Archive for September, 2008

Thanks Be To The Brewers
September 29, 2008

I wouldn’t be doing my duty as Channel 3000 Sports Blogger if I didn’t take some space to thank the Brewers for what was the most memorable season of baseball I’ve witnessed since I first came to Wisconsin many years ago. It wasn’t always pretty, but it’s been memorable.

It’s very satisfying as a sports fan when you can sense that the front office of a team knows what it’s doing, has a plan, and the plan pays off. Doug Melvin’s history of scouting and player development has been extraordinarily crucial to the Brewers over the past few seasons, as he and his staff have stocked the Brewers with young talent like Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and J.J. Hardy. What’s just as satisfying is that Brewer supporters realize this and have come out to the ballpark in record numbers, giving the Brewers one of the best home field advantages in baseball — well, except when the Cubs come to town.

Kudos also go to Brewers management for breaking out of the development mold when the right player becomes available — obviously I’m talking about C.C. Sabathia here — or for making difficult personnel moves when deemed necessary — obviously I’m talking about Ned Yost here. While no one can argue the positive impact that Sabathia had on this year’s team, surely some still question the unprecedented eleventh hour decision to can Yost. While we’ll never know if the Brewers would have won six of their last seven to make the postseason with Yost as manager, the fact remains that you can’t dispute the decision to hand Dale Sveum the reins because he did the job he was clearly given to do — stop the bleeding and get the Brewers to the postseason.

Now that the Brewers are in the playoffs, is Sveum’s job done? Should the Brewers and their fans be grateful just for reaching the postseason? Well, yes and no. No, because players on a good team with playoff expectations coming into the season (and the Brewers certainly had such expectations) should never and will never admit to being satisfied by not winning it all.

But fans should be satisifed. Because getting to the postseason in baseball is tough. 26 year drought tough. And it simply doesn’t look like the Brewers will get any further. The hitting, particularly as it pertains to Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and (providing the most dramatic, timely offense) Ryan Braun, has been there as of late. But the pitching, hit hardest by Ben Sheets’s unavailability —  is in tatters. Outside of C.C. Sabathia’s heroics — and he has been their MVP, there is no doubt — it’s hard to have much confidence in the Brewers’ makeshift rotation. Maybe Yovani Gallardo or Dave Bush can surprise, and maybe Jeff Suppan — the Brewers’ most experienced postseason pitcher — can regain his form. But that’s a lot of maybes. And lest we forget that last time Sabathia reached the postseason, he had a total ERA of 8.80 over three games. Oh, and the Brewers’ bullpen isn’t that intimidating these days either.

Then let’s look at the NLDS matchup. The Brewers and Phillies played six times this season. The Phillies won five of those games. Ominously, four of those losses came in a September sweep that cost Ned Yost his job and caused Ryan Braun to utter the words “complete and total disaster” in describing the Brewers’ play. As much as it kills me to say, this has the makings of a Phillies sweep, but I’ll give the Brewers Sabathia’s start, making my official prediction Phillies in four.

But I’ve been wrong before. Look at my preseason baseball predictions, which can be reviewed here: I took the Red Sox, Indians, and Angels as my AL division winners, with the Yankees as the wild card. I defend myself by saying that no one predicted the Rays’ success and that I said that the Twins, who as of this writing are still in the playoff hunt, will be better than anticipated. In the NL, I took the Braves, Brewers, and Dodgers, with the Rockies as the wild card. In my defense, I got two of the playoff teams right, even though I was wildly off on the others. I took the Red Sox to repeat as World Champs, and if I had to pick again today before the playoffs start, I’d stick with that.

Enjoy the baseball playoffs. Here’s hoping that the Brewers stick around longer than I say they will and that Aaron Rodgers will NOT be watching the games while out recuperating his shoulder.


Blown Opportunities
September 28, 2008

What happened?

Seriously, can you tell me how Michigan turned a 19-0 halftime deficit into a 20-19 fourth quarter lead? Because I missed it.

By way of explanation, and hopefully without sounding narcissistic (did you hear the study that showed that people with Facebook pages are narcissistic? Wow. What a stunner), let me briefly take you into my world.

As resident sports blogger for Channel 3000, I don’t go on the road to away games. As a Badger fan, I have season football tickets and attend many games, but I don’t attend as a Channel 3000 or WISC-TV employee. I’m there as a fan, albeit as a fan who writes up a story about the game upon my return home. But when the Badgers are on the road as they were this weekend against Michigan, I’m watching the game on TV, again like most fans. (Luckily I have DirecTV, so I’ve had the Big Ten Network from the first day it signed on.)

Unlike probably most fans, however, I typically TiVothe game and watch it later in the day. When you have two small children in the house, it’s a losing battle to try to concentrate on anything for too long when both are awake. Watching the game on a delay ensures that I can follow it more closely.

