Badger Commentary

Blogger’s Note: For the 2007 season, I have been posting day-of commentaries for all of the Wisconsin Badger football games. It struck me that people who regularly read this blog might not know that I’m doing this, so I decided to repost the rest of them here. This is this week’s entry on Wisconsin’s close 44-3 victory over Northern Illinois.

MADISON, Wis. — Following the first losing streak of his young tenure — and one of the worst Badger performances in recent memory — Badger head football coach Bret Bielema worked overtime stressing to his rattled players the importance of playing with passion and playing with a sense of fun, traits that had been missing not only during those two losses but for much of the season.

Bielema even distributed to his team red wristbands that read “Play Ball,” believing that the cute bracelets would serve as motivation for his wayward squad.

And with quarterback Tyler Donovan struggling recently — to the tune of three straight games with two interceptions — Bielema emphatically declared Saturday’s game against MAC opponent Northern Illinois to be all about the return of the Badger power running game.

This bizarre combination of football basics and fashion accessories, this odd channeling of both Bobby Bowden and Bob Mackie, allows Bielema I guess to take a lion’s share of the credit for Saturday’s blowout beatdown of NIU. And I don’t blame Bielema for wanting to get a little adulation after coming under heavy fire for the first time in his young career for how his team has performed lately.

But I know the real reason Bucky was able to completely dominate on Saturday and enjoy by far its easiest victory of the season, and it had nothing to do with any words Bielema said or any complimentary trinkets Bielema dispersed.

The Badgers played Northern Illinois.

Coming into Saturday’s game, the Huskies were, at 1-6, the laughing stock of the Mid-American Conference, which is not exactly the most storied group of football programs in the nation. Northern Illinois ranked last in the conference in offense with a paltry average of 19 points a game. Some of their considerable struggles this season have to be attributed to injuries, which have reached catastrophic levels with eight players out for the season and more than thirty players total having missed at least one game due to injury. (The loss of running back Ricky Crider during Saturday’s kickoff was cruelly indicative of their season.)

In short, Northern Illinois was the perfect team coming at the perfect time in the schedule for Wisconsin. The Badgers, not nearly as good as their early season rankings suggested but also not nearly as bad as their performance against Penn State indicated, were looking for a team to whip.

They whipped Northern Illinois to the tune of 44-3.

The whipping was at first a thing of beauty. On the opening drive, PJ Hill pounded the ball like Bielema said he would. Fullback Chris Pressley caught his first career pass. More significantly, receiver Paul Hubbard hauled in his first reception since being injured September 8 in Las Vegas. And Tyler Donovan hit Garrett Graham for a beautiful 25-yard touchdown. (The throw would be Donovan’s longest of the day.)

Even better was the second Wisconsin drive, a single-play, 13-second drive that consisted solely of PJ Hill breaking tackles and then spinning free for a 72-yard touchdown scamper. The run was Hill’s longest ever and Wisconsin’s fastest score of the season.

As the first half progressed, the whipping got nastier. Wisconsin’s defense, sensing perhaps that they were for the first time this year playing a team that had absolutely no life in them, repeatedly swarmed the Huskies. Though the entire defense played well, Deandre Levy and especially Allen Langford seemed to be in on nearly every tackle. Cornerback Shane Carter played near-perfect coverage, impressively snagging two interceptions. It was Carter who took perhaps the Huskies’ best hit of the game, when with less than one minute left in the first half, tight end Brandon Beal delivered a bone-crunching blow at the end of Carter’s first interception return. The problem was that the hit came long after Carter was out of bounds, a stupid play borne undoubtedly out of the frustration and embarrassment at the way the Badgers were beating the Huskies in the first half.

How bad was the whipping after 30 minutes of play? The Badgers had 282 yards to the Huskies’ 31, including a disparity in rushing yards of 211 to 13. The Badgers held the ball for 20 minutes. The Huskies’ initial first down came on a drive that started with 1:29 left in the half, the same drive that saw Carter grab that first interception. The Badgers scored 31 points while shutting out Northern Illinois.

As the second half progressed, the whipping became too much for many Badger fans and the stands started to empty. (Although my wife suggested that many of the fans that left were simply uncontrollably inspired by offensive lineman Kenny Jones’s lovely crooning of “Afternoon Delight” during the third-quarter “Ask the Badgers” segment. Jones was deemed by most of his teammates as the Badgers’ best singer, which he proved with a snippet of the Starland Vocal Band classic.)

For those who stayed to see the entire game, they saw an overwhelming Badger victory, most importantly in the phases that Bielema and the coaching staff had stressed: The Badgers ran for a whopping 331 yards and their defense allowed an incredibly stingy negative 13 yards on the ground, the second-best rushing defensive performance in school history and the best since 1951. And this dominance came against a program boasting the nation’s ninth-leading rusher in Justin Anderson. He finished with 14 yards on 13 carries.

In total, Wisconsin outgained the Huskies 431 yards to 99. Bielema also likes to emphasize time of possession: The Badgers were not surprisingly the clear winners in that category as well, holding the ball for nearly forty minutes. It was the Huskies’ worst loss in nearly 10 years.

Are there any negatives to take away from such an overpowering win? Well, unfortunately, yes. While the victory undoubtedly did much for the confidence of much of the team, that confidence boost probably didn’t translate to the quarterback: Apart from that first score, Tyler Donovan didn’t look very sharp, completing in total only 11 of 19 passes for 91 yards with another interception. Two of those incompletions were actually drops by receiver Kyle Jefferson, including a perfect strike by Donovan that Jefferson dropped in the end zone in the second quarter. After being Wisconsin’s best player last week, Jefferson didn’t play well Saturday and finished with only two catches for nine yards. Jefferson will need to be more consistent in the weeks to come.

More mystifying than Jefferson’s poor play was coach Bielema’s decision to leave several starters in the game, including Tyler Donovan and tight end Travis Beckum, well into the fourth quarter with the Badgers up by 38 points. You’d think playing a banged-up team such as Northern Illinois would remind Bielema how quickly injuries can decimate a team; Bielema is fortunate neither Donovan nor Beckum got hurt when they had no business being on the field.

The confidence the Badgers gained Saturday should carry them to another victory next week when they play Indiana at home. Indiana’s two lone conference wins have come against Iowa and Minnesota, the worst teams in the Big Ten. After beating the Hoosiers, the Badgers face back-to-back games against No. 1 Ohio State and the resurgent Michigan Wolverines. As enjoyable and necessary Saturday’s win against Northern Illinois was, Bielema and the Badgers know that they’ll need more than a few motivating words and a bracelet to survive those games.

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