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Wisconsin Gaining In The Polls

There's an undefeated Top 10 program immune to Bowl Championship Series hype. It won't be particularly offended if it watches the Fiesta Bowl from a recliner instead of the sideline. Most any postseason reward with a warm climate and decent parade will do for this squad, thank you.

No. 8 Wisconsin doesn't have an ax to grind this week. It has an ax to win. Namely, the Paul Bunyan Axe presented to the winner of this week's game against Minnesota game. Anything more than that is a future the Badgers would rather deal with at a later date.

If at all. Wisconsin -- 8-0 and off to its best start since 1901 -- is almost apologetic about its accomplishments, almost afraid to look into the future.

"A lot of that is probably because we haven't pounded our chests," said Badgers coach Barry Alvarez. "We just won't allow anyone to get carried away with the success we've had."

These collegiate Cheeseheads know there's no good reason to strut. To finish undefeated, they must get past not only improving Minnesota but beat Michigan and Penn State in the final two weeks.

There are other reasons to keep the victory cigar in the humidor. Like UCLA, Wisconsin is leading its conference but the best it can hope for is probably a share of the Big Ten title. Like Kansas State, it has a smothering defense but you'd be hard-pressed to name one starter. Like Ohio State, it is undefeated but probably won't get a sniff of the Fiesta Bowl because it won't play the Buckeyes this year. The Big Ten schedule rotation has taken care of that possibility.

There are two ways of looking at that hole in the schedule. Without playing Ohio State, Wisconsin has probably no shot at playing in the national championship game. If it did play the Buckeyes, this magic season could go poof in a hurry.

Eddie Faulkner
Wisconsin could deliver a serious blow to the BCS if they remain undefeated. (AP)

"I hate to even answer that because I'm asked it every day," Alvarez said. "They're not on the schedule. There's no reason to answer it. It's a moot point. Whether I'd want to or would like to, we're not going to. Why stir things up?"

So Wisconsin motors along in the shadow of the Packers as a nice, Midwestern story. It won at Iowa two weeks ago for the first time in 24 years. Alvarez is a coach of the year candidate in his ninth season in Madison. Junior tailback Ron Dayne leads the Big Ten in rushing (998 yards) and reached 4,000 career yards in the second-fewest games (28) in history. Outland Trophy semifinalst Aaron Gibson is a 6-foot, 7-inch, 365-pound offensive tackle who is the No. 3 line prospect in the NFL Draft. The Rose Bowl would be a nice cherry on top but the school already enjoyed its magical mystery tour of Pasadena in 1993. The Badgers were 10-1-1 that year including a victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

The sad fact is if Wisconsin does go undefeated, it probably can't reach the Fiesta Bowl's promised land. The Rose would be a definite possibility but even that celebration would be muffled. The Rose is no longer the sole the property of the Pac-10 and Big Ten champions. In this year of the BCS, there is the Fiesta Bowl and everything else.

"That year (1993), initially we wanted to get to any bowl game," Alvarez said. "This has been a unique team. No one is really carried away that we've won eight games in a row. We don't make a big deal of it."

There's no reason. The soft schedule has allowed Wisconsin to miss Michigan State and Ohio State, the same two teams Northwestern avoided in winning Big Ten titles in 1995 and 1996.

The offense is mix and match. Dayne pounds the ball 30-35 times a game and doesn't turn the ball over. Senior quarterback Mike Samuel has a higher winning percentage (.706) than Brett Favre (.688) does this season, but that's where the similarities end. He is handed a limited game plan that keeps him from losing the game. Let's just say you don't want Samuel flinging the ball all over Camp Randall. In his career, he has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns, 26.

The difference is the defense. Alvarez, a former Nebraska linebacker, has never been able to assemble a dominating defense. This year Wisconsin is fifth nationally in total defense, second in rushing defense, and first in turnover margin (plus-18). Almost 40 percent of the team's 284 points have come off its 24 takeaways.

"They've got their own style and that style is power football," Iowa coach Hayden Fry said. "They keep the ball away from the other team. The big surprise this year is the great defense they're playing."

That defense has an anchor who comes from Paul Bunyan country. When Alvarez traveled north to Poplar, Wis., to recruit defensive end Tom Burke he found a small community near Lake Superior. He also found the key to a dominating defense.

Burke leads the country in sacks (16) and quotes. He also is the leader in the clubhouse and favorite to win the Bronko Nagurski Award as national defensive player of the year. His exploits have not gone unnoticed even if they are accompanied by blonde hair courtesy of Lady Clairol.

At Indiana a month ago, Alvarez spotted his star wearing out during a critical Hoosier drive late in the game. Alvarez called timeout. Burke calmly came to the sideline, vomited, went back in the game and helped preserve a 24-20 victory.

"I never felt that kind of emotion in a football game before," Burke said. "All of a sudden, nobody was going to stop me. I felt like, I'll kill myself if that's what t takes to make a play."

"My hair was standing on end like it was on fire. It was like somebody was pouring scalding water on my rear end. It was unbelievable."

Alvarez learned how to manage his timeouts during the lean days in 1991. He had come to Wisconsin from Notre Dame in 1990 where he had a comfortable job as an assistant coach for Lou Holtz. Those early Wisconsin teams scored less than 10 points 11 times in Alvarez's first three seasons.

One of those offensive nightmares was a 10-6 loss to Iowa.

"They had to drive the length of the field with about 30 seconds left," Alvarez recalled. "They had fourth and six from about the 12. Our guys are dying. I had a couple of timeouts and I didn't use them. I made a mental note to myself, that will never happen again."

Back then, Wisconsin knew its place as a lower-echelon Big Ten team. Nothing has changed. Its place on Saturday will be the favorite to capture a 50-year old ax signifying the longest rivalry in the country. Nothing more.

"I have no illusions that we're the best team in the country," Alvarez said.

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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