Mason: Bielema’s team finally has legit non-conference ‘W’
The Wisconsin football team has been hearing for years that its non-conference schedules were soft. Taking on the likes of Temple, Buffalo and The Citadel in the past few seasons left little to be desired in the way of a challenge while leaving many questions unanswered as to what this program was truly capable of accomplishing.All questions should have been answered after Saturday night.No, the Badgers’ 13-10 win against No. 21 Fresno State on the road may not have been pretty. After taking a 10-0 halftime lead, Bret Bielema’s team managed just three second-half points. And when they were up by just a field goal late in the fourth quarter, I had that feeling in my gut that they were going to lose.But with an eight-yard run by Bill Rentmeester late in the fourth quarter that allowed the final seconds to tick off the clock, UW was somehow, some way able to hold on.The phrase “statement game” has become somewhat cliched in college football, but the truth of the matter was that Wisconsin indeed made a statement Saturday night — and a much-needed statement at that. They had finally answered the call to schedule a tough non-conference opponent, a matchup that was billed as the most important game in Bulldog Stadium history. And if you watched the game on ESPN2, the announcers reminded you again and again what the game meant for Fresno State head coach Pat Hill and his program.As important as it was for Fresno State, though, it may have been equally important for Wisconsin.In Bielema’s first season as head coach, he led UW to an 11-1 regular-season record, the same record that year as Michigan. But while the Wolverines earned a trip to the Rose Bowl, the Badgers settled for a berth in the Capital One Bowl.Wisconsin’s lone loss that season came to Michigan, while Lloyd Carr’s squad fell on the road to Ohio State for the only blemish on their schedule. However, UM had a convincing road win against then-No. 2 Notre Dame to hang their helmets on; UW’s toughest non-conference opponent was San Diego State, and they barely squeaked by them at home with a 14-0 victory.It’s tough to make an argument about the stronger schedule then. This year, though, Wisconsin will have the Fresno State victory to brag about when all the naysayers start pointing fingers.Had the Badgers lost to the Bulldogs, there would be little to no chance of a BCS bowl game, and they’d likely be headed back to Florida for the fifth year in a row. Instead, they now control their own destiny. Win out, and they’re a shoe-in for a trip to Pasadena.Of course, it’s far from clear sailing the rest of the way.Wisconsin’s first three Big Ten games will indeed be their toughest — at Michigan Sept. 27, and then back-to-back night games at Camp Randall against Ohio State and Penn State. But the Badgers won’t be facing the same caliber of a Wolverines team from 2006 (as is evident by the 35-17 beatdown Notre Dame put on them Saturday). As for the two night games? Well, just keep in mind Bielema hasn’t lost a home game in two-plus seasons at the helm.With the Buckeyes taking a shellacking at the hands of USC this weekend, UW’s matchup with OSU actually becomes much more significant for its postseason hopes. Now that Ohio State has that ugly loss on their resume (clearly their gamble to play a high-profile game didn’t pay off), it’s doubtful that Jim Tressel and company will be headed to their third national championship in as many years. Instead, they’ll just be hoping to smell roses once January hits.Then again, so will the Badgers. So circle Oct. 4 on your calendar when the Buckeyes come to town. And those of you selling your student tickets, be prepared to cash in.Tyler is a senior majoring in journalism. Don’t think Saturday’s win was as important as he did? Let him know at email@example.com.