EVANSTON, Ill. — Fans and media have filled much of the discourse for this University of Wisconsin season with end-of-year scenarios. When preseason expectations rose higher than ever for the Badgers, who can blame the big-picture thinking?
UW’s loss to BYU in Week 3 centered around its College Football Playoff chances, and Michigan’s 25-point trouncing of the Badgers three weeks later shifted focus towards the Big Ten West title.
After a 31-17 loss at Northwestern on Saturday, however, UW’s players are past the point of focusing on the future. If the Badgers don’t get better right now, nothing else will matter.
“The whole-season picture, it’s not really a concern right now,” left guard Michael Deiter said. "That’s more of a concern for articles. All we’re concerned about is getting better. That’s what we need to do. Simple as that. Shouldn’t be worried about all the implications — West, Big Ten, all that stuff — because that’s not our biggest concern right now.
"We’ve got to figure out how we can play better football."
UW’s season veered further off course after a woeful performance at Ryan Field this week, and its chances of even making it back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game now appear slim.
The Badgers (5-3, 3-2), still one win from bowl eligibility, sit dangerously close to a no man’s land that could make their final few regular-season games feel devoid of meaning.
This week’s battle for UW isn’t an easy one — stay motivated heading into the final month of a season that could be on the brink of falling completely apart.
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“My mindset would be, don’t let this loss define our season,” inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “You don’t want to have this be the start of a snowball downhill. ... I think it could be hard for guys, especially in the position we’re in now. But I think there’s just guys with too much pride on this team to let this snowball into something more."
Granted, the Badgers certainly aren’t mathematically eliminated from winning the Big Ten West.
Doing so, however, would likely require UW to win tough road games at Penn State and Purdue while Northwestern loses two of its final three conference games against Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
The Badgers want to focus solely on themselves in the coming weeks, but they also don’t want to assume anything about how their divisional foes will fare the rest of the way.
“Obviously, it’s a difficult loss, hard to get over,” outside linebacker Zack Baun said. "But we’re still alive. We still have another game to play next week. We still have another game to play after that. Hopefully we can just win a couple more and get the opportunity to play another one.
"We can’t dwell on the situation that happened (Saturday). We’ve got to keep moving forward."
Many will view this year as a lost cause for UW after Saturday’s letdown.
The Badgers hope to rely on their seniors and other leaders to make the season’s final month worthwhile.
“(Our leaders) have got experience and they’ve got substance to them,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "Is it easy? They don’t wish they were going through this maybe, but you see it. This isn’t the first bump that we’ve had, and quite honestly, I’m proud of the way some of our leaders are leading. We’re going to continue to lean on them, and they’ve got to be that.
"We’ve got a choice. It’s how do we respond."