Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 11/21/11
MADISON, Wis. When Wisconsin's 2011 college football schedule was released a little more than a year ago, Badgers coach Bret Bielema kept a mental note of what might transpire over Thanksgiving weekend. And it had nothing to do with turkey or stuffing. With Wisconsin slated to play host to Penn State and both teams part of the newly formed Leaders Division in the Big Ten, the possibility existed that the game could determine which team advanced to the inaugural conference championship game. As it turned out, that's exactly what has happened. "When I got the email that they were releasing the schedule however many months ago, I might be kind of a knucklehead, but I look to the end," Bielema said. "That's what I do. I've been preaching about trying to have an end-all game. Ohio State-Michigan have their little glory and everybody knows about that. To me, we've won more games in the last four years than anybody in this conference. I'd like to have some entitlement to play in a game that means something in the end that you can circle on your calendar. "The way it's worked out, where we're at and where they're at, it's for all the marbles to get to go play in the big dance." BCS No. 16 Wisconsin (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) and No. 19 Penn State (9-2, 6-1) meet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, with the winner advancing to the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Badgers, left for dead at the end of October following consecutive crushing last-minutes losses to Michigan State and Ohio State, have played their way back into the Big Ten race on the strength of both their defense and the play of running back Montee Ball. Wisconsin's defense is ranked sixth in the country in scoring defense at 15.9 points per game. While reeling off three straight victories against Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois, Wisconsin has maintained that pace, surrendering an average of 15.7 points. Ball, meanwhile, has been phenomenal. He rushed for 223 yards with three touchdowns against Purdue, 166 yards with two touchdowns against Minnesota and 224 yards with two touchdowns against Illinois. Given the way Ball has vaulted up NFL draft boards, it's likely that Saturday's game could very well be the junior's last at home before entering the draft in the spring. Saturday serves as senior day for 21 Badgers players, 22 if Ball doesn't return. "It's a tough day," Bielema said. "It's a day you don't want to let go. You've been with those kids so much. I think it's just part of college football you've got to embrace." Three weeks ago, following Wisconsin's 33-29 loss at Ohio State, the Badgers were locked into a three-way tie in the Leaders Division at 2-2 with Ohio State and Purdue. The only way in which Wisconsin would have an opportunity to play for the Big Ten title game was if it won out and both Ohio State and Penn State lost. On Nov. 12, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions fulfilled their part of the equation. Ohio State lost, 26-23, in overtime against Purdue and lost again to Penn State the following week. Penn State dropped a 17-14 decision against Nebraska, setting the stage for Saturday's regular-season finale in Madison. It could be the first in a long line of memorable late-season matchups between Wisconsin and Penn State. The two teams are scheduled to meet in the regular-season finale through 2014. "I think it is something that could be showcased and be very special," Bielema said. Although a shot at the national championship may be gone for Wisconsin, there remains plenty at stake, chiefly that Big Ten championship and a second straight Rose Bowl berth. In order to achieve those goals, of course, the Badgers must win on Saturday. "We knew that we still had an opportunity to be successful and do a lot of great things this season," Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson said. "It's come down to this. It's a great opportunity for us. We're excited about it. I know our fans are excited, so it should be a great game on Saturday." Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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