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D'Cota Dixon-Big Ten West race

Wisconsin Badgers safety D'Cota Dixon (14) celebrates a tackle for a loss in the 2nd quarter. The University of Wisconsin Badgers hosted Rutgers at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday Nov. 3, 2018. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Time's running out on the University of Wisconsin football team.

With three games remaining in the regular season, the Badgers sit one game back of Northwestern in the Big Ten West standings, a team who earned a head-to-head tiebreaker with a win over UW in Evanston two weeks ago.

That makes the Badgers' trip to Penn State on Saturday one that could ultimately decide whether UW enters the final stretch with a puncher's chance at a third straight trip to the conference championship game.

"I think every game is a must-win at this point," UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "We're at the point of the year where, it's November football. You have to play your best at this time to make things happen down the road. We're definitely going to need to be at our best."

After a disappointing season thus far, UW (6-3, 4-2) needs more than just wins to capture another West title. Most importantly, the Wildcats (5-4, 5-1) need to lose two of their last three games, even if the Badgers win out.

It's a situation UW hasn't found itself in since 2015, when Iowa put together a 12-0 regular season to earn their way to Indianapolis. The Badgers, unranked after beginning the season fourth in the AP poll, are trying to only focus on what they can control - improving their own play, which hasn't yet lived up to preseason expectations.

"Obviously, we still have hopes and aspirations from the long-term perspective, but I think it's important that we just get back on track as far as winning and being consistent, learning how to play good football," UW safety D'Cota Dixon said. "I think that's been the biggest focus for our team moving forward, and we're looking forward to establishing that against Penn State."

Dixon stopped short of calling this a must-win game, describing it as "just another opportunity," but a victory could greatly increase the Badgers' chances in the West if Iowa (6-3, 3-3) also defeats Northwestern on Saturday. The Hawkeyes opened as a 10-point favorite at home over the Wildcats.

A loss against the Nittany Lions this week, which would mark UW's third in five games, could turn its situation much more bleak.

The Badgers would then likely hope for a three-way tie with the Wildcats and Hawkeyes at three losses apiece - a tiebreaker UW would win based on its record against West division opponents. This scenario would require the Badgers to win their final two games, Northwestern to lose to Iowa and either Minnesota or Illinois, and Purdue (5-4, 4-2) to drop a road game at either Minnesota or Indiana.

If UW wins its final three games, the only help the Badgers need is two more losses from Northwestern.

"Obviously because of what's happened to this point, there's some other things that need to happen," UW left guard Michael Deiter said. "But the confidence to win our remaining football games is huge. That's what we always plan to do, and that's what we plan to do this week. That'll never change."

While trying to take a week-to-week approach, Deiter and the rest of the Badgers still know what a victory in Happy Valley could do for their season - and that a loss could potentially doom their Big Ten West chances.

UW's back is against the wall, and the only way out may be upsetting one of the toughest teams on its schedule Saturday.

"It's a big opportunity, huge opportunity that we've got to be prepared for," Deiter said. "And we will be. It's exciting. It's a lot of fun to have a game mean so much."

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Jason Galloway is the Wisconsin Badgers football beat writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.