That brings me to what happened Saturday. At the 13:26 mark of the third quarter, with the Badgers up by nineteen points and looking like they were going to cruise to victory, my screen went blank. For a long time. Finally a graphic came up that indicated that DirecTV was having a problem with the local channel and that viewers could turn to a national network feed (that’s normally blacked out) on another channel for network programming. I have no idea if that option worked or not, because by the time I was watching my tape, the game was over.

The feed finally re-appeared with 10:24 left in the fourth quarter. As surprised as I was with the technical difficulties, the likes of which I had never seen before with my satellite system, I was completely floored by  the on-air graphic that said the score was Michigan 20, Wisconsin 19. I simply could not fathom how Michigan, whose offense — by racking up a total — a total — of 21 yards on 24 offensive plays with five turnovers — had recorded one of the worst halves of football I had ever witnessed in my football-adoring life, could have managed to register a field goal, much less 20 points.

But then I quickly remembered that Wisconsin’s offense was also bad in that first half. It was simply that next to Michigan’s horrendous group, the Badgers couldn’t help but come off like the 2007 New England Patriots.

Wisconsin’s fatal error in that first half was in allowing Michigan to keep hope alive. WIth Michigan piling up awful play upon awful play, the game should have been completely out of reach after 30 minutes of play. But the Badgers were too busy squandering their opportunities.

Let’s look at those first half chances: Opening kickoff. David Gilreath takes the ball back 55 yards to Michigan’s 38. After three P.J. Hill runs, Allan Evridge — who struggled most of the game — misses Nick Toon in the end zone. Gilreath fumbles on the next play, but on a close call, Wisconsin luckily gets a reversal on the official review and keeps the ball. Philip Welch misses a very makeable 34-yard field goal. That’s three blown plays equaling a blown golden opportunity for points.

On Michigan’s first drive, quarterback Steven Threet(who finished the first half with negative seven passing yards) fumbles the ball on a run for the Wolverines’ first turnover. Despite having first-and-10 on Michigan’s 27-yard line, Wisconsin can only muster 23 yards on five plays and must attempt a 21-yard field goal, which Welch makes. Two drives, two blown golden opportunities for touchdowns.

On Wisconsin’s next drive, Bret Bielema got Michigan to jump offsides on a fourth-and-one, which gave Wisconsin a first-and-ten on Michigan’s 29 yard-line. But Wisconsin had to settle for another Welch field goal, making the score 6-0. Three drives, three blown opportunities for touchdowns.

The offense for both sides was even sloppier in the second quarter. Gilreath’s second blunder of the game led to Wisconsin’s first turnover, an interception coming from a pass Gilreath tipped instead of caught. Then on Wisconsin’s next drive, Evridge — who held the ball too long all day — fumbled the ball after being sacked. Then Threet fumbled again but another official review allowed Michigan to keep the ball. Then Michigan fumbled the ball again on a punt return, an error that Wisconsin finally turned into a touchdown courtesy of a 46-yard run and a five-yard touchdown run from John Clay.

Despite two Wisconsin turnovers, the Badgers now found themselves up 13-0. Normally you’d credit the defense for killing turnover opportunities, but Michigan’s offense was worse than the Badgers defense was good.

Like the horrendous auditions on early episodes of American Idol, the endless incompetence — from both teams — continued. After the Clay touchdown, Michigan fumbled the ensuing kickoff. But then Lance Hendricks dropped a nice Evridge pass and, after a 3-yard “drive,” Wisconsin had to kick another field goal.  Then Shane Carter intercepted Threet for Wisconsin’s fourth turnover, giving the Badgers hope for a second touchdown drive. But then Carter picked up an odd unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that resulted from throwing the ball away from the referee that drove the Badgers back and lessened their odds of scoring a touchdown. Sure enough, Welch came on for another field goal, making the halftime score 19-0.

While it may seem petty to complain about a 19-0 lead at halftime, when a team starts six of ten drives on their own 40 yard-line or better, gets five turnovers, and holds the ball for over twenty minutes in the first thirty minutes of play, 19 points is simply not enough. The key stat? Wisconsin was one of ten on third down in the first half, meaning that they simply could not sustain drives.

The stage was set then for the biggest comeback in the history of Michigan Stadium — fitting as it happened at the historic facility’s 500th game — a comeback that I thankfully didn’t have the opportunity to suffer through. But despite letting Michigan take over the third and fourth quarter on four straight (one defensive) touchdowns, and despite a late, seemingly fatal fumble by Evridge, Wisconsin did have a chance to tie the game up and send it to overtime. But a marvelous touchdown drive in the game’s final minute went for naught when Wisconsin’s two-point conversion that tied the game at 27-27 was nullified for a formation penalty, and Evridge’s pass on the second attempt sailed high, giving Michigan a 27-25 victory and sending the crowd of 109,833 into hysterics.

