Chris Orr knows the rarity of the opportunity he and his teammates have this weekend.
Orr, a senior linebacker and captain of the University of Wisconsin football team, said this week that in his lifetime of playing football he’s never played the same team twice in a season. Orr and the No. 10 Badgers (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten Conference) get that chance on Saturday night when they face off against No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 9-0) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
On the line is a conference championship along with major College Football Playoff and bowl game assignments to boot. Orr appreciates the uniqueness of a rematch.
“I’ve never played somebody for the second time in the same season, so it’s pretty unique to me as well,” he said. “There’s definitely a little added motivation. You definitely can’t forget that they beat you earlier in the season. Definitely can’t think about it the rest of the season, but it resurfaces now that you’re going to play them again.”
UW star junior tailback Jonathan Taylor — who appears close to concluding his time with the program as the NFL comes calling — used one of coach Paul Chryst’s classic lines when asked about getting a second chance against one of the best Ohio State teams in years.
“We earned the right to have a chance to have a chance,” Taylor said Tuesday. “I think that’s the biggest thing we’re focused on this week: How we maximize this opportunity that we have this Saturday.”
Since major college football conferences installed two divisions and conference championship games, rematches have become a little more common in recent seasons. But the Badgers haven’t had one since the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game, when they avenged an earlier loss to Nebraska by beating the Cornhuskers 70-31.
To appreciate what it means to have a chance to pay the Buckeyes back for a 38-7 drubbing they handed UW on Oct. 26, one must understand how that loss affected the Badgers.
That defeat at Ohio Stadium was the second of back-to-back losses that put UW’s season on the brink of irrelevance. After being upset the week before at Illinois, the Badgers collapsed under a second-half avalanche of scoring by the Buckeyes. The lopsided nature of the loss shook the confidence UW had built on both sides of the ball after a 6-0 start.
“I think we just kind of were lacking in that believing in ourselves,” senior linebacker Tyler Johnson said. “We were coming off a tough loss against Illinois. We had a good game plan. I think we played them tough in the first half, and they had a couple of big plays on us, and I think we lost who we were.”
A bye week followed the loss at Ohio State, and that week gave the Badgers time to regroup and get their season back on track. To earn its berth into the Big Ten title game, UW had to win its four games in November and have Minnesota lose at least one of its games before the teams met last week.
Chryst said a key to UW’s rebound late in the year was staying in the moment.
“I think they understood and understand, you want it to go perfect, but seldom does it,” Chryst said. “It’s no different than when you play a game or you’re in a drive. Maybe not every play goes right, but the neat thing is you get to play the next play. In a game that’s what it is, in a season, you get to play the next game. I think they’re also smart enough to know that these opportunities, they’re not endless, so maximize the moment you’re in.”
The Badgers, who are 16-point underdogs in Saturday night’s game, have shown more versatility on offense and a knack for coming up with clutch plays defensively in the past month. They’ll need both to topple Ohio State, a team that has a top-five offense and defense this season and appears bound for the College Football Playoff no matter the outcome on Saturday night.
It took a great deal of focus to earn this second chance, junior left tackle Cole Van Lanen said, and the Badgers don’t intend to waste it.
“I think it’s just us understanding, ‘This is it,’ in every game. One more loss would take away this opportunity, and we wanted it really bad,” he said. “Now we want this game really bad, and we’re going to do everything we can to take advantage of the opportunity. We’re going to prepare our butts off this week and get ready to roll.”
Photos: Badgers beat Gophers to take back Paul Bunyan’s Axe