As Wisconsin speeds into its Big Ten opener against Michigan State Saturday undefeated, players on both sides of the ball are conveying the same message: nonconference means nothing, now it's business time.
""Being 3-0, that's great. But the real season starts now, and it's 0-0 for everybody,"" junior safety Jay Valai said. ""Michigan State may be 1-2—they lost two close games—but they're 0-0 just like we are, so it's time for the party to start in the Big Ten.""
Junior tight end Lance Kendricks, fresh off a 70-yard performance against Wofford that included the first touchdown of his collegiate career, agreed now is the time the team's hard work in the offseason begins to pay off.
""Everybody's excited; Big Ten is kind of a bar up for us,"" Kendricks said. ""[Head coach Bret Bielema] said [Monday] night it's kind of like every game is a playoff game, you've got to play to the best of your abilities.""
Wisconsin faces a Michigan State team hungry for a win after suffering two consecutive losses to Central Michigan and Notre Dame by a combined total of five points. The Spartans were in position to win both games, but key late errors proved costly for a team many thought would finish in the top half of the conference this season. Playing in South Bend last weekend, a late interception on Notre Dame's 4-yard line solidified a 33-30 win for the Irish.
The Central Michigan loss was even more heartbreaking.
After allowing a Chippewa touchdown with 32 seconds left to make it a one-point game, the Spartans failed to recover an onside kick but thought they won the game when Central Michigan missed a 47-yard field goal. However, Michigan State was called offsides on the play and could only watch as its in-state rivals celebrated a game-winning 42-yard field goal as time expired.
Thus, it's fair to suggest that Wisconsin will be on high alert for a team eager to prove itself to the conference after two demoralizing losses. Yet junior quarterback Scott Tolzien disagreed with that sentiment, saying the team will treat Michigan State the same as any other team it has faced this season.
""We've just got to focus on what our deal is,"" he said. ""We know they're going to bring their best game, at least that's how you've got to prepare for them and let the rest take care of itself.""
Countering Tolzien this week will be talented freshman Kirk Cousins, who threw for over 300 yards against Notre Dame but also surrendered the interception that sealed the game for the Irish. Cousins is flanked by two talented wide receivers in senior Blair White and sophomore B.J. Cunningham, who will join speedy freshman running back Larry Caper in trying to wreak havoc on the Wisconsin defense.
As long as the Wisconsin defense doesn't allow the Spartan playmakers to run wild like Javon Ringer and Devin Thomas did in years past, the Badgers will have every opportunity to get revenge for last year's painful one-point loss in East Lansing. But junior linebacker Culmer St. Jean doesn't see the game as a chance at vengeance, rather just another day at the office.
""It's just another day to get an opportunity to go out and perform in front of the home crowd, and it being the Big Ten, this stage is that much higher,"" St. Jean said. ""We're going to treat every game the same, and playing at home in Camp Randall, you can't want anything more.""