From what I was able to see of this game, it’s impossible to believe that the better team won. But Wisconsin simply missed too many opportunities to deserve to win. As the Badgers return home to face by far their  toughest competition in Ohio State and Penn State, they will have to play infinitely better if their now-much-slimmer hopes of a Big Ten championship are to survive. Because the Buckeyes and Penn State are way too good to give Wisconsin those same opportunities.

Stay Home, Stay Inside — 10 Reasons Why
September 26, 2008

We’ve been having a string of beautiful weather here in the Madison area, which appears ready to continue through this weekend. But as Thursday night’s baseball and college football broadcasts proved, now is not the time to be outside spending time with family and friends. Now is the time to be watching sports on TV. Here’s what you should be focusing on this weekend:

1. Cubs at Brewers (Friday-Sunday). A lot of people had given up on the Brewers a few days ago. Hard not to be believing again after Thursday night’s exhilarating fourth-straight victory. But the Cubs aren’t the Pirates. But the Cubs have literally nothing to play for. But the Cubs haven’t lost this season at Miller Park. But the Cubs have literally nothing to play for. But Jeff Suppan — who couldn’t get my five-year-old son out the way he’s pitching lately — is starting Friday night. Will the Brewers’ roller-coaster season end Sunday (or, if there’s a playoff, Monday) or will it continue? If you’re not there, you need to be in front of a TV.

2. Packers at Buccaneers (noon Sunday). After a miracle victory against the Bears last Sunday, the 2-1 Buccaneers are looking to figure out how good they really are. After being dominated by Dallas and losing Al Harris in the process, the Packers are looking to climb back into the ranks of the NFC elite. Though no longer a division rivalry, this remains a very interesting matchup.

3. Badgers at Wolverines (2:30 Saturday).  Both teams are coming off bye weeks, but the Badgers look to be the only team rested and ready to start conference play. With two non-conference losses, Michigan’s been lousy. Look for Bucky to get his first win in Ann Arbor since 1994.

4.  Marlins at Mets (Friday-Sunday). Can the Mets avoid a second-straight late-season collapse? If they can’t, the Brewers will make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. And don’t think the Marlins — who helped keep them out of the postseason last year — will go easy on New York. The Brewers and their fans will be doing plenty of scoreboard watching on this series, which could be the last series at Shea Stadium. (Hey, with all the hype over the close of Yankee Stadium, where’s the love for Shea, the birth of the stadium rock concert?)

5. Arizona at New York Jets (noon Sunday, no local telecast). Brett Favre is finding out the hard way that the Jets simply don’t have the talent the Packers do. If Favre’s Jets lose and drop to 1-3, a lot of Jets fans will be questioning whether management made the right move to trade for Number 4, and Favre will be questioning whether he should have stayed in Mississippi. 

6. Eagles @ Bears (7:15 Sunday). After an impressive week one victory at Indianapolis, Packer fans were wondering if the Bears were going to present a legitimate threat this season. After two straight losses, fans can probably start wondering if they lose Sunday night.

7. Vikings @ Titans (12 noon, no local broadcast). Does the benching of Tavaris Jackson mean Minnesota’s season is saved? I wouldn’t count on it, but it’s at least got some life now with the not-terrible Gus Frerotte. But Tennessee on the road is a tough draw. Titans quarterback Kerry Collins knows something about laying the wood to the Vikings.

8. Royals @ Twins (Friday-Sunday). Hate to get all AL on you here, but the Twins are — after the Tampa Bay Rays — the best story in the American League this year. It will be nothing of a minor miracle if they can get in after losing Johan Santana and Torii Hunter in the offseason. Watch out for a letdown after their huge home sweep of the White Sox.

9. Gophers @ Buckeyes (11 AM Saturday). With Beanie Wells likely back and freshman Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, can Ohio State regain its position as the Big Ten team to beat? Can Minnesota, a minor surprise so far, give them any kind of a test before next week’s showdown at Camp Randall?

10. Illini @ Nittany Lions (7 PM Saturday). No Big Ten team — or college football team period — has rolled to easier victories than Penn State. Can Illinois slow them down in what looks to be the best Big Ten game of the weekend?

Brewers By The Numbers, Packers and Cowboys Preview
September 19, 2008

On Monday I blogged about the Milwaukee Brewers’ stunning firing of manager Ned Yost, hinting that the team’s collapse couldn’t get any worse.

Well, it did. On Tuesday, C.C. Sabathia lost his first game as a Brewer. On Wednesday, despite beating Chicago 6-2, the Brewers lost Ben Sheets, probably for the season, when he left the game complaining of soreness in his elbow. Then on Thursday, the Brewers suffered perhaps their most humiliating and deflating defeat of the season when Solomon Torres, nursing a 6-2 lead with two outs and nobody on, gave up four runs in the ninth inning, allowing the Cubs to tie the game and eventually win it in the 12th. 

