind of took it upon themselves to individually scatter amongst the team and get some guys that needed to be on board better and more efficient and learn how to practice better."

Face it, as close as this team has been to making huge strides this season, they are still a very young unit trying to gain experience on the field. Philip Welch, who has struggled this season, is only a sophomore. There are no senior wide receivers or linemen in the regular rotation and the quarterback is in his first year.

Defensively, outside of Schofield, Jeff Stehle and Daniel Moore on the defensive line, Jaevery McFadden at linebacker and Maragos at safety, there are no seniors that receive regular reps. And those on the defensive line are part of a larger rotation featuring eight players.

So, needless to say, growing pains have come to be expected this season. Still, that is never a satisfactory excuse for this or any other program in the land and the players need to learn from those mistakes.

And it all starts with the approach of the four senior leaders.

"You can't just be a guy to preach, preach, preach and you don't do anything," Schofield said. "Certain guys you can talk to a certain way and some you can't. You have to be careful about your approach because it's more motivational than when you're bearing down on a guy."

This particular team, if it adheres and learns from prior mistakes, can finish with a great record. In fact, UW may be favored in each and every one of its remaining games. Obviously a game is never won before it's started, but should this young team come together and become a better team through practice, 10 wins should be well within reach.

And it all starts with the approach of the four senior leaders.

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