Originally posted on Fox Sports Wisconsin  |  Last updated 11/26/11
MADISON, Wis. If even a smidgen of concern crept into the minds of Wisconsin's football players four weeks ago that their magical season suddenly lay in irrelevant ruins, they sure shielded that sentiment from public view masterfully. At the time, the Badgers harbored every right to feel downtrodden about their rotten luck. Back-to-back excruciating last-minute losses against Michigan State and Ohio State to end October sent Wisconsin tumbling out of the national championship hunt. Instead, the Badgers found themselves locked in a seemingly trivial three-way fight simply for second place in their own half of the Big Ten standings.Yet in the midst of such crushing defeats and plummeting outside expectations, as if towing a company line with an eerily unified confident tone, Badgers players explained that if they merely kept winning through November, good things would finally happen. A Big Ten championship game berth would materialize, and any alternative was considered unacceptable."After those two devastating losses, everybody brought it up," Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson said. "We just believed that we still had an opportunity. We had to show ourselves every week, play one week at a time and stay in the now. And we capitalized on our opportunities."On Saturday, battling through steady rain and the potential ramifications of further disappointment in the regular-season finale, the Badgers made good on their word to keep winning through November.Wisconsin, ranked 16th in the BCS standings, pummeled No. 19 Penn State, 45-7, at Camp Randall Stadium with a conference championship game berth on the line for both teams. By virtue of the victory and the tiebreaker that came with it, the Badgers snatched away the Leaders Division title from the Nittany Lions. Wisconsin also improved to 19-2 in regular-season games played after Nov. 1 during coach Bret Bielema's six seasons in charge.Now, the Badgers hold an opportunity to avenge one of the most heartbreaking losses in Wisconsin football history and to prove that, despite calamitous Hail Mary plays in consecutive games, they truly are the best the Big Ten has to offer.Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1) will play Michigan State (10-2, 7-1), winners of the Legends Division, at 7:17 p.m. CT Saturday in the inaugural Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis."This is the first time in Big Ten history when you get rematches," Bielema said. "When this formula came up, everybody knew it would be a possibility. Leaving the field against Michigan State, I think a lot of our guys thought of that moment. The way the world works, it kind of panned itself out and it's right here in front of us."Wisconsin left little doubt on Saturday that it would be marching into the conference title game, scoring 45 unanswered points and tallying more points by halftime 28 than Penn State had allowed in any game this season, including against second-ranked Alabama.That Wisconsin has arrived in this position is a testament to the team's unwavering belief in its abilities when all things logical suggested hope for a Big Ten championship berth was lost. First came the 37-31 last-second Hail Mary loss against Michigan State on Oct. 22 that wiped out a possible undefeated season. When Wisconsin walked off the field the next Saturday following a 33-29 defeat on a final-minute heave against Ohio State, the Badgers stood 2-2 in the Leaders Division, tied with Ohio State and Purdue. The Buckeyes, of course, owned any tiebreaker, while Penn State leapt ahead of the pack at 5-0.Recognizing the grim situation, Bielema concocted a plan to restore the team's faith and renew its focus. He laid out a color-coded calendar for each week that remained of the regular season. Each color coincided with that week's opponent: Purdue, followed by Minnesota, followed by Illinois and, finally, Penn State."It was a four-week championship as he called it," Wisconsin cornerback Marcus Cromartie said. "Each week had its own thing to it. We took it one day at a time and, after that one day, you scratch it off and look forward to the next day. We knew that if we won the last four games, we would be right where we wanted to be."Wisconsin began its final four-game stretch by clobbering Purdue, 62-17. The Badgers then manhandled Minnesota, 42-13, and staged a second-half comeback to overtake Illinois, 28-17.Meanwhile, Penn State and Ohio State the two teams Wisconsin absolutely needed to produce at least one slip up did just that.On Nov. 12, both teams suffered losses that would turn the Badgers' fortunes. Penn State, playing its first game in 46 years without Joe Paterno as coach, fell, 17-14, against Nebraska. Ohio State also lost, 26-23, against Purdue in overtime.And suddenly, destiny resided in Wisconsin's hands once more."We weren't nave to what we would have to do and what else would have to happen in order to make it to Indy," Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. "But the only way to go about that was to work every day, and we really did that. The calendar Coach B created and the way guys approached each game, not looking ahead, that's why we are here now."Where, exactly, is Wisconsin now? Back on the big stage, relevant in front of a national audience, one game away from a return trip to the Rose Bowl.What an exhilarating month it's been for Wisconsin's football program."I think good things happen to good people," Bielema said. "We've been able to battle ourselves back to this position. And we have a chance to make history at the University of Wisconsin."Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter
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