Oh, and this just in: Ryan Braun has asked for a sabbatical from the Brewers to join the cast of Dancing With The Stars. And Corey Hart and Bill Hall both are nursing injuries after a team game of drunken Twister went horribly wrong.

OK, that last paragraph was full of lies. But after the month the Brewers have had, would either of those occurrences surprise you that much?

To put the Brewers’ September swoon in some objective perspective, I went to a Web site called Baseball Prospectus. On this site they run each team’s stats through some crazy computer program that’s way beyond my level of comprehension (hey, I could get my Atari 800 to repeat the word “booger” endlessly across the screen when I was about ten, then I lost interest in computer programming) to determine each team’s likelihood of reaching the postseason. According to Baseball Prospectus, on September 1, the Brewers had a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs. On September 19, that likelihood had plummeted to 37 percent. (In contrast, the Phillies started the month with a 38 percent chance of making the playoffs, and as of September 19, had a 88 percent likelihood of going to the postseason.)

Hey, after watching the Brewers over the last two weeks, 37 percent seems awfully high. They ain’t making the playoffs.

Even though it’s early in their season, one team that does seem destined for the postseason is the 2-0 Green Bay Packers, who face their most difficult test of the young season in this week’s no-brainer best game of the week when they welcome the 2-0 Dallas Cowboys to Lambeau Field. 

I’m not going to waste time building up any suspense here. I like the Packers to win this game, which looks to be an enjoyable, high-scoring game, perfect for NBC’s primetime Sunday Night Football showcase. Oddly enough, the Cowboys have never won at Lambeau Field. I repeat, the Cowboys have never won at Lambeau Field. I haven’t been that surprised by a football-related stat since I read that Raiders owner Al Davis is less than 100 years old. (Have you seen Davis lately? Dude looks like the Tales from the Crypt guy.) Also, Burlington, Wisconsin, native Tony Romo, who stinks in big games, will be the starter at LambeauField for the first time and will likely be nervous. I count on him fumbling once and getting picked twice. In his defense, he’ll probably also get to second base with half of Green Bay’s female population by sunrise Monday morning.

Elsewhere, when he wasn’t embarassing himself with his premature celebrations, Eagles rookie receiver DeSean Jackson torched the Cowboys’ secondary for 110 yards. That a rookie playing in his second game could do that on the road means that Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and maybe even James Jones should have big games. Oh, and that new guy that throws the ball, who is second in the NFC in passer rating, should have a third-straight strong game.

I also expect the Tony Romo-to-Terrell Owens combination to come up big; if Kitna and Calvin Johnson can connect for six passes for 129 yards, T.O. and Romo should at least equal that. Jason Witten should be able to shake off a sore shoulder to get his as well.

In the running game, I worry about Ryan Grant. And since he’s on my fantasy team, I worry about Ryan Grant more than I worry about the fact that we’re heading into a global recession. (But I have Chester Taylor on my bench, which could be big if Adrian Peterson can’t go.) Grant rushed 15 times for 20 yards last week, and that was against Detroit’s horrid defense, which is as impenetrable as Sarah Palin’s daughters. If Grant can’t play — and maybe even if he can — Dallas, with Marion Barber and Felix Jones, will have a decided advantage in the running game, which could be huge in a game in which keeping the opponents’ offense off the field is important to winning.

So I give the edge to the Cowboys’ run game, I give the edge to the Packers’ pass game, and I give the edge to the Packers’ defense, particularly as it relates to the possibility of creating turnovers. And the Packers are at home, so I like the Packers. If I’m at all hesitant, it’s that the Packers have won playing two weak division opponents, beating one narrowly (Minnesota) and falling asleep on another, albeit briefly (Detroit). So it’s possible the Packers are not as good as we think. How they perform on Sunday night will clear that up as the winner will have to be considered, perhaps along with the New York Giants, as the best team in the NFC.

Yost Out
September 15, 2008

Well, I’ve been criticized a little bit for getting sucked up into the football season too much and not writing about the Brewers. Of course, as my high school gym teacher used to tell my classmates who openly criticized my lack of volleyball ability , “If you can’t say something nice . . .”

Today comes Brew Crew news too surprising to ignore.

The Brewers today fired beleaguered manager Ned Yost. While they are tied for the lead in the NL wildcard. With about seven percent of their games remaining. Weird timing to say the least.  

I can understand why Yost was fired. This is quite clearly the Brewers’ year to contend. They won’t have C.C. Sabathia next year. Ben Sheets will be gone. Prince Fielder will likely be elsewhere. And while the NL Central crown has been out of reach for a while now, it seemed like a no-brainer even up to a few days ago that the Brewers would snare the NL wildcard, putting them in the postseason for the first time since Joe Piscopo ruled Saturday Night Live.

