After Wisconsin put the finishing touches on a 70-23 destruction of Northwestern last November, Rose Bowl representatives distributed flowers to the UW players in their locker room.
With a 7-1 Big Ten record, the Badgers earned a co-conference title and ultimately ended up in Pasadena on New Year's Day. Still, redshirt junior center Peter Konz recalled the slightest shadow of doubt, even with red pedals firmly in his hand.
"There was a lot of gray area last year because they handed out those roses and then said, ‘You'll probably be going,'" the Neenah, Wis. native said this week. "You're just thinking, ‘What are the possibilities of us not going.'"
There is no gray area this time around.
Either No. 15 Wisconsin (6-2 Big Ten, 10-2 overall) or No. 11 Michigan State (7-1, 10-2) is going to the Rose Bowl. There will be no breathless waiting for the final Bowl Championship Series rankings to know, with certainty, which it is. On Saturday night, the scoreboard at Lucas Oil Stadium will contain all the information needed.
"This year it's just go ahead and win," said Konz, who has missed the last two weeks after dislocating his ankle and will be a game-time decision this week. "It's nice because we can just focus on this week and once that's done we'll know our fate."
Fate treated the Badgers rather rudely when these two teams squared off on Oct. 22. But, Hail Mary aside, UW fifth-year senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said Wisconsin's inability to reign in MSU once momentum turned-the Spartans turned a 14-0 deficit into a 23-14 lead in the second quarter-is where the Badgers focused this week.
"You just look at some of the points they scored in that game," the captain said. "The blocked punt for a touchdown, a safety, a two-point conversion-just silly mistakes that aren't characteristic of us as a program."
The Badgers' defense has been improved greatly over the last four weeks. After giving up 37 points to Michigan State and 33 the next week in a loss to Ohio State, UW has not allowed more than 17 points in four straight wins.
In that span, Wisconsin has allowed just two passing touchdowns. That will be put to the test this week as the Spartans possess one of the top receiving duos in the league. Seniors B.J. Cunningham (67 rec., 1125 yds., 9 TDs) and Keshawn Martin (53, 627, 4) are the top targets for senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who directs the Big Ten's top passing attack.
"He's just such a smart player and he takes such a cerebral approach to the game," Butrym said of Cousins. "I have so much respect for him, just the type of guy that he is and the way he plays the game."
Cousins threw for 290 yards and three scores against the Badgers in October. Wisconsin could not force the Holland, Mich. native into mistakes then, and will likely have to this week in order to keep the Spartans' offense in check.
"He doesn't make many mistakes and when he does, you just have to capitalize on them," Butrym said.
UW's defense is second in the league in interceptions (16) and the Badgers turned four Penn State turnovers into 24 points a week ago.
Michigan State leads the Big Ten with 18 and intercepted senior Wisconsin signal caller Russell Wilson twice earlier this season.
Adjustments on both sides of the ball will be important, as neither team is accustomed to facing the same opponent multiple times in a year. Still, Konz said Saturday is less about a cat and mouse game and more about staying true to what has brought UW this far.
"You can't make one mistake," he said. "We've seen their schemes before, but we'll focus on Wisconsin and how we can best get them with our schemes."
Saturday night, a trip to the Rose Bowl will depend on it.