BLOOMINGTON -- We get it. Indiana's game with Wisconsin on Saturday is big because they're all big. That's coach Kevin Wilson's message and he's sticking to it.
“Maybe the spring game isn't that big,” he said, “but as a coach, you want to make it big.”
Sure, a cynic could say beating Indiana State doesn't rate with the chance to beat Wisconsin and solidify bowl prospects, perhaps even the Rose Bowl, but this isn't the time for cynicism.
The Hoosiers are 2-3 in the Leaders Division to Wisconsin's 3-2. If IU wins out, it makes the Big Ten title game. If it beats the Badgers on Saturday it will have the tiebreaker edge on them to make that championship game.
The Hoosier Nation knows that, but that nation isn't at Indiana practices, where Wilson and his staff have a simple theme:
Yes, we know, it's not sexy, but that's not Wilson's concern.
“We just talk about the preparation, to try to be at our best,” he said. “Our best needs to keep getting better because where we're at, our best isn't real good.”
Wilson loves pushing that motivational button. The fact that he's telling the truth adds to the impact, but it doesn't change the fact that IU has improved -- a lot. It's won two straight games and been competitive every weekend. That's a huge step for a program that last year was everybody's favorite patsy.
“With our youth and lack of experience, our best does nothing but continue to get better and better and better, and it needs to,” Wilson said. “If we're not, we're never going to be a good program. Our whole deal is we're just trying to add up consecutive good working days. Hopefully that spurs into some victories and results on Saturdays.”
Two straight victories shows the deal is paying off. Now the Hoosiers face a Wisconsin team that is not the powerhouse of recent years. It is 6-3 overall and coming off a 16-13 home loss to Michigan State.
Tailback Montee Ball has been solid with 1,028 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, but he hasn't been the force of nature he previously was, in part because the rebuilt offensive line hasn't been overwhelming defensive fronts like it used to.
Still, the Badgers don't figure to hit Indiana with finesse even with a bye week to tinker with things and with an offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, who once was the Hoosiers offensive coordinator. The Badgers became a football power by emphasizing power football.
So they will run Ball. They will run with James White (486 rushing yards, six touchdowns). They will hammer with their big offensive line.
“This is the Big Ten,” IU defensive tackle Adam Replogle said. “It's a physical league. That's what Wisconsin is.They're a physical team.”
The last few weeks Indiana has played as physical as any Big Ten team. It rocked Michigan State, hung with Ohio State, and banged hard against Illinois and Iowa.
The Hoosiers, it seems, are ready for this.
“It's important to have confidence in any game, especially in a game like this, where you know the defensive line has to set a tone,” Replogle said. “You have to play physical and get off the ball.”
Wisconsin has hammered IU in the last two meetings, winning 59-7 and 83-20. Coach Bret Bielema doesn't expect anything like that on Saturday.
“Just emotionally you can see how well they're playing,” he said. “It's at an extreme high. They're a 4-5 team that has a chance to win a championship, talking Rose Bowl and all that jazz. They're playing with really good confidence.”
That's on both sides of the ball, Bielema added.
“They're very good offensively. I think they know their demons. They handle the up-tempo offense as well as anybody. They execute it very well. You'll see a lot of times on film where defenses don't have their eyes in the right places because they're snapping the ball so fast.
“On defense they're very opportunistic.”
Wisconsin has won with disciplined play. It has just 34 penalties on the season. Only Kansas State (31), Navy (31), Air Force (33) and Kansas (33) have less.
The Badgers have a pair of quarterbacks they can use. There is Danny O'Brien, a transfer from Maryland. He's 52-for-86 for 523 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. But in his last action, the second half of the Michigan State loss, he was 5-for-11 for 44 yards.
Then there is Curt Phillips, a fifth-year senior whose college career has been wrecked by three ACL surgeries on his right knee. He hasn't thrown a pass all season and is just 7-for-13 for 85 yards with one interception and no touchdowns for his career.
“We're not sure which quarterback we'll see,or if we'll see both of them,” co-defensive coordinator Doug Mallory said. “I can't imagine they'll change too much. They are who they are. They're an offense that will establish the run. The pass game might have a new wrinkle off the play action. They do a great job of getting you to over-commit against the run and get those 1-on-1 deep shots.”