But the Brewers have been terrible lately. 3-11 in September terrible. Being outscored 75-38 in those games terrible. The final straw obviously was the sweep over the weekend at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, the very team they were trying to hold off in the standings, and the very team that now looks like the most likely wildcard representative from the NL.  

Given the second-consecutive monumental collapse on Yost’s watch, his firing is understandable. But it’s still wrong. Not to disrespect baseball managers, but of all of the major sports, they have the least to do with their team’s success. (OK, so I domean to disrespect them. Sorry.) Players either hit or they don’t. Pitchers either have the stuff or they don’t. The throw’s either in time or it’s late. Unless we discover that Yost was forcing the team to watch Varsity Bluesinstead of getting their batting practice in, it’s unreasonable to expect Corey Hart to hit .500 the rest of the way simply because third-base coach Dale Sveum got a promotion.

Of course it’s possible that this move could save the Brewers’ season. Usually when a new coach or manager takes over a team, there’s a short-lived spark. With so few games left, maybe a short-lived spark is all the Brewers need. But it seems more likely that the loss of their manager will further disrupt an already dysfunctional team.  

After their recent 3-7 homestand, Yost said that his players were not panicking. Maybe he was right. But with today’s shocking development, it’s clear that there was already plenty of panic in the Brewers’ front office.

Badgers Pass Grueling Road Test
September 14, 2008

It seemed really odd.

Midway through the fourth quarter of what was a far more exciting game than the 13-10 final score would indicate, there was Badgers quarterback Allan Evridge, who, like the entire Badgers team, had turned in an impressively gritty performance, being carted off the field at Fresno State’s Bulldog Stadium.

Carted off the field for cramps. Not since Paul Pierce was infamously put in a wheelchair during this year’s NBA Finals has such a major precaution been taken for such a minor injury. At least it was a little worse than the ESPN2 analysts were theorizing; they seemed to believe that Evridge was mostly dehydrated, at which point I couldn’t help but think of The Office‘s Michael Scott, who also was had to be treated — by his pediatrician, who gave him a lollipop — after not drinking enough water during his charity run for rabies.

That Paul Pierce and Steve Carell made their way into my consciousness toward the end of Saturday’s Badgers/Bulldogs game can be partly explained away by the lateness of the hour that the game finished — about 1 AM CST — and the mind’s ability to fight the desire to sleep by conjuring up bizarre thoughts. One thought I had, however, seems just as sound after a few hours sleep: It’s too bad that this, and not the Ohio State/USC laugher, wasn’t ABC’s primetime game. Because it was a classic.

Wisconsin’s victory and move to 3-0 heading into this week’s bye as the frontrunner in the Big Ten was highlighted by some great (and not-so-great) individual performances. Here are some of the biggest:

Travis Beckum and Garrett Graham.The tight end tandem was huge for Evridge, pulling in nine of his twelve completions. It was especially nice to see Beckum back in the lineup for the first time this year, and he showed no rust coming off his injury. Graham of course was crucial on Wisconsin’s only touchdown-scoring drive (of just three plays), hauling in a 22-yarder and the two-yard score.

P.J. Hill and the offensive line.In a game in which Fresno State seemed to want to outmuscle Wisconsin (bad idea), Hill and his blockers up front completely dominated the Bulldogs’ defensive line. Hill finished with 26 carries for 112 yards — most of it right up the middle. Not gaudy numbers, but when Wisconsin needed the yards, Hill and the o-line more often than not got them.

Matt Shaughnessy.The Badgers’ defensive lineman tipped two crucial third-down passes off Bulldog quarterback Tom Brandstater, the first of which landed in DeAndre Levy’s arms for an interception. The turnover led to the Badgers’ only touchdown.

DeAndre Levy. Besides the interception, the Badgers linebacker was in on nine tackles and had a huge sack of Brandstater during Fresno State’s final drive. 

Jonathan Casillas.Despite playing with a knee brace, Casillas returned to the starting lineup and had an enormous impact, with seven total tackles.

Bill Rentmeester.The Badgers fullback only had one carry for eight yards, but it was a biggie: With less than two minutes to play and the Badgers pinned deep in their own territory, Rentmeester plowed his way through the line for an eight-yard, first-down run that effectively sealed the victory and ended the game.

Devon Wylie.A non-factor in the first half, the Bulldog wideout was huge in the second as the Bulldogs tried to mount their comeback. Wylie finished with 87 all-purpose yards, most significantly a 47-yard touchdown (Wylie made several Badgers miss tackles on the play) that cut the Badgers’ lead to three early in the third quarter. Wylie also had a 25-yard rush on that drive.  Unfortunately for Fresno State, Wiley was injuried and left the game in the fourth quarter.

Kevin Goessling.As tough as the Badgers played, they easily could have found themselves on the losing end had the Bulldogs’ freshman kicker not shanked three of the four field goals he attempted. Two of the three misses were admittedly from long distance, but the most crucial miss — a 35-yarder in the fourth quarter — was inexcusable.

