MADISON, Wis. - It's been over 1,000 days since the Wisconsin Badgers last played the Northwestern Wildcats, so you can forgive them if they don't recognize much of each other this Saturday when the No. 19 Wildcats travel to Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers and Wildcats last played on Nov. 27, 2010, a 70-23 rout that sealed Wisconsin's first of three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. The Badgers racked up 559 yards of offense behind a four-touchdown day from quarterback Scott Tolzien, along with 317 rushing yards between Montee Ball and James White. Wisconsin's defense also forced the Wildcats to turn the ball over seven times, which the Badgers turned in to 28 points.
But the vast majority of the players and coaches that roamed that sideline on that chilly day at Camp Randall are long gone, with most players moving on to the NFL or graduation. Then-Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema and his entire coaching staff from 2010 have moved on to different jobs, and both teams return just one starter from that game: senior defensive end Ethan Hemer is back for the Badgers, and senior punter Brandon Williams is still kicking for the Wildcats.
Every team will experience natural roster and coaching staff turnover from year-to-year, but the Badgers think the changes at Northwestern run a little deeper than that. Several Wisconsin players said they watched Northwestern's 40-30 loss to No. 4 Ohio State last Saturday during their bye week, and senior linebacker Chris Borland said the Wildcats look like a different team when they take the field.
"In a more general sense, you can tell on the film that they expect to win and they play to win," Borland said Monday. "I think at times in the past they knew how to win but didn't always expect to win. It's evident in the way they carry themselves that they're out there to win against any team that they play."
The Wildcats have good reason to play with more confidence these days. Northwestern has a 20-12 record since their last game with the Badgers, who went 22-12 during that span. The Wildcats also won their first bowl game in 63 years earlier this year when they beat Mississippi State 34-20 in the 2013 Gator Bowl to cap off a 10-win season.
And with 15 starters back from that 2012 team it's only natural that the Wildcats have a little more bounce in their step than they did in 2010.
"You can see a little more confidence in them," senior offensive lineman Ryan Groy said Tuesday. "I think they play with a little more swagger than they did in the past, and I think that's something that coach Fitzgerald brings to them."
But the Wildcats will have to make sure they don't come out flat after their tough loss to the Buckeyes last week. It was billed as the biggest home game in team history, with ESPN's College GameDay on campus for the first time since 1995.
Ultimately Northwestern came up a play or two short of upsetting the Buckeyes on Homecoming, but it doesn't sound like the Badgers anticipate getting anything but the Wildcats' best on Saturday.
"You kind of miss [their energy] when you just watch the film," senior quarterback Curt Phillips said Monday. "They're a very well-coached team that plays hard."
"I can't speak for them personally, but there was definitely a different swagger than we've seen from them in the past. That was noticeable on the TV copy. You saw guys bouncing around after every play. It just makes it that much more fun for them."
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