Blown Opportunities

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.

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