A.J. Jefferson.At a time when the Badgers were struggling offensively, the Fresno State cornerback provided a much-needed spark when he fumbled a punt in the third quarter. The Badgers couldn’t do much on the ensuing drive — six plays for 17 yards — but it was enough to get them a field goal (their only points of the second half), which would prove to be the difference in the score.

WAC officials.They didn’t just blow a big call in the third quarter — they got it right but then reversed it, raising eyebrows and opening the door to allegations of impartiality. Late in the third quarter, Bulldog receiver Chastin West clearly fumbled a caught ball which was then recovered by Wisconsin linebacker DeAndre Levy. After Fresno State coach Pat Hill wisely threw the challenge flag, the call was inexplicably changed to an incompletion. Perhaps shell-shocked defensively, the Bulldogs immediately completed a 61-yard pass play — their longest of the game — before the Badgers’ defense stiffened, holding Fresno State to its only made field goal of the game. But the kick should never even have been allowed to be attempted.

After by far their most grueling and closest victory of the season — Fresno State outgained the Badgers as well as held the ball longer (underscoring the importance of the Bulldogs’ turnovers and missed field goals) — the Badgers now go to Michigan for their first conference game of the season, followed by a primetime Camp Randall showdown with Ohio State. But considering how Michigan (1-2 in non-conference play) and Ohio State (after a 35-3 pasting at USC on Saturday) have started the season, perhaps the Badgers’ toughest test is behind them.

Of course the Badgers have a week off first. Should be plenty of time for Evridge’s cramps to heal.

A Come-From-Behind 37-Point Victory?
September 8, 2008

What is it with the 2008 Wisconsin Badgers football team taking one quarter off each game? Last week they let Akron back in the game with a sloppy second quarter, and this week they started horribly against Marshall, letting the Thundering Herd dominate for the first fifteen minutes (OK, 16:30) on their way to falling behind 14-0.

But let’s face it, if Wisconsin continues to play like they have for the other three quarters, no one will have many complaints.

In proceeding to outscore Marshall 51-0 over the last 43:30, the Wisconsin Badgers put to quick rest a couple of big doubts that had suddenly been triggered in the minds of the 80,396 Badger fans at Camp Randall: One, are the Badgers simply not as good as advertised? And two, can Allan Evridge compete? Uh, for those distracted over the weekend by US Open Tennis rainouts and the BMW Championship, that would be a definite “no” and an even more definite “yes.”

Against a defense that was clearly designed to stop UW’s potent running attack (408 yards against Akron) and force Evridge to win the game, Wisconsin’s new quarterback proved that he was more than up to the challenge, completing 17 of 26 passes for a stellar 308 yards.

This coming-out party for Wisconsin’s passing game is huge for Bucky; as the Badgers’ schedule gets tougher (starting this week at Fresno State), opponents now need to be prepared for a more balanced offensive attack, and Evridge needed the confidence he could do more than just hand the ball off.

Of course Evridge can’t take the credit for the dominating win alone. His receivers, still minus Travis Beckum, stepped up huge — five different receivers caught at least three balls, and no receiver stepped up bigger than Lance Hendricks, who not only led all Badgers with 94 receiving yards, but hauled in perhaps the biggest catch of the game, a 36-yarder in the second quarter that sparked Wisconsin’s first scoring drive at a time when the overall mood at Camp Randall was threatening to shift from surprised confusion to outright anger. Also contributing big was sophomore Kyle Jefferson — three catches for 66 yards, including a beautiful 42-yarder in the second quarter as Wisconsin  was continuing its comeback —  who is quickly shaking off his disappointing training camp.

And lest anyone assert that it was only through the air that Wisconsin got it done on Saturday, I would point out that no fewer than six of Wisconsin’s seven touchdowns were on the ground. Certainly the team’s overall ground game was less spectacular against Marshall than it was against Akron, but 158 net yards and six touchdowns is hardly the same as getting shut out.

Of course, no recount of Saturday’s game would be complete without mentioning the three Badger interceptions, including two by sophomore Niles Brinkley, on three consecutive Marshall second half drives that played no small part in snuffing any Thundering Herd hopes of a comeback. Just as importantly as the interceptions themselves was the fact that Wisconsin turned two of those turnovers into touchdown drives, turning a still-close game into a rout.

Looking for negatives from Saturday’s game? Well, if you must, four Badger fumbles aren’t great (although only one resulted in a turnover), and Marshall did win the crucial (at least to some) time of possession battle (31:31 to 28:29). But really, anytime a team wins by 37 points, it’s a good day.

Wisconsin’s pasting of Marshall resulted in the Badgers being promoted to tenth place in both the AP and Coaches’ Poll. How the Badgers handle their next challenge, Saturday’s road game against number 21 Fresno State, will go a lot way in determining how long they remain in that elite company. For a change, they’ll likely have to play four good quarters to be 3-0 going into conference play September 27 at Michigan.

