The blank stare on Braelon Allen’s face was probably a good enough answer.
A reporter asked Wisconsin’s sophomore running back Monday whether the potential for outside noise surrounding the return of former coach Bret Bielema to Madison this Saturday had a chance of impacting the locker room at all.
“I don’t really know anything about it, to be honest, so I would say probably not,” Allen said with a chuckle.
That answer begged for a follow up question — did Allen even know Bielema had been the head coach of the Badgers?
After a slight pause, Allen shook his no and said, “nah.”
You can forgive Allen for not knowing of Bielema’s past with the Badgers. He would have been an 8-year-old when Bielema bolted for Arkansas in December of 2012 after nine years at Wisconsin, including seven as head coach. He, and pretty much every other player on Wisconsin’s roster, have no memory of that controversial move or the success Bielema had in his time with the Badgers. They don’t know he’s won more games at Wisconsin than every coach not named Barry Alvarez and that he was the last head coach to lead the Badgers to a Big Ten title. Even though all of them have passed a display — likely hundreds of times — in a Camp Randall Stadium walkway featuring a picture of Bielema, he doesn’t take up head space for them like he might for the older folks in the fan base that like to hold grudges.
One guy that does know Bielema quite well is head coach Paul Chryst. They were the two coordinators for Alvarez in 2004 and 2005 before Chryst served as Bielema’s offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2011. But even he didn’t sound interested in the past, offering up surface level platitudes.
“I’m proud of what those teams accomplished. I enjoyed working with him,” Chryst said. “You look back and you’re appreciative of it.”
Bielema has turned down interview requests with Wisconsin media this week, as he tries to hammer home the message that it’s the Badgers vs the Illini this week and his return means little. But his actions suggest the opposite when you examine some of the schedule changes Bielema made for this year.
When the schedule first came out, Wisconsin was supposed to host Illinois in the season opener, so he scheduled an opponent for Week 0. He wanted the advantage of having a game under their belt and to give them the best chance at an upset. Then, when the Big Ten adjusted the conference slate last January and had the Illini coming to Madison Oct. 1, Bielema quickly got to work in moving their game against Chattanooga from Sept. 24 to Sept. 22 to give them extra time to prepare. Those are not moves you make if this is just another game. Instead, they scream very loudly of the importance this game has to Bielema and how desperate he is to win it.
Still, while many will be looking forward to either cheering or booing Bielema when he brings Illinois (3-1, 0-1) onto the field Saturday, the players have a much more important focus following a disturbing 31-point loss to Ohio State that dropped them to 0-1 in Big Ten play for a second straight year. It’s not about some former coach, it’s about not letting a season with plenty of potential spiral out of control.
“We’re 2-2. We got eight more regular season games. It’s not like it’s the end of the world. We can still finish out as a 10-2 football team,” quarterback Graham Mertz said. “That’s what I’m hitting the guys on. We still control our destiny. It’s not the end of the world. The sun still came up on Sunday. It’s definitely controllable stuff. We’re sitting at 2-2. We don’t want to be sitting at 2-2. But it’s the chance to respond right now that we’re excited about.”
Mertz and the offense struggled against Ohio State, especially when the game was still close. But it was the defense that was truly shocking to watch. Never before had a defense coordinated by Jim Leonhard been exposed like it was Saturday night. The Buckeyes racked up 539 yards of offense and 52 points — both the most allowed by the Badgers since the 2014 Big Ten title game. Outside linebacker Nick Herbig vowed their would be improvement and called out the doubters by sending a tweet Sunday that read, “Keep that same energy.”
“Everybody is writing us off already. It’s only the fourth game. A lot of football to be played,” Herbig said when explaining the tweet. “In a couple weeks, keep that same energy. Keep that same energy when we’re winning games, when we’re doing what we do, when we’re playing Wisconsin football.
Allen in the wildcat
Wisconsin broke out the wildcat a few times Saturday night against Ohio State featuring Allen as the quarterback. Allen said Monday that he had been pushing the coaching staff to implement it going back to the summer but it hadn’t actually been installed until the week before the New Mexico State game.
“It was definitely fun. It was something that I had wanted to do and coach made it happen,” Allen said. “We’re probably going to keep it in to keep going with that, excited to build on it. I think, really, we ran three plays out of it. So to kind of expand that package and be able to do some more things. But it was fun, definitely.”
Allen said he tried to show off his arm during summer workouts to make the offensive staff take notice. It helped lead to him throwing a 10-yard completion to tight end Jack Eschenbach.
“I need to get a little more depth on the rollout,” Allen said when asked to critique the play. “I only took two reps during the week at it. I was comfortable with it, but obviously, need a little more.”
It was Allen’s first pass since his sophomore year of high school in Fond du Lac but don’t think he’s bashful about what he can bring as a passer. Asked how far he could throw the ball, Allen said, “farthest on the team.” When media members laughed he added, “You laugh but I’m for real.”
Wisconsin will be without cornerback Alex Smith again against Illinois. He’s still dealing with a hamstring injury that has kept him out since before fall camp started.
Left tackle Jack Nelson, who missed the Ohio State game with an illness, was not on the report and expected to play against Illinois. It’s unclear the status of fellow starting tackle Riley Mahlman. He hasn’t been on the status report the last three weeks — and wasn’t on this week’s — but still hasn’t played due to a leg injury. Redshirt sophomore Trey Wedig filled in for him against the Buckeyes and played well.