OK, before I get into the Badger football team’s impressive Homecoming win over Illinois, I have to ask what the heck is Major League Baseball thinking? Starting a World Series game at 10:06 p.m. local time (9:06 p.m. in Madison)? Does the league realize that the World Series is kind of a big deal and not the kind of event you want to have unfold when many fans, particularly younger fans, are asleep? The game ended at 1:47 a.m. in Philadelphia — a time when most television stations have long since given up their airwaves to Ronco Showtime Rotisserie infomercials and shows hosted by Byron Allen. (And the end time could have been much later had the game, tied going into the bottom of the ninth, had gone to extras.) Undoubtedly the game should have been called and postponed to Sunday night. It’s not as if going a day later in the season would matter one bit. Major League Baseball showed its scheduling incompetence earlier in the season when it forced Houston to play meaningful games against the Cubs in Milwaukee during Hurricane Ike. Last night’s scheduling madness was less heartless, but equally moronic.
You know who else is moronic? Those people calling for the firing of UW head football coach Bret Bielema following the team’s 0-4 start in the Big Ten. Sure, I was tough on the Badgers too during the losing streak, but anyone watching the four losses could sense that the problems lied more with the players than with the coaches. Coaches don’t miss tackles or throw errant passes. But coaches can inspire a team to play better than maybe they think they can play, and that’s obviously what happened on Saturday as the Badgers played undoubtedly their best game of the season in beating Illinois 27-17 at Camp Randall.
The victory was such a remarkable change from last week’s 38-16 pounding at Iowa that I took a look back at what I had written to be the keys to that loss to see if there were parallels to Saturday’s win. And there certainly were.
1. Last week I wrote that the Dustin Sherer experiment had failed. Well, that changed Saturday, when Sherer showed quick growth and maturity I haven’t seen since The Beatles followed up Help! with Rubber Soul. Sherer accounted for all three of Wisconsin’s touchdowns, throwing for two and running for one, was far more accurate (his 12-of-22 included a couple drops), was extremely poised in the face of constant, constantpressure (he was sacked four times and hit at least twice that), and most importantly, did not throw any interceptions. (He did fumble on the game’s opening drive but that turned out to be inconsequential.) Sherer has now found very nice timing between himself and his receivers, particularly tight end Garrett Graham (six catches for 79 yards, including a 45-yard catch on a key fourth-quarter 80-yard scoring drive that took 5:45 off the clock) and David Gilreath (three catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns, including a 49-yard score that was Wisconsin’s longest play of the season). Credit Bielema and his staff for not panicking and sticking with Sherer, because they clearly saw something in him that I and most others had missed.
2. Last week I wrote that Wisconsin had trouble containing big playmakers, especially true after they had surrendered 220 yards and four touchdowns to Iowa running back Shonn Greene. Illinois, being a team full of big playmakers, and having the most potent offense in the Big Ten, looked to be a match-up nightmare for the Badgers. But the Badgers defense came up huge on Saturday, holding Illinois quarterback Juice Williams far below his season average of 346 total yards per game, allowing Juice only a modest 221 yards passing and, more impressively, only four net yards rushing. Running back Jason Ford was coming off a 172-yard, three-touchdown game against Indiana; the Badgers held him to 47 yards and no touchdowns. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn had four straight games in which he went well over 100 yards receiving; Wisconsin stopped him at two catches for 47 yards. You know that old cliché about not being able to stop an offensive force, but only hoping to contain them? With 309 yards and only 17 points, I’d say Wisconsin did more than just contain Illinois.
3. Last week I wrote that Wisconsin needed to create turnovers. Outside of Sherer’s impressive play, undoubtedly the biggest factor in Saturday’s victory was the three interceptions that the Badgers forced. The interceptions did more than just get the potent Illinois offense off the field (though the importance of that can’t be underestimated), but frustrated Williams (only one pick was really his fault) and gave the defense a swagger that hasn’t been seen since the start of conference play. Huge, huge stuff.
4. Last week I wrote that Wisconsin, because it was falling behind by such big margins, couldn’t play “Wisconsin football.” Let’s see . . . a near 2-to-1 advanage in rushing yards, an efficient 174 yards passing, a +2 turnover advantage, and a five-minute advantage in time of possession? Sounds like “Wisconsin football” to me.
Looking for bad news? Well, Travis Beckum left the game with a left ankle injury after getting rolled over on by John Clay. P.J. Hill, nursing an injury of his own, only ran three times for nine yards. The immediate future of those two stars is unclear as of this writing. And not to minimize those losses, but both Garrett Graham and John Clay (and Zach Brown) are more than capable replacements for Beckum and Hill. You’d rather face the remainder of the season with them, but it appears the Badgers won’t go completely off the rails without them.
So are the Badgers set for another late-season push similar to the one that they had in 1996 when they started 0-4 in Big Ten play and rallied to finish 3-5 in the conference? Well, next week’s contest at 7-2 Michigan State will be tough, Indiana may not be the pushover they were thought of before Saturday’s win, and Minnesota, at 7-1, continues to surprise. But things sure look a lot brighter now than they did a week ago.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to take a nap. Those middle-of-the-night World Series games are killing me.