Badgers football: UW bids to boost Big Ten road record vs. Pac-12

2013-09-11T04:55:00Z Badgers football: UW bids to boost Big Ten road record vs. Pac-12TOM MULHERN | Wisconsin State Journal | tmulhern@madison.com | 608-252-6169 La Crosse Tribune

Big Ten Conference teams used to have to wait until January and the Rose Bowl to have their dreams crushed by Pac-12 opponents on the West Coast.

But it has happened with regularity in September, too, for more than a decade.

Coming into this season, Big Ten teams had a 5-20 record in true road games against the Pac-12 dating back to 2000, but the pendulum might finally be swinging back the other way.

After going 0-3 at Pac-12 opponents last season, the Big Ten is 1-0 this season, with Northwestern winning at California on Aug. 31.

This is a huge week, with four games on Saturday between the two conferences. Two of those games are in Pac-12 stadiums: The 20th-ranked University of Wisconsin at Arizona State and No. 4 Ohio State at Cal.

One game is at a Big Ten stadium, with No. 16 UCLA going to No. 23 Nebraska. The remaining game is at a neutral site, with No. 19 Washington playing Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago.

By the time everyone wakes up on Sunday morning, they should have a much clearer picture of the strength of the Big Ten, which has five teams in this week’s Associated Press Top 25.

One of the topics at the Big Ten’s media days in Chicago every summer is how the conference can regain some of its prestige.

“How do you change the perception of the league?” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said on Tuesday during the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “I think all of us as coaches said one simple thing: Handle your own business and win football games.”

That is easier said than done for the Big Ten when it comes to road games against the Pac-12.

“I know this, we’re going in to play Arizona State, and from my knowledge, there’s never been a Big Ten team to go in there and win,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us and for the other schools in the conference.”

Arizona State is 8-0 against Big Ten teams in Sun Devil Stadium, winning those games by an average of 40 to 13.9. While UW senior linebacker Chris Borland doesn’t believe the past will have any bearing on Saturday’s game, that’s a lot of history to overcome.

“This game is unique, in and of itself,” Borland said. “So, we’re going to prepare the right way. We’ll be ready to go.”

The reasons for the Big Ten’s road struggles against the Pac-12 are not all that different than the reasons Big Ten teams have problems winning Rose Bowls. The league has just one win in the past 10 Rose Bowls — including three straight losses by the Badgers — though not all of those games were played against Pac-12 opponents.

Traveling two time zones away and facing teams that usually have a decided edge in speed and athleticism has not been a winning formula for the Big Ten.

Fitzgerald researched the issue heavily in the offseason, talking to NFL coaches from the Midwest about traveling west, as well as colleagues in the college ranks. He said there are two schools of thought:

1. Practice during the week, at the time the game will be played, to get players accustomed to the time change. For Northwestern, that meant practicing at 9 p.m. Central time.

2. Go out on Thursday, a day early, to get players acclimated to the time change and any other issues they might face, like the heat.

“We’re kind of a routine team, we like practicing here,” Fitzgerald said of choosing the first method. “I’m not a big believer in going to the stadium on Friday and all of that stuff. In my humble opinion, I think a lot of that stuff is overrated.

“We just kind of stayed in our comfort zone and pushed everything back a little later.”

Ohio State is leaving on Friday morning for its game at Cal. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said his director of football operations contacted other teams that made similar trips from the Midwest “and every one of them go out on Friday.”

The Badgers elected to leave on Thursday. While Andersen admitted going out early has not always worked for him, he thought it was best for this team.

Arizona State’s speed is a big concern for Andersen, especially since the Badgers are coming off two blowout victories against inferior opponents and will be facing a significant step up.

“(Speed) is going to be a factor, without question, our ability to tackle in space will be a big part of the outcome of this game,” Andersen said.

The Badgers will counter with a big edge in the running game, going against a run defense that ranked 10th in the Pac-12 last season.

“There’s not going to be a better running football team that we play all year long,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said.

That’s the way the battles between these conferences usually get settled, not by travel schedules.

“It’s important for the Big Ten for a lot of reasons,” Andersen said. “It’s important for all of us from a recruiting standpoint and playing another big-time conference. I do believe it matters for the conference.”

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