Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Wisconsin Badgers are riding high after their convincing 52-7 win over the Maryland Terrapins in which the team produced its best all-around performance of the year.
Melvin Gordon scored three first-half touchdowns, Joel Stave looked poised in the pocket and make several great throws, and the defense didn’t allow Maryland to score until there was less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter, when most of the backups were in.
The victory provided renewed hope among Badgers fans that the team actually can finish on top of the Big Ten West, with everyone’s sights set on Wisconsin’s final three games against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. While this three-game stretch to finish the regular season is undeniably pivotal for Gary Andersen’s team and their hopes of capturing a divisional crown, the Badgers cannot overlook their upcoming two-game road trip.
On paper, it doesn’t seem like Wisconsin should have much trouble against either Rutgers or Purdue. Both teams are 1-3 in Big Ten play and are currently on a two-game losing streak. However, the Badgers can’t sleep on either opponent if they’re going to move to 7-1 and give themselves a shot at winning the Big Ten West.
The Scarlet Knights, Wisconsin’s next opponent, got off to a surprising 5-1 start, but are returning home after a couple of brutal road losses.
Rutgers was soundly beaten by a pair of ranked opponents, Ohio State and Nebraska, during which it was outscored 98-41. These losses have cast a shadow of doubt over the Scarlet Knights, who had gotten off to a hot start despite being picked by many to finish last in the Big Ten East.
Quarterback Gary Nova was a big reason for Rutgers’ early-season success, having passed for 1,949 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. While Nova did play horribly earlier this year in a loss to Penn State, throwing five interceptions, his effect on the offense has been largely positive. Unfortunately for Kyle Flood’s team, Nova’s status for this Saturday’s game is uncertain after suffering a knee injury against the Cornhuskers last weekend.
With Nova under center, the Scarlet Knights could make things interesting against the Badgers. But if he is out, Wisconsin’s task will be much easier.
The greater chance of the Badgers being upset might actually come the next weekend, when they travel to West Lafayette to take on Darrell Hazell’s Boilermakers.
Though the notion that Purdue could pose any kind of threat to Wisconsin was downright laughable before the season began, the Boilermakers have made great strides in Hazell’s second year and have serious spoiler potential.
Purdue, who didn’t play last weekend, has dropped its past two games to Michigan State and Minnesota, but was competitive in both. The Boilermakers put a serious scare into the Spartans when it scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to cut the Michigan State lead to seven, but were unable to complete the comeback.
Against the Gophers, Purdue actually looked like it was on its way to pulling off the road upset after 31-20 lead into the half. However, Minnesota rallied back and won, taking a 39-38 lead on a 52-yard field goal by Ryan Santoso with 4:59 remaining in the game.
The Boilermakers undoubtedly have their fair share of issues, including a mediocre defense that is allowing 31.3 points per game, but they’ve proven that they aren’t a team to look past.
The good news for Wisconsin fans is that there isn’t any reason to believe that the Badgers will mail it in against either of these opponents. The loss to Northwestern earlier in the year will serve as a reminder to the team that you can’t take anything for granted, no matter who the opponent is.
Everybody knows how important the final three games of the regular season are for the Badgers, but a loss to either Rutgers or Purdue in the next two weeks would serve as a fatal blow to their hopes of making it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.