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MADISON, Wis. – Bouncing back from adversity has been a trademark all year for No. 11 Wisconsin.
The season might have gone a little smoother if the Badgers hadn't had to dig themselves out of tough spots in the first place.
Even so, coach Gary Andersen's squad is right where it had hoped to be when training camp began four months ago — on the verge of a Big Ten title. The Badgers play No. 6 Ohio State in Indianapolis on Saturday for the championship.
"We just have a bunch of guys who love fighting and love working hard, even if it doesn't seem like it's going our way," linebacker Marcus Trotter said Monday.
Few Wisconsin fans thought their hometown team would be in this spot following a 20-14 loss on Oct. 4 at Northwestern. The quarterback position was in limbo, the defense had trouble stopping the run and the Badgers dropped to 3-2 after losing their conference opener.
"I guess all the fans were real mad, irritated," Trotter said.
But in many of the Badgers' eyes, the loss turned out to be the season's turning point. They've won seven straight, all in conference play, to claim the West Division crown.
Slowly but surely, Wisconsin (10-2) has gotten production from the quarterback position, with Joel Stave reclaiming the starting job and Tanner McEvoy coming in as a mobile, change-of-pace reliever.
The defense has regrouped against the run, aided by the returns of defensive lineman Warren Herring and Trotter from injuries. Herring went down in the season-opening loss against LSU, the last time Wisconsin had its starting front seven intact.
The one constant has been junior running back Melvin Gordon, who has blossomed into a full-fledged Heisman Trophy contender.
Gordon went from a 38-yard outing in Week 2 against lower division school Western Illinois, to setting a Big Ten single-season rushing record of 2,318 yards — and counting. Gordon also seems to get stronger as the game wears on, and his burly offensive line wears down opponents.
"I think everything worked out exactly how we planned it. At the end of the day, we wanted to be here," Gordon said.
The last two home games have been microcosms of the season.
Wisconsin fell behind by 14 points to Nebraska and Minnesota, both ranked teams. Each time, the Badgers stormed back to win, though it took a little while longer in the second half to feel secure against the Gophers.
Players said Andersen and the coaching staff urged the team to pick up the intensity after going down 17-3 against Minnesota early in the second quarter. Turnovers and short fields contributed to the early deficit, much like against the Cornhuskers.
Slow starts were a problem earlier in the season in the running game.
Andersen doesn't necessarily think that there is one common, underlying issue.
"It's definitely not part of the plan to get behind by 14 points or seven points or three points or one point," Andersen said. "Slow starts — we've created our own enemies in some situations."
So corrections were made. It could have been a scheme adjustment. Maybe it's a focus on tackling or staying in gaps on defense, or stressing ball security with the offense.
"There were some uncharacteristic things that we did, that we were able to take away and not have happen to us in the second half," he said.
Whether it's due to a team-wide slow start, miscues or simply bad luck, the Badgers don't want to make having to rally from 14-point deficits a habit. Especially against the Buckeyes.
Follow Genaro Armas at http://twitter.com/GArmasAP