The University of Wisconsin football team's 31-18 victory over top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday night might have shocked the rest of the college football world.
But for the Badgers players and coaches, the most important victory in Bret Bielema's five years as head coach was a testament to the values of the program.
"Everybody has things they believe in," Bielema said. "When you say them over and over, when kids finally see the results of that, that's when you gain ground. I'm not just saying that; I believe in that. That's part of who I am and who I want this team to be, responding and reacting in a positive way."
Buying into the values of hard work, discipline and finishing the job helped give the UW players a confidence they probably had not earned based on their play so far this season. Yet sitting in the locker room before the game, Bielema had an inkling about the poised performance that was about to come.
"You just felt the anticipation, the excitement, but there was also a calmness in our approach to the day," Bielema said. "There wasn't people bouncing off the walls or going berserk."
The preparation was evident from the opening kickoff, when UW senior David Gilreath went 97 yards untouched for a touchdown, sending a jolt through an already-frenzied crowd of 81,194 at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) kept the energy level up the whole game. They led from wire to wire, withstanding a second-half Ohio State surge before adding two clinching scores in the fourth quarter.
"Our coaches had a heck of a game plan," junior safety Aaron Henry said. "We knew what we were going to do. That wasn't a surprise at all, to anybody in the locker room. It was just that feeling of beating No. 1 and everybody rushing on the field, it seemed like somebody's movie."
The first half couldn't have gone much better for the Badgers, who set the tone with touchdown drives on their first two offensive drives en route to a 21-3 halftime lead. The balance on offense was evident all game for UW, which finished with 184 yards rushing and 152 yards passing.
Tailback John Clay rushed for 104 yards, along with two first-half touchdowns. Backup James White added 75 against the Big Ten Conference's second-best run defense. Quarterback Scott Tolzien was 13-for-16 passing and the only mistake he made was a first-half interception.
The pick by linebacker Andrew Sweat in the second quarter could have brought back flashbacks to last season against the Buckeyes, when Tolzien had two interceptions returned for touchdowns. But the defense rose up — defensive end J.J. Watt had a big sack on third down and Ohio State kicker Devin Barclay missed a 45-yard field goal attempt.
It was further proof this year was going to be different.
"Camp Randall was great," senior guard John Moffitt said. "The crowd was behind us. We embraced it and played our game. That's how you win."
The Buckeyes (6-1, 2-1) came back, as UW knew they would, and dominated the third quarter. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor completed all seven passes he attempted in the quarter and the Buckeyes held the ball for 11 minutes, 26 seconds on two long touchdown drives.
Running back Dan Herron scored on a 1-yard run and Pryor added a two-point conversion on a pass to tight end Reid Fragel and just like that, the Buckeyes were within 21-18 with 11:38 left in the fourth.
"We had a lot of stuff happen in the game," UW strong safety Jay Valai said. "They came back. Terrelle Pryor led them down the field. Terrelle's a great athlete. We responded."
Perhaps the thing that bothered the Badgers the most is how they failed to finish in the previous three losses to the Buckeyes. It was a focus all week.
With the lead down to three points, Tolzien led the offense on what could be the defining drive of this season. It lasted 10 plays and covered 73 yards. It started, surprisingly, with four straight passes. That was an example of an aggressive game plan all night by the Badgers, who also went for it on fourth-and-inches at the Ohio State 31-yard line on their second touchdown drive in the first quarter.
"That's really a key is keeping your foot on the gas pedal," Tolzien said. "We've all seen those games where teams get defensive and all of a sudden, you start playing not to lose instead of playing to win."
The key play was a 20-yard completion to Nick Toon on third-and-3, when Tolzien zipped a perfect pass to the right sideline. White capped it with a 12-yard touchown run, and Philip added a 41-yard field goal 2½ minutes later to provide the final margin.
The offensive players had gathered on the sideline during the third quarter and noted that they might only get a couple more drives in the game, and to make them count.
"I think it was the same key to every drive," Moffitt said of the final touchdown drive. "It was doing things right, just playing clean football. That's what we did for most of the game."
Because of it, the Badgers are back in the Big Ten title chase at 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the conference — behind unbeaten Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue — while the Buckeyes fell to the same records.
"It's justification for me that we are doing the right things," Bielema said. "I'm around these guys every day of the year. I've said it several times this week, what we do 365 days a year, you saw tonight."