Strong finishes key for Badgers’ dominance in Big Ten West

MADISON, Wis. — No. 7 Wisconsin is developing a knack for turning sluggish starts into strong finishes.

If this is a precursor of what’s to come over the final two months of the regular season, the rest of the Big Ten West division could be in big trouble.

More smothering second-half play helped the Badgers (5-0, 2-0) pull away from Nebraska 38-17 last week, a critical win in perhaps their toughest road game until the season finale against border rival Minnesota.

Wisconsin has outscored opponents 119-21 in the second half this season, including 56-14 in the fourth quarter. It’s a big reason why Wisconsin is already in control as the only unbeaten team left in the division.

“I couldn’t even tell you,” outside linebacker Leon Jacobs said Monday about why the Badgers have been so strong after halftime. “I just think we know going into the second half (that) four out of five games, it’s been a bad first half.”

It happened last week when the Cornhuskers and Badgers were tied early in the third quarter at 17 before the Wisconsin ground game played keep-away and churned out chunks of yardage. The Badgers’ fresh defense then smothered Nebraska. A similar story line played out two weeks ago against Northwestern .

“The mentality going into the second half is we need to step up and I think we’re doing a good job responding,” Jacobs said.

A punishing running attack and a top-notch defense — it’s classic Wisconsin. And there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“You learn that despite what circumstances might come up, we are going to keep playing. We have to build off of that,” coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “Them keeping their poise no matter what happened and playing with each other.”

This bodes well for the Badgers’ hopes of returning to the Big Ten title game, especially with a rather manageable schedule the rest of the way. Purdue and Maryland visit Camp Randall Stadium over the next couple weeks, followed by trips to Illinois and Indiana.

Iowa and Michigan then visit Madison in back-to-back weeks before the Badgers finish up against the Golden Gophers.

Purdue is looking to make a statement with a new head coach. Iowa is always tough whether at home or away. The Wolverines might be the biggest obstacle ahead, though Wisconsin gets to play them in what should be an especially rowdy crowd in the home finale. The Gophers desperately want to claim Paul Bunyan’s Axe back from the Badgers.

But Wisconsin should be favored in every game left, leading to eventual thoughts of goals loftier than a division crown.

“Obviously your mind is going to wander … because we have such high expectations for this team,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “But we come here on Sunday and Monday, and we know what our goal is for the end of the week.”

This week, that means beating the Boilermakers on Saturday.

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