MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The goal for Wisconsin in its matchup with Ohio State was to keep the Buckeyes from clinching the outright division championship, making the Badgers' trip to the conference championship game seem, well, one that was earned.
After trying to explain its fourth defeat by seven points or less, Wisconsin will have to settle for a handout.
"People always say we didn't beat a big team, we didn't earn the right to go to the Big Ten championship," said junior tailback James White. "We really wanted to win this game. We just have to move forward to Penn State."
Wisconsin's game at Penn State means nothing in the landscape of the Big Ten Leaders Division. The Badgers (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) can finish in a tie for second in the division with a win, but clinched a spot in the Dec. 1 title game two weeks ago due to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible from postseason play.
His team has lost four games by a combined 16 points and lost to both ranked conference teams on its schedule, but Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema won't be tentative with his starters as he searches for a winning mixture.
"If a guy is healthy coming into this game, (there are) no plans to hold anybody back," said Bielema.
And for the most part, Wisconsin is healthy. Junior linebacker Chris Borland (hamstring) missed last week's game, but is expected to go through pool workouts and could return Tuesday. Sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein was diagnosed with a mild MCL strain and is questionable for Saturday, though he is listed as the starter on the depth chart released Monday.
Bielema is cognizant that his team's mental and physical fatigue will be pivotal with a third straight trip to the Rose Bowl on the line in two weeks. To balance that, Bielema acknowledged potential changes as the Badgers prepare for their 12th game in 13 weeks.
"We practice very, very hard and very, very physical and maximize the amount of time," Bielema said. "We definitely work while we're out there, but this week we have to be smart about lessening the amount of contact we have, and the amount of time we're on the field. We've just got to get ready to play Penn State and get ourselves in a position on Saturday to be at full strength."
If Nebraska wins at Iowa Friday, the Badgers would play the Cornhuskers for the league title in a rematch of their Sept. 29 game in Lincoln. Nebraska won that game, 30-27, despite trailing by 17 points in the third quarter. If Nebraska loses and Michigan wins at Ohio State this Saturday, the Wolverines would represent the Legends Division.
"I'm sure winning in Indy and going to the Rose Bowl and winning there would erase all the losses we've had," senior tailback Montee Ball said. "Because that's our goal."
Ball rushed for 191 yards and a touchdown, the most rushing yards an Ohio State defense has given up since at least 2002. The Badgers' defense - anchored by three senior defensive backs - held Ohio State to a season-low passing, rushing and offensive points, all of which Wisconsin hopes to build on before it enters the postseason.
"There were a lot of guys that might have played, couple seniors that might have played their best games of their careers," said Bielema. "Really felt that our guys for the entire game, four quarters and beyond, strained, fought, tried as much as they could do, obviously came up short."