Badger Commentary Again

Blogger’s note: OK, I meant to post this Monday. Sorry for the delay.

MADISON, Wis. — Since Saturday’s Indiana/Wisconsin football game wasn’t only the Badgers’ homecoming game but also fell on Madison’s Freakfest weekend, many fans attended the 33-3 Wisconsin victory in disguise.

(The Big Ten Network spent much time ogling over these fans, especially since the Badgers provided the fledgling network with a second straight deadly dull blowout game.)

Oddly enough, it seemed as if the players on the field got into the Halloween spirit as well, as many chose not to show up as themselves.

The Indiana offense, which had been advertised as a powerful unit that would test the Badgers with their tricky spread offense and their big-time playmakers, came disguised as a group of fumbling, bumbling, mistake-prone, ineffective do-nothings. The offensive managed only three points and 258 yards while turning the ball over a very scary five times. Powerful offense? More like powerfully offensive.

Indiana wide receiver James Hardy, who at six-foot-seven is purported to be the Big Ten’s version of Randy Moss, instead came disguised as the Big Ten’s version of Randy Travis. Hardy, who came in averaging nearly 100 yards a game receiving and was the only receiver in college football to have scored a touchdown in every game, was horrible. He finished with four catches for 17 yards, but much more damaging to his team were his lost fumble and deadly holding penalty — both came in the third quarter when Indiana was gaining a little momentum; Hardy’s penalty wiped out a 84-yard touchdown run that would have cut Wisconsin’s lead to 17-10.

Indiana’s quarterback Kellen Lewis continued his two-week masquerade as a member of the
Indiana Hoosiers when most signs point to him being a ringer for the opposing team — last week against Penn State he fumbled the ball three times, while against Wisconsin he threw two picks and lost a fumble. Moreover, he completed 17 passes for only 113 yards, a laughable average of 3.4 yards per pass completion.

Not to be outdone in their own stadium in their own city that practically invented Halloween, the Badgers pulled out some deceiving costumes of their own. Most obvious was the aggressive, ball-hawking defensive unit that showed up dressed as our Wisconsin Badgers.

Sure, the Badgers had shut down Northern Illinois last week, but Indiana is not only a conference opponent, it’s a conference opponent with the second-best offense in the Big Ten, scoring on average 35.4 points a game. The Badgers played nearly flawless defense all afternoon, whether forcing turnovers, making open-field tackles, stuffing the run, or blanketing receivers. It’s worth noting that the only three points the Hoosiers scored came after a Tyler Donovan interception. Unquestionably, especially given the quality of the opponent, the finest defensive performance of the year. Special mention to linebacker Jonathan Casillas for his 11 tackles and Jack Ikegwuonu for shutting down James Hardy.

Unfortunately, the Badgers threw in some tricks along with their treats: Certainly that offense that played for much of the second and third quarters was some kind of sick trick played on the hometown fans. After the Badgers scored on three of their first four possessions to take a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, the Badgers largely played dead on that side of the ball, as six straight possessions ended with only 111 yards, no points, an interception, and a fumble. For this stretch, the Badgers’ offense was more frightening than any of the “Nightmare On Elm Street” movies (especially the mesmerizingly bad second one. You know, the one with the exploding bird).

Also handing out his fair share of tricks was quarterback Tyler Donovan, who continued his recent struggles Saturday. Certainly his stats weren’t terrible — 12 of 21 for 144 yards — but he missed many big opportunities with errant throws. Also, his sole interception was not only a terrible throw, but it came in Indiana’s end zone, led to an Indiana field goal, and helped to give the Hoosiers (albeit short-lived) momentum. Oh, and he also lost a fumble.

Again Donovan seemed more comfortable running the ball — which he did effectively — but the Badgers are going to need his passing attack in the next two weeks against the very scary (no irony this time) No. 1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes and the resurgent Michigan Wolverines.

Of course, the biggest trick played on the Badgers on Saturday was P.J. Hill’s injury that forced him out of the game after his 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Fortunately, this was a home game, and the Badgers had Lance Smith at their disposal. Also fortunate is the reported extent of Hill’s injury, which head coach Bret Bielema referred to after the game as a “bruise.” Bielema also hinted that Hill could have returned in the second half, but the (wise) decision was made to keep him out given the circumstances of the game and Smith’s productivity.

The Badgers don’t want to go to Columbus next Saturday without being able to rely on Hill to carry the ball about 25 times. Even with Hill at his best, even with Donovan cutting down on his mistakes, even with the defense continuing its recent improvement, beating Ohio State is going to be blood-curdlingly difficult. But this year, which will surely go down as one of the least predictable college football seasons in quite some time, it somehow seems possible.

Forget whatever the rich people down the block are handing out this Halloween — a Badger win at Ohio Stadium would undoubtedly be this season’s biggest treat of all.

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