The Wisconsin Badgers will play Saturday for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, which is set for December 3 in Indianapolis. They just have to beat Penn State at home for a chance at redemption against Michigan State, who already clinched the Legends division.
Despite the close rankings between No. 16 Wisconsin and No. 19 Penn State, the Badgers are favored by 14.5 points by some oddsmakers. Most of that perceived advantage stems from the Badgers’ success at Camp Randall Stadium this season. They are 6-0 and score about 52 points per game while the defense allows just 11 points per game, good for a 41 point average margin of victory. Quarterback Russell Wilson has averaged 236 passing yards and 37 rushing yards a game, and has thrown for 13 touchdowns, run for three, and thrown zero interceptions. Running back Montee Ball averages 155 total yards and 3 touchdowns per game.
Only a few of those stats change drastically in the Badgers’ five road (one neutral) games this season (Wilson: 218 ypg, 13 TDs, 3 INTs; Ball: 155 ypg, 12 TDs). But the most important number– the record– takes a sudden turn to 3-2. They also score far fewer points per game (36–not bad, but no 52), and give up twice as many (22) as they do at home. Granted, most of those numbers are impacted by the Badgers’ two losses– 37-31 to Michigan State and 33-29 to Ohio State– but they have looked sloppy during every road game.
So why the disparity between the Badgers in Madison and the Badgers anywhere else in the country? For one, it would be difficult to match what they’ve been doing at home just because those numbers are incredibly impressive and consistent. Plus, the location of games matters more in college football than in maybe any other sport at any level. College stadiums are huge and usually seat a large amount of people who are willing to scream and chant until they fall over. And when you have college– not professional– athletes subjected to that environment, they can lose focus and panic, or at the very least be a bit off their game.
And the two places where the Badgers lost– Spartan Stadium in East Lansing and Ohio Stadium in Columbus– are notoriously tough places for even favored teams to grab a victory. This still doesn’t quite explain the Badgers’ less-than-impressive win at Illinois (28-17) last week, especially when the Illini had lost four games straight and were dealing with a number of off-the-field issues. There’s no clear, unique reason that the Badgers haven’t performed well away from home this season.
Just like the Badgers’ special teams problems– nay, disasters– the road woes have persisted throughout the season. Wisconsin is fortunate that it gets to play the deciding game of the Leaders division at home Saturday, but will need to solve the road issue before it possibly heads to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship and to whatever bowl game it ends up in. Maybe they need to sleep on less comfortable beds in Madison or eat possibly-poisoned food and have those around them constantly threaten their lives. That way they’ll be more accustomed to life on the road and play as well as they do at Camp Randall.