COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Before Saturday, the mindset in Madison was, ""Why can't it happen?""
Why can't this Badger team shock the Buckeyes and send the message that Wisconsin is a conference title contender? Why can't they turn an expected rebuilding season into something special? The team was 5-0, with one of best rushers in the nation, statistically great pass protection, an opportunistic defense and a quarterback who overcame his few mistakes with big plays.
But Saturday brought a hard dose of reality.
The Buckeye pass rush made its mark, harassing junior quarterback Scott Tolzien, and the mistakes mounted until they buried the Badgers.
The message at the end of the day was clear: this team is still young and not, at this point, ready to catapult its way into the elite tier of the Big Ten.
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said as much in his post game press conference, where it was clear how hard he was taking his third loss to Ohio State.
""If you want to be considered a player in this league you've got to beat Ohio State, and it's something that I'll definitely be able to personally think about for another year,"" Bielema said.
After this game, it becomes clear that this group of players is probably closer to the team most expected them to be at the start of the year, a 9-3 or 8-4 team rebounding from a very difficult 2008 season.
Winning in Columbus would have been like found money, a bit fluky and requiring almost everything to line up in the Badgers' favor.
All week, Badger fans scoffed at the idea that Las Vegas installed the Buckeyes as 16-point favorites over a 5-0 team. At day's end, OSU covered with an 18-point margin.
And don't be fooled by the fact that so much of the Buckeye success came at the hands of Wisconsin miscues. Sure, Ohio State scored three times on interception and kickoff returns, but the pressure they brought was important in forcing both picks a slew of drive-halting penalties at inopportune times.
The OSU defense simply shut down the UW running game, which averaged 2.7 yards per carry, stifled the passing game with six sacks and two interceptions and closed the door whenever the Badgers made it near the red zone—the only UW touchdown came on a fake field goal.
The Badgers would have had a tough game had they avoided mistakes, and the Buckeyes did a great job forcing them.
There were some positives in the loss, such as the defense, the running backs getting more involved in the passing game and freshman back Montee Ball, who had 40 yards on five touches. Those are things the team will have to learn from and build on for the rest of the year.
With the fall from potential conference contender back to merely a solid Big Ten team, the biggest challenge is what comes next.
Over the last two seasons, the Badgers have failed spectacularly in responding to the first loss of the year. In 2008, Wisconsin followed its first defeat with three more, plummeting from a No. 9 ranking into a nightmarish season. The year before, UW fell by five to Illinois (after a 5-0 start) and the next weekend got crushed 38-7 by a Penn State team that finished fifth in the league.
Next weekend brings No.11 Iowa into Camp Randall Stadium, and that will be another litmus test for the Badgers. Can this team bounce back, or will they let the hangover of one loss lead to another?
Losing to a very talented Ohio State team in ""The Horseshoe"" is somewhat expected, but this year, Bielema's creed had been, ""It's not what happens, it's how you react to what happens.""
How the Badgers react next weekend will go a long way in defining what kind of group he is fielding this season.
How do you think the Badgers will respond to this loss? E-mail Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.