When University of Wisconsin football coach Gary Andersen was asked about the expectations for his team at the start of preseason camp, he gave the same answer he did on Monday, prior to the final regular-season game against Penn State.
The response began and ended with the seniors.
“It’s to have the seniors walk out of here with their heads held high and their chests puffed out, a big ‘motion W’ on their chests or on their hats, wherever it may be,” Andersen said at his Monday news conference. “They wear it with pride for the rest of their lives. That’s what’s going to happen with this senior class.”
To be sure, the 26 players who will be recognized before the game against Penn State on Saturday for Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium have enjoyed almost unparalleled success. They include current seniors, fourth-year juniors who are not returning for next season and players whose careers were cut short by injuries.
This year’s seniors have won three straight Big Ten Conference titles, a streak that will end this season. They have won 39 games since 2010 and need just one more to tie the school record of 40 in a four-year span, currently held by the 2007 and 2012 senior classes.
It is a group that has been especially tough at home, with a 25-2 record. Both of those losses came last season, one of them a 21-14 overtime loss to Ohio State on Senior Day. That snapped a streak of six straight wins in UW’s last home game of the year.
“You never want to lose for the senior class,” senior tight end Jacob Pedersen said. “You always want to put them out on top. They’ve been leaders, they’ve helped you grow as a player, they’ve always been there for you. Basically, that’s like when you get older, not taking care of your parents.”
It’s always a delicate balance to strike, a day brimming with emotion, which can be beneficial provided those feelings are under control by kickoff.
“It’s a unique thing,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “Obviously, every player only goes through it once in his career. You just have to focus on the task at hand. I think our guys do a good job of that, but at the same time, enjoy it, it is a special moment for you and your family, kind of a blend of both.”
It was pointed out to Borland the Badgers have two sixth-year players going through senior ceremonies for a second time: backup quarterback Curt Phillips and starting outside linebacker Brendan Kelly. They both decided to be introduced last season, prior to being granted sixth years due to injuries.
It’s like people who come back for prom after they graduate from high school.
“I like that analogy, leather jacket on at prom,” Borland said. “(Phillips and Kelly) deserve it, they’ve been through a lot. It’ll be fun for them to celebrate it again, I’m sure.”
Borland didn’t play against Ohio State last year due to a hamstring injury. So he wasn’t able to fulfill one of the obligations of the non-seniors, to make sure the seniors win their final home game. It’s something of a sacred trust, how the younger players try and pay back the seniors who helped show them the way.
After last season’s loss, the younger player might have taken it harder than the seniors.
“We really did feel like we could have done a lot more to help get our seniors a victory,” senior safety Dezmen Southward said. “That’s something I hope our younger guys take into account when they take the field this week, play with heart and we’re going to play our hardest. It’s not just about the seniors, we’re going to play with our heart because we understand this is a big game for us.”
With the Badgers moving up to 15th in the Bowl Championship Series standings this week, they only need to climb one more spot to be eligible for a BCS bowl game.
UW actually had two bad Senior Day experiences last year, losing at home to Ohio State, then on the road to Penn State the following week, 24-21. The latter was the fourth loss by three points on the season and the third overtime defeat.
After touchdowns on their first two drives, the Badgers had eight straight punts, followed by an interception. They were 1-for-10 on third downs at one point before finishing 5-of-16.
UW had the advantage of going on defense first in overtime and forced a field goal, but the offense couldn’t capitalize. Pass protection was an issue all day, and Phillips was sacked on second down for a 3-yard loss. Then came a pass that should have been intercepted, with Kyle French missing a 44-yard field goal attempt in windy conditions to end the game.
“In my opinion, it was an upset last year,” Pedersen said. “I thought we could have won that game. We didn’t get it done.”
Given the way the UW players have handled almost everything this season, Andersen doesn’t think dealing with the seniors’ emotions on Saturday will be an issue.
“The challenge for me, to the team, is we get to do it again and the seniors don’t,” Andersen said. “The underclassmen and all of the coaches, managers and trainers, the strength staff, everybody that’s involved deserve their best shot for these seniors this week to make sure their last three hours in Camp Randall are enjoyable. I know we’re going to get the best shot out of the seniors.”