ANAHEIM, Calif. – There is plenty of familiarity for Wisconsin as it prepares for its third consecutive Rose Bowl. They are based in the same hotel, will make the same trek to downtown Los Angeles for media obligations, eat the same cuts of prime rib from Lawry’s at the annual Beef Bowl, and play on the same immaculate turf under the same immaculate conditions on New Year’s Day.
On Wednesday, the Badgers made the same trip over to practice, a ride that safety Shelton Johnson has down pat by now, before heading to Disneyland for the annual team visit.
“I could almost tell the driver which way to go because we have been to the Home Depot Center the last three years. There is definitely a sense of familiarity, and I think it will go a long way for us,” said Johnson, sitting in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle waiting to head over to ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which has become a favorite attraction for both him and running back Montee Ball.
While the sight of 300-pound offensive linemen riding roller coasters has become something of a tradition for Wisconsin, Ball said every moment still resonates.
“You never take it for granted though,” Ball said. “I’m still experiencing it and taking it all in.”
Interim head coach Barry Alvarez has made it a point to make sure Wisconsin players can enjoy everything associated with the trip, though he will tighten down on things like curfew and bed check as the game nears.
Alvarez is experiencing the Rose Bowl for the eighth time, “two as an assistant at Iowa, four as the head coach, two as athletic director,” he quickly recounted. But he also wants Wisconsin to win the game for the first time since 2000, which means tweaking the daily routine to ensure players have adequate rest and will be fresh.
With the game plan installed back in Madison, the focus now is on “tightening the screws,” as Johnson put it.
“It’s getting all the finer details of the game right, the finer details of our assignments correct, and just polishing up,” Johnson said.
“My practices are I think much more efficient,” Alvarez said. “We’re not going to spend a lot of time. We’re going to get out there, we’re going to get our work done, and we’re going to get out of there. I’m trying to save their legs.”
There are no such concerns about their minds, as Johnson and Ball said teammates have handled the uncertainty of the last few weeks, which saw head coach Bret Bielema leave for Arkansas, athletic director Alvarez return for this one game, and the hiring of Gary Andersen from Utah State, exceptionally well.
“It’s so secret it has been a little wild,” Ball said. “It has been chaotic, but that was a time when the leaders, the seniors really had to step up and lead this team and really keep us all together, keep the chemistry high.”
“It is a business,” Johnson said. “While we’re all here enjoying ourselves, you get reminded of that now and then. It is what it is, but we can’t let that affect how we play or how we practice.”
Ball also credited Alvarez with lifting the team’s spirits after the initial shock of Bielema’s departure.
“Right now what Coach Alvarez is bringing to us is confidence because Coach B’s decision to leave kind of knocked us all off our feet onto the ground. Coach Alvarez did a great job sweeping us up and keeping the confidence within all of us and telling us there is still one goal left to achieve,” Ball said.
That means winning the Rose Bowl, a goal magnified in importance by the recent turmoil.
“With the departure of the coaches and the seniors, this is a big game,” Johnson said. “This is the last game for us to be together. It puts that much more emphasis on winning.”
For all their familiarity, Wisconsin would like to try that one new experience new this trip.
Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.