Packer Preview 2008
September 5, 2008

Welcome to the Aaron Rodgers 2008 season preview.

Oops, I mean the Green Bay Packers 2008 season preview. But you can’t really blame me for the mistake — even before Brett Favre announced in July that he wanted to come back to football, Aaron Rodgers this season was set to be one of the most scrutinized NFL players in recent memory. And since Packers management in effect turned away Favre for the highly unproven Rodgers, the eyes of all of football nation — not to mention those here in Wisconsin — will be on Rodgers, criticizing, evaluating, and second-guessing his every play.

Well, if Aaron Rodgers had enough time on his hands to read the sports page on Channel 3000 — and though we welcome all page views, I sort of hope this time of year that he doesn’t — I would tell him to relax. The fate of Packer Nation does not weigh entirely on him being the Steve Young to Favre’s Joe Montana. The Packers have a ton of talent surrounding Rodgers, so his teammates should be able to bail out 2005’s 24th overall draft pick should he suffer some growing pains while learning how to be a starting quarterback week in and week out in the NFL.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt Rodgers’s fortunes that he plays in one of the weakest divisions in the weakest NFL conference. How weak is the NFC? Weak enough that a team with a mediocre-at-best (not to mention injury-prone) quarterback that finished dead last in 2007 at stopping the pass is being hailed by some as this season’s NFC champion.

I’m speaking of the Minnesota Vikings, the hated division foe that will come to Lambeau Field on Monday night for the first game of the Rodgers era. Whether the Packers prevail (as I’m guessing they will) for their fifth-straight victory over Minnesota will probably have less to do with Rodgers’s play and more to do with how detrimental the Packers’ injury situation is. In fact, if I had to pick the leading factor that will determine how competitive the Packers will be in 2008, it would not be the play of Aaron Rodgers, it would be the overall health of the team.

The Packers’ injury list is long, but thankfully getting shorter. Linebackers A.J. Hawk (chest), defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (knee), and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) returned to practice this week. All three have been MIA in the preseason but look to be ready for Monday night’s opener. All three will be key if the Packers’ hope to continue the defensive success they had last year (6th in points per game allowed). (DT Johnny Jolly is also a concern, but for another reason; he faces a September 16 court date after being arrested in July with about 200 grams of codeine. But even if the case goes to trial, it is unlikely to happen during the season.)

Perhaps greater injury concerns exist on the offensive side of the ball, with center Scott Wells unable to shake a lower back muscle injury and running back Ryan Grant looking to bounce back from a hamstring that has kept him out the entire preseason. And before anyone dismisses Grant’s importance week one against the Vikings, remember that Grant was the only running back in 2007 who rushed for more than 100 yards against Minnesota — 119 yards on November 11, when the Packers embarrassed the Vikings 34-0 at Lambeau. Grant (as well as Brandon Jackson and rookie surprise Kregg Lumpkin) needs to be solid to take pressure off Rodgers not only Monday but throughout the season.

If Grant can repeat his 2007 success (929 yards and eight touchdowns over the last ten games), plays will open up for Rodgers and one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL. Even if James Jones misses extensive playing time with a knee injury (which is doubtful), the tandem of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, promising rookie Jordy Nelson, and tight end Donald Lee bests the depth of most teams.

Bottom line: If the Packers get most of their banged-up players back healthy for week one as they are expecting, and if they can keep in-season injuries to a minimum, they should win the NFC North by two games, with a record of 10-6 beating out the Vikings (or maybe even the Lions, now that Mike Martz is gone) at 8-8. With a very talented supporting cast and strong defense, Aaron Rodgers will likely emerge as the best quarterback in the division. And while a second consecutive trip to the NFC Championship game seems unlikely, who would have imagined it — or Brett Favre playing for the Jets in 2008 — last year?

Good/Bad. Just A Little Ugly. And Fearless NFL Predictions.
September 3, 2008

Time for some good/bad. You want ugly? How about the Brewers playing the Mets on Wednesday afternoon. The score is now 6-0 in the third. Maybe by the time I’ve finished this column things will turn around.

Good/bad. My son starting kindergarten this week. Good: Life goes on. And he’s clearly ready. He can color like a mother. Bad: I have only two memories of kindergarten. One is going to K Mart so my parents could buy my teacher peanuts for Christmas, which even at the age of five I thought was very cheap and very bizarre. The other is the time that a particularly rambunctious student grabbed a saw off of the class “workbench” and chased after another child. Why we had a workbench with real working tools in my kindergarten, I don’t know, but this was the mid-seventies. We didn’t have car seats, most of our clothes were highly flammable, and our lungs were constantly invaded by second-hand smoke being hacked out by everyone from our teachers to our parents to department store Santas. But hey, at least we got to grow up with a Sesame Street devoid of that irritating Elmo.

