polzin jump photo 10-16

UW quarterback Graham Mertz celebrates a first-down run on third-and-eight in the fourth quarter. 

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The University of Wisconsin football team already had a win in its pocket an hour before kickoff Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium.

More important than the Badgers’ 20-14 victory over Army in a nonconference finale — we’ll get to that later — was what had happened earlier in the day down in Iowa City, where the Big Ten West Division race got a whole lot more interesting after Purdue’s 24-7 victory over No. 2 Iowa.

UW needed help to get back in the title hunt, and got it from the Boilermakers. As bad as things looked for the Badgers after they started the season 1-3 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play, they’re back to controlling their own fate.

“It’s all you can ask for,” senior safety Scott Nelson said. “All we wanted was an opportunity and now that we have that opportunity. We’ve got to do everything we can to maximize it, to seize it and just go out there and execute. We’re halfway through the season and we’ve got six more to go and there are some big games, but the biggest one is next Saturday.”

It’s simple: Win out and they’ll be back in the Big Ten title game for the fourth time in coach Paul Chryst’s seven seasons.

Maybe simple is the wrong word because the Badgers’ path to Indianapolis will be anything but easy.

It begins with this question: Can a team with as many flaws as UW go eight consecutive weeks without losing?

That seems unlikely.

“Obviously you want to win by as much as possible, have the best wins,” UW right tackle Tanor Bortolini said. “But at the end of the day, one point or 20 points, it doesn’t matter in the win-loss column. It’s a win. As long as you’re leaving with a win, it’s hard to be mad about that.”

A 24-0 win at Illinois last week was far from perfect, but it at least could be considered a step forward for the Badgers. The same couldn’t be said about their performance Saturday.

UW only has lost four home nonconference games in 31 seasons but was holding on for dear life in the fourth quarter after an Army touchdown with 11 minutes, 22 seconds made it a one-score game. It took a big play from Leo Chenal, capping a magnificent performance for the junior inside linebacker, to give the Badgers some breathing room down the stretch.

It all seemed to be going along so well for the Badgers in the first half.

They moved 95 yards in 12 plays to take the lead, with Braelon Allen scoring from 33 yards out to finish a drive during which the freshman tailback carried the ball seven times for 72 yards.

UW’s next drive went 81 yards in 10 plays and included a rare big play in the passing game, with Graham Mertz hitting Danny Davis for 36 yards to set up a 5-yard touchdown run by Mertz on a naked bootleg.

The Badgers’ next four drives? Punt, punt, punt and punt.

A late touchdown ended that streak, but only after Chenal’s aforementioned forced fumble gave UW the ball at the 1.

Imagine where this offense would be without Allen, who has had back-to-back 100-yard outings after finishing with 108 on 16 carries against the Black Knights.

Meanwhile, the Badgers still aren’t getting enough out of Mertz and the passing game. He lost a fumble early in the game and finished with a passing line — 8 of 15 for 112 yards — that needs to be better for UW to keep winning.

“To win games and to move the ball efficiently, you’re going to have to throw it and you’re going to have to run it,” Chryst said. “I think we’ve got to get better at that.”

Here’s the second half of the season for the Badgers: at Purdue, Iowa, at Rutgers, Northwestern, Nebraska, at Minnesota.

All winnable and yet no guaranteed wins in that mix. It’s difficult to win the way the Badgers do — read: ugly — over and over without slipping up along the way.

The wild West should be a showdown over the final six weeks of the season.

Iowa (3-1 Big Ten) still has to visit UW, Northwestern and Nebraska along with home games against Minnesota and Illinois.

Purdue (2-1) has home games against the Badgers, Michigan State, Northwestern and Indiana along with visits to Nebraska and Ohio State.

Minnesota (2-1), with home games against Maryland and Illinois sandwiched around a trip to Northwestern, could be 5-1 when it visits Iowa next month. It also has to go to Indiana before hosting UW to close the season.

There are your four main contenders in a division in which a two-loss team will be in great shape come late November.

The Badgers reached the midway point of the season Saturday and, with some help from Purdue, their chances of winning the division improved. If only UW could have done its part over the course of a crisp 2-hour, 56-minute game to make us believe it has a legitimate shot at running the table and cashing in that chip provided by the Boilermakers.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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