A team’s mettle — its inner belief, the type of confidence on display that’s not in a hype video or sideline celebration — reveals itself in those critical moments of a season that arrive maybe three or four times.
For Wisconsin, one such opportunity came last week in the third quarter at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers scored a game-tying defensive touchdown. On the ensuing kickoff return, the Badgers committed a holding penalty and scurried to recover their own fumble.
A personal foul placed them 93 yards from the goal line as the noise from a crowd of about 89,000 crescendoed at Memorial Stadium, where the home team had won 20 straight games at night.
Wisconsin’s response? Rushes up the middle to gain 7 and 15 yards, rush left for 10, a pass completion for 31, rush right for 15. By the time Wisconsin relented, it led 38-17, the final margin. The Huskers were left shellshocked.
The three decisive touchdowns, on consecutive drives, covered 213 yards and included 28 rushes out of 30 plays. During the surge, quarterback Alex Hornibrook turned to hobbled Badgers left guard Micah Kapoi and told him that he could have taken snaps in that second half and produced the same results.
“That’s when it gets fun,” Hornibrook said. “It was awesome to see.”
It was a cold, calculated and powerful illustration of mettle — a smashing success in perhaps the first moment of truth this season for the seventh-ranked Badgers, who host Purdue on Saturday.
Wisconsin looks like a solid favorite over the next five weeks to sit at 10-0 on Nov. 18, when Michigan visits Camp Randall Stadium. Most important to know about Wisconsin, though, is not the reality that it hammers relentlessly at opponents, or even the method by which the Badgers have posted an .804 winning percentage (37-9) since 2014, trailing only Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
What matters is why this works. Why is Wisconsin so strong and steady in its identification of prospects, development, training and execution?
Look no further than that key moment in Lincoln.
I asked coach Paul Chryst if someone stepped up and spoke in the time of adversity.
“Not really,” he said. “All that matters is what’s going to happen the next play. I thought the guys did a good job of going forward with it.”
That response is typical of Chryst, who is 26-6 at Wisconsin.
Troy Fumagalli, to whom do the Badgers look for leadership when they need it?
“Honestly, no one, really,” the senior tight end said. “We know what we’re capable of.”
So then what happens in the huddle when the Badgers are literally backed against their own goal line in a hostile venue?
“We’re all together,” said left guard Jason Erdmann, a 6-foot-6, 337-pound sophomore who came off the bench and factored in the second-half runaway. “We know what we need to do. You come in to this place knowing exactly what you need to do. Everything’s there for you.”
Erdmann best explains the dynamic. At Wisconsin, the culture of physicality and sound play is wrapped into recruiting and extends to every area of Chryst’s operation.
It is, in fact, why Wisconsin wins in the manner it did last week. It is why a 12-0 mark, heading to Indianapolis in December, looks like a possibility.
“Throughout training camp [this year], I got so many questions about the vocal leader. Who was it going to be?,” Fumagalli said. “But here, there doesn’t need to be that guy.”
Consistency breeds confidence.
“To run the ball down someone’s throat is really the mentality of Wisconsin,” junior left tackle Michael Deiter said. “It’s definitely something that you don’t need to be taught. It’s something that’s known. That’s the way you take over games. It’s nothing we need to learn.”
The Badgers are 17-3 against the Big Ten West over the past four years. Under Chryst, they’re 19-2 when running the ball 40 times or more. The 353 rushing yards (on 49 attempts) at Nebraska, paced by freshman Jonathan Taylor‘s 249, ranked as the highest total for Wisconsin in a road game since it visited Indiana in 2012.
At Wisconsin, 13 football staffers played at the school. That includes Chryst, the third-year head coach, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Only Air Force can make the same claim. The same Air Force that led the FBS in rushing attempts per game each of the past three seasons.
Chryst appeared almost apologetic in his explanation last week to questions about Wisconsin’s dominant response after it faced adversity. His humility is perhaps explained by Chryst’s relationship with embattled Nebraska coach Mike Riley, a friend and mentor to the Wisconsin coach.
Or maybe that’s just the nature of the Badgers, for whom pride and the plan to chart a path to victory are better left unspoken.