Good/bad. The UW sending out men’s basketball schedules on Wednesday. Good: Thanks to the recent deals between Charter, Time Warner, and the Big Ten Network, fans will be able to see the games this year. Bad: Are you kidding? The Brewers are leading the NLWild Card. Badger football has begun, and the Packer football season is only four days away. Not to mention the fall TV season and the presidential campaign. Who can even think about basketball right now?  Sorry, UW, but your timing is off on this one.

Good/bad: Fantasy football season. Good: An entertaining diversion and a good way to maintain interest in all NFL games, not just those of your favorite team. Bad: Hey, I do it, and I enjoy it, but you’ve got to have limits. If you find yourself distracted during work or during time with your kids because you can’t decide whether to start DeAngelo Williams or Earnest Graham, you have a problem.

Good/bad: Apparent fantasy value of Packers offensive players. Good: In my recent fantasy football draft, Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Donald Lee, and Ryan Grant were swiped up. Bad: Ryan Grant fell to me with the 20th pick overall, which surprised me (guess people are more worried than me about the hamstring), while Aaron Rodgers went completely undrafted. Hey, it’s not scientific, but in a draft where 20 quarterbacks were taken by mostly diehard Packer fans, the fact that Rodgers went undrafted must say something about fans’ confidence in him. Oh, and yes, Brett Favre went pretty early. And no, none of the other quarterbacks from the NFC North were drafted.

A day away from the regular season and I’ve yet to make my highly-anticipated NFL predictions? Well, I’d better rectify that now.

AFC North: It’s between the Steelers and Browns, but I’ve got the Steelers taking the division. The Browns all of a sudden could have a quarterback controversy on their hands, while the Steelersare simply loaded with talent. The Bengals will be bad and the Ravens will be downright awful. I’m talking Viva Laughlin bad. 

AFC West: Not even close. The Chargers by a mile. Bad news for fantasy players, as Norv Turner will have to decide when to start resting LT, Philip Rivers, Chris Chambers, et. al, by about the tenthweek after wrapping up their division. The Raiders, with upgrades on offense, will surprise, while the Chiefs will be on the bottom of nearly everyone’s power rankings all season. And

AFC South: I am almost ready to give the division to Jacksonville, but not quite. If Manning can be effective following knee surgery, the Colts will still rule the South — barely. If Jim Sorgi is necessarily awakened from his season-long slumber, the Titans could challenge Indianapolis for second place in what is top to bottom the best division in football.

AFC East: Will the Jets improve upon last year’s record with Brett Favre? At 4-12 a year ago, It would be kind of hard not to. But numbers aside, look for the teams to finish the same as last year: Patriots, Bills, Jets, Dolphins. The Jets will be closer to the Bills than to the Dolphins record-wise, but Favrewill end his career (again) unable to bring postseason football to the J-E-T-S. But hey, Favre’s play will give Regis something to talk about besides his weekly heart surgeries.

NFC East: The most overhyped division in football. Dallas wins it, but I’m not sold on any of the other teams. The Eagles, the Redskins, and the Giants — after a lousy offseason– will be ordinary. As ordinary as this year’s Big Brother houseguests. Although that Dan, or “Judas,” as Jerry calls him, or “Taken,” as his obviously paranoid girlfriend calls him, is wily.

NFC South: Man, the NFC is weak. Like The Cosby Show after Raven-Symone joined the show weak. Thank goodness for Elvin. Geoffrey Owens could bring the funny. But I digress. Watching any Cosby Show episodes is preferable to watching NFC South matchupsin 2008, but you have to go with Carolina. New Orleans still has too many questions on defense and I’m not convinced Jeremy Shockey is the answer to an inconsistent offense. The Falcons will be brutal.

NFC West: I like the Seahawksdefense, but I’m picking the Rams, with Steven Jackson healthy and Marc Bulger returning to form, to be the most-improved team in the league and to win the weak South. San Francisco continues to long for the days of relevance.

NFC North: Despite the apparent sexiness of picking the Vikings this season, I don’t see it. I still think the Packers, with a great defense, great receiving corps, Ryan Grant, and yes, solid if unspectacular quarterbacking play, win the division. The Lions, now that they’ve gotten rid of Mike Martz, could even challenge Minnesota for second place. The Bears will still stink.

AFC Wildcards:  Jacksonville and Tennessee. The AFC South is good.

NFC Wildcards: New Orleans and Seattle. Yes, I picked Carolina and St. Louis to win these divisions.

Super Bowl: New England over Dallas. Longer shot Super Bowl? Jacksonville over the Packers. But I wouldn’t bet my son’s college fund (which is currently about $1.32) on it.

(Oh, and the Brewers didn’t come back, losing 8-2. At least upcoming series against the Padres and the Reds should improve what has been a rotten start to September.)