BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Of course the University of Wisconsin football team is getting good at overcoming slow starts.
After all, practice makes perfect and UW has been forced to make amends for a sloppy start in virtually every game this season.
Maybe that's why it didn't faze the fourth-ranked Badgers one bit when they found themselves trailing Indiana 10-0 early in the second quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium. They settled down and calmly dismantled the Hoosiers after that, posting a 45-17 victory that raised their record to an impressive 9-0 while at the same time adding to concerns that one of these Saturdays some opponent is going to make them pay for their mistake-riddled starts.
Until that happens, the Badgers can celebrate their resilience because by now they have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that mental toughness is their greatest asset. Yes, better than their top-10 defense, better than 1,368-yard freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor, better than their back-up-to-speed offensive line. Every week, they deal with adversity and get right back on track.
"There’s no panic," cornerback Derrick Tindal said. "That’s what I like about our team. We were down 10-zip and it felt like we were up 25 because everybody on the sideline was laughing, having fun. There’s just no panic from the guys and that’s what I like to see because we’ll need that in the future."
The Badgers most certainly will. They've followed the same script in almost every game this season, starting slowly on offense, relying on the defense to keep it close and then dominating the rest of the way.
But starting with next Saturday's game against Iowa, which caught everyone's attention by routing No. 3 Ohio State Saturday, UW's much-maligned schedule gets considerably more difficult. The Badgers will find it a bit harder to recover against Iowa, Michigan and whichever team they face in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game — yes, it's all but a formality now — than they did against the string of middling-or-lower teams they've beaten.
It looked like UW might flip the season-long script Saturday when Taylor, healthy again, dashed 45 yards on the Badgers' first play from scrimmage. The Badgers quickly moved to the 5-yard line behind Taylor, but he didn't touch the ball on two running plays from there and quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw an end-zone interception on third down.
Just like that, it was back to the same old routine for UW, which has been plagued by turnovers and penalties in the first quarter all season. Soon enough, though, Hornibrook got back on track, Taylor's relentless running wore down Indiana's defense and UW's defense started taking the ball away, giving the offense prime field position — just like it always happens.
"Obviously, we want to start better," left tackle Michael Deiter said. "That's something we have to keep putting together. And we have time. But I think it says a lot that we can bounce back and we're not going to sulk and we're going to just keep playing football."
Actually, time seemingly has run out on UW, which will play only one second-division team — Minnesota — the rest of the way and that game will be on the road. But even if time has run out, UW still has its resiliency to fall back on. The Badgers' ability to take a punch was on full display when they rallied from 10-0 to dominate an Indiana team that was more dangerous than good.
"I think the response is that they are confident and they know there is still football to be played," coach Paul Chryst said. "Today, we had a chance to have a good start by driving it down and (Taylor) had a couple of big runs early, but we didn't finish. I think it's important to keep playing. You do want to start better than we have been. You don't want to be behind the eight ball. But I thought they did a nice job of focusing in on the moment and I think they have confidence in each other and know that it's a long game and you've just got to continue to play, whatever happens."
If nothing else, the brief scare reminded the Badgers that they have a long way to go if they want to write a special ending to this season, especially after losses by Ohio State and Penn State opened the door to the College Football Playoff for them Saturday.
"It just says that we're not there yet," safety Joe Ferguson said. "We have work to do. We've shown what we can do at times, but we're not at the spot yet where we need to be. And I think everybody knows that, everybody understands that. We know we have the ability, so it's just finding out, what can we do to take the next step? I think everybody's looking for that. We'll talk about it as a team. I'm confident we'll find it."
Quickly would be the best time to do that. The way the Badgers have played has been good enough until now. But falling behind early probably won't be good enough from here on out.
"We obviously don't try to do that," tight end Troy Fumagalli said. "That's something we've got to work on and get better at. We do a great job of finishing, I think. It's just starting fast. It's just everyone getting comfortable a little sooner because we know that eventually we're not going to be able to have those slip-ups in the beginning. We'll work on it. We've still got time."
Actually, the time has come for UW.