Final Badger Commentary

Blogger’s note: OK, here’s my commentary on the final (regular season) Badger game of the season in case you didn’t see it elsewhere on Channel 3000:

If you didn’t see it, you should be kicking yourself.

No, I’m not talking about Marie Osmond fainting on Dancing with the Stars, although that was pretty entertaining too.

I’m talking about Saturday’s Wisconsin Badgers / Minnesota Gophers football season finale, broadcast — to the outcry of many a cable subscriber — only on the Big Ten Network.

The game was everything a match-up between an 8-3 team and a 1-10 team shouldn’t be: close, exciting, evenly matched, and wildly entertaining.

In short, it was just the sort of game the Big Ten loves to have on the new network and just the sort of game that cable subscriber fans hate to have on the new network.

In the end, it was plays on special teams and the play of freshman running back Zach Brown — more than adequately filling in for the still-injured P.J. Hill — that made the difference for the Badgers, who escaped the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome with not only a 41-34 victory but also the Paul Bunyan Axe, which the Badgers have held now for four straight years.

The win gave the Badgers a final record of 9-3 (5-3 in conference play) and hopes of playing on New Year’s Day. It marks the first time in school history that Wisconsin has won nine games in four straight seasons. The loss secured Minnesota’s first winless season in the Big Ten since 1983.

Upon further review, it probably isn’t such a surprise that Saturday’s game was as close as it was: Not only was Wisconsin due a letdown game after back-to-back games against conference powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan, but Minnesota wanted badly to beat their border rivals in order to end a terrible season with a huge positive. Even more significantly, before Saturday, Wisconsin hadn’t yet won a road conference game this season, losing at Illinois, at Penn State, and at Ohio State by a combined total of 107-50. The defense, much maligned most of the season despite some improvements of late, was largely to blame in those losses, giving up not only big points but big yards — an average of 408 in the three games.

Unfortunately, it was the same road defense on display at the Metrodome; the Badgers surrendered 34 points and a whopping 501 yards of offense to the Gophers, who entered the game with the next-to-last ranked offense in the Big Ten.

Fortunately, the porous defense was continuously bailed out by the offense and by big plays on special teams. Freshman (and Minnesota native) David Gilreath constantly gave the Badgers good field position by returning seven kickoffs for a total of 119 yards and, even more impressively, by returning two punts for a total of 107 yards. Gilreath’s second mammoth punt return set up a two-play, 18-yard scoring drive that put the Badgers up 17-13 in the third quarter).

But it was in the decisive fourth quarter that Wisconsin’s special teams made their biggest plays: First they shut down the Gophers on a fake punt, the attempt of which — coming as it did early in the fourth quarter with his team only down by seven points and on their own side of the field — was undoubtedly Gophers’ coach Tim Brewster’s biggest blunder of the day. Wisconsin made Minnesota pay for that mistake four plays later by scoring on a Tyler Donovan touchdown pass to Travis Beckum that put the Badgers up by a score of 34-20.

Later on, after Minnesota sophomore receiver Eric Decker had beaten Badger cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu for the second time in the end zone to narrow the final score to 34-27 and the Gophers had forced Wisconsin into a three-and-out on its ensuing drive, senior Steve Johnson stopped Minnesota’s momentum by recovering a Gopher fumble on a Ken DeBauche punt at the Minnesota 15-yard line. That heads-up play resulted in another short Wisconsin scoring drive (culminating in Zach Brown’s second touchdown of the afternoon) that gave the Badgers their final points of the game.

But Minnesota still wasn’t done, as Gopher receiver Ralph Spry grabbed a tipped pass and ran 71 yards for a touchdown that resulted in the final points of the game. After the Gopher defense held Wisconsin, it was punter Ken DeBauche’s turn to contribute his best play of the day, as his final punt of the game landed with a thud at the Minnesota eight-yard line with just 1:25 left, effectively squashing any hopes the Gophers had about sending the game into overtime. Two plays later, Ben Strickland intercepted Gopher quarterback Adam Weber to ice the victory.

One Badger special teams player who wasn’t so special: kicker Taylor Mehlhaff, who missed on two of four field goal attempts, a bizarre showing given not only that the game was indoors, but that he had connected on 10 consecutive field goals prior to his first miss on Saturday.

While the Gophers did a decent job shutting down the Badgers’ passing attack — Donovan finished with just six completions (five to tight end Travis Beckum, who had 89 yards and a score) on 14 attempts for one touchdown and one interception — Minnesota had no answer for the Badgers’ rushing attack, which given Hill’s injury and Lance Smith’s ineligibility, was limited to Zach Brown and Donovan. While Donovan was mobile as ever, racking up 68 yards and a touchdown, it was Brown who truly shined. The freshman carried the ball 29 times for a monster 250 yards, including two runs of 60 and 64 yards. Even though the Gophers knew Brown was getting the ball time and time again, especially as the Badgers had the lead in the second half, they time and time again could not stop him.

Although the Badger defense can’t be given too much credit for Saturday’s win, it is noteworthy that they made adjustments at halftime and completely shut down Minnesota’s best rushing threat — its quarterback, Adam Weber. In the first half, Weber, doing his best Tyler Donovan impression, scrambled for 80 yards on only nine carries. He finished the day with just nineteen yards more.

While the Badgers put the clamps on Weber’s feet, they couldn’t shut down his arm, as the Gopher freshman finished with 352 yards and three touchdowns. Wisconsin wasn’t the only team this year unable to contain Weber: Despite the Gophers’ awful season, he broke pretty much all Minnesota quarterback records, finishing the year with 24 touchdowns and 2,895 yards.

Unlike the Gophers, Wisconsin now waits to find out if it will be invited to play in a marquee bowl game on New Year’s Day. After winning four out of its last five, Wisconsin likes its chances to be invited to the January 1, 2008, Outback Bowl. For Badger fans, anything would be preferable to the Insight Bowl, broadcast on the NFL Network, which, like the Big Ten Network, isn’t available on Madison-area cable.

Whatever bowl game the Badgers end up playing in, it will have a hard time equaling the entertainment value of Saturday’s game, the final game in a sometimes frustrating, sometimes disappointing, but ultimately successful (come on, nine wins!) Badger season.

Undersell of the Year: After Travis Beckum injured his shoulder on a touchdown grab early in the fourth quarter that made the score 34-20, the Big Ten Network sideline reporter commented that the loss of Beckum (who should be back for the bowl game) wouldn’t matter to Wisconsin because of the lopsidedness of the score. Usually announcers will try anything to get viewers to stay tuned even during blowouts, so calling such a back-and-forth game over with about 10 minutes left was bizarre to say the least. Sure enough, the game tightened up again following the premature comments. Someone needs to give that reporter some sales training.

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