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Tom Oates: Joe Rudolph delivers upbeat history lesson in wake of Badgers football team's loss to Illinois
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Tom Oates: Joe Rudolph delivers upbeat history lesson in wake of Badgers football team's loss to Illinois

Paul Chryst photo

"I think when you're talking to a team, you just try to find things that resonate and try to make the history real," UW coach Paul Chryst said of Joe Rudolph's speech to the team this week.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — One benefit of having former players on the staff is their wealth of institutional knowledge.

No matter what happens to the team, good or bad, there is someone already in the room who has been there, done that.

When the University of Wisconsin suffered the upset of the year in college football at Illinois last Saturday, coach Paul Chryst, a former UW player himself, didn’t have to look far for examples of how to rebound from a stunning loss or someone to articulate those examples to the players.

As 13th-ranked UW prepared for its suddenly devalued showdown with third-ranked Ohio State on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, Chryst turned to the experiences of offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej to fill in the players on how past UW teams showed admirable resiliency in the face of crushing defeats.

Rudolph was a guard on the 1993 UW team that was 6-0, ranked 15th and selling tickets on its growing bandwagon when it went to Minnesota and lost 28-21 to a sub-.500 Gophers team. Undeterred, those Badgers beat 24th-ranked Michigan and tied third-ranked Ohio State the next two weeks, going 4-0-1 the rest of the way to win the school’s first Big Ten Conference title since 1962 and its first Rose Bowl ever before ending up sixth in the final poll.

Kolodziej was a defensive end on the 1999 UW team that was 2-0 and ranked eighth when it dropped an unthinkable 17-12 decision before 27,721 fans at Cincinnati. After losing a hard-fought 21-16 game to fourth-ranked Michigan the following week, the unranked Badgers fell behind 17-0 at 12th-ranked Ohio State the next week only to see freshman quarterback Brooks Bollinger rally them to a 42-17 victory. UW won its next seven games as well, including its second consecutive Rose Bowl, and ended up fourth in the final poll.

With their hopes of playing for a national championship either ended or on life support following their inexplicable loss to the lowly Illini, the Badgers will need all the resiliency they can muster against the rampaging Buckeyes. And that’s just half the battle against what has been college football’s most impressive team this fall.

Rudolph brought up both the 1993 and 1999 teams when he spoke to the Badgers early in the week.

“He wanted to tie in all those (teams),” Chryst said. “It doesn’t mean, ‘OK, this is what’s going to happen.’ But a lot of things can happen. And that’s what’s awesome about it. The season is a journey and they get to play that out. We take advantage of each opportunity. You want them all to go your way, and yet it’s no different when you’re playing the game. We talk about a lot with the players that a lot of games we play, there’s right between 12, 13 drives and, what you do with those? You’d love for every game to be perfect — it seldom is, it never is — and the season’s not much different. I think when you’re talking to a team, you just try to find things that resonate and try to make the history be real. ... I thought it was a good message ‘Rudy’ had.”

Of course, the landscape has changed in college football. For programs such as UW that contend for the Big Ten title every year, the Rose Bowl is no longer the ultimate goal. Getting to the College Football Playoff is.

Even if the Badgers (6-1) manage to beat the Buckeyes (7-0) in the intimidating Horseshoe and go on to finish the season with one loss — both gigantic ifs — their odds of reaching the CFP would be long. The CFP selection committee dislikes bad losses and what happened at Illinois was the worst kind of loss, so even a 12-1 UW team likely would need some outside help.

Some would have you believe that UW’s season is over because their playoff chances are so slim. The CFP (and the BCS before that) have conditioned fans to think that anything short of a national championship is a failure, so why bother?

Although bouncing back from the Illinois loss against a team as dominant as Ohio State will be UW’s most difficult assignment of the season, the game is very meaningful — for college football, for Ohio State and for UW, which can still do great things this season. And rest assured the Badgers don’t think their season is over, especially after they saw their much-hyped 2018 season go sideways after an unexpected loss to BYU.

“I think you’re always trying to give kids perspective,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “Last year the first loss, I think, got us. I think it stuck with us for a long time. I think these kids, hopefully, have learned from what happened in the past and (1993 and 1999) were just more examples. (When) great teams that have had a lot of success all of a sudden suffer a setback that wasn’t really anticipated, it’s all in their response. That’s all you can control, is how you respond from this point out. This is not what we expected and what happened last week is not on anybody, but we allowed it to happen. We’ve got to own that. The only way that you can have success is by moving on and learning from it.”

UW’s loss to Illinois was a fluke decided by a few big plays, though the blame for that falls on the Badgers. The guess is they’ll come with their best effort today. The question is whether that’ll be good enough to beat the Buckeyes.

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