Archive for October, 2008

Goin’ North
October 26, 2008

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.

  

Let’s Get Happy, People
October 22, 2008

Well, since it is the most entertaining thing on the Internet short of those cute videos of puppies falling asleep, I was re-reading my most recent blog entry today. It seemed angry. And sad. And brilliantly insightful. And funny. But negative. So today’s entry, to borrow a phrase from my brother in baldness, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser, is a “let’s get happy” list.

1. The Packers. OK, I’ll say it: I’m over the Brett Favre thing. Did the Packers do the right thing for their team in jettisoning Favre to New York? Would the Packers have a better record if Favre was under center? Eh, who cares? I’m done with it. All I know is, Aaron Rodgers has been this season what Favre  was for most of his 16 years with the Packers: The best, most reliable player on the team. With the exception of the Tampa Bay game in which he hurt his shoulder, he has been near brilliant, more than justifying the organization’s faith in him.

Where there has been trouble this season has been outside of the quarterback position, namely the running game and the defense. Which is why Sunday’s 34-14 beatdown of the Indianapolis Colts was such a mind-blowing good time trip through tangerine trees and marmalade skies. The balance of the offensive attack was terrific. Ryan Grant, while still getting a low yards-per-carry average (Sunday’s was 4.3), is definitely hitting his stride and looks to mirror last season’s late-season heroics this year. The pass defense was incredible, obviously frustrating the wizened veteran Payton Manning and his receivers (Wayne and Harrison a combined 4 catches for 35 yards?). (Oh, did I mention the two interceptions returned for touchdowns?) The run defense was pretty good, allowing only three yards a carry, which, combined with the Packers’ big lead, was good enough to make Manning throw, which plays right into Green Bay’s trap.

If Rodgers maintains his early-season form (and why wouldn’t he?), if Grant continues to improve, if the defense gets healthier, look out. With only one very scary looking game left on the schedule (November 2, the first game out of the bye week, at Tennessee), I could easily see the Packers quickly regaining their status as one of the NFL’s elite teams, a status they lost with that three-game losing streak.

There was something else I really liked in Sunday’s game. In the second quarter, down 10-7 and facing a 4-and-1 at midfield, Colts head coach Tony Dungy, to the obvious disgust of Manning, elected to punt. On the very next drive, the Packers are faced with the same 4-and-1 from almost an identical spot on the field, and they go for it. Grant picks up seven yards for the first down and Grant eventually scores his first touchdown of the season on the same drive to make it Green Bay 17, Colts 7. That’s the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. McCarthy has faith in his playmakers, and they rewarded him big time on Sunday. Clearly the most impressive win so far this season for a team that looks to have many more impressive wins coming.

2. The rest of the NFC North. The Bears look pretty good, particularly quarterback Kyle Orton. But they have injury and defense issues. The Vikings have improved since benching Tavaris Jackson, but their special teams and pass defense are atrocious. The Lions are awful and have a killer schedule coming up. I say print up those “Green Bay Packer 2008 NFC North Champion” hats and shirts now and thank me later.

3. The World Series starts tonight. OK, the Brewers aren’t in it, but the Phillies are. And don’t you feel good about the team that beat the Brewers being there? Well, maybe that’s a stretch for some, but I do. Some people have complained that the series lacks the appeal of Cubs/Red Sox, Dodgers/Red Sox, or even cast of 90210/Red Sox, but I dunno. It’s still the two league champions going at it, and what makes it even more relevant for Wisconsin fans is there isn’t even a Packer (or even a Bear or Viking) game this week to conflict with it. And since everyone’s already given up on the football Badgers . . . oops, that doesn’t really jive with my “let’s get happy” premise.

I’m rooting for the Phillies. Why? They’re the underdog. They haven’t won a Series (their only championship) since 1980. They’ve lost the most games of any team in the history of Major League Baseball. They have a great fan base, finishing fifth in the majors this year for attendance. Oh, and they beat the Brewers, and I subscribe to the previously-mentioned notion of wanting the team that beat my team to go all the way.

But I believe the Rays will win. I think they have a better overall lineup and better overall starting pitching. They play in the American League, which is simply a better league — I think that either Boston or Tampa could beat the Phillies. They have home-field advantage. The Phillies have had a week off, which is too long. And the Rays simply feel like “that” team to me. While I’m done expecting them to “choke” or wither under the bright lights of postseason play, I do doubt their bullpen, so in tight individual games, I give a slight edge to Philadelphia.

But frankly, I’m just hoping for a good series. At least six games. Because we haven’t had a six-game series since 2003, with three sweeps in the last four years. And while game one of Rays/Phillies won’t get the ratings of game one of cast of Road Rules Challenge/Red Sox, if this series can get to 2-2, the matchup will suddenly become very appealing indeed.  And then FOX, MLB, and baseball fans everywhere will be happy. Because isn’t that what it’s really all about?

Free Fallin’
October 19, 2008

In my last blog entry posted on the Friday before Wisconsin’s 38-16 loss at Iowa, I remarked that I would not be surprised to see the Badgers win a close game, but I would also not be surprised to see Iowa beat Wisconsin by 20 points.

Color me not surprised.

The Badgers continued their freefall on Saturday by getting thoroughly dominated by the Iowa Hawkeyes. I want to finish that statement by including the words “in every aspect,” but I can’t. A cursory look at the final statistics makes clear that Wisconsin outgained Iowa 409-375, won the time of possession battle 32:56 to 27:04, and gained 19 first downs to Iowa’s 17.

You can learn about as much from the game by reading those numbers as you can learn about raising children by reading a book of “Hi & Lois” comic strips. The numbers largely reflect a stretch from mid-second quarter to mid-third quarter when Wisconsin went on three mediocre field-goal-producing drives while Iowa stalled on four straight drives. During that time, Wisconsin gained some momentum in cutting Iowa’s lead to 14-9. Also, 130 of Wisconsin’s yards were gained, including their only touchdown, after Iowa had taken a 38-9 lead, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz had pulled the majority of his starters, and Iowa’s players had long been discussing who was going to run over to the Badgers’ sideline to snatch the Heartland Trophy.  

Let’s look at the keys to this demoralizing loss, which sends the Badgers to 0-4 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1996. (That year, the Badgers finished 3-5 in the Big Ten and 8-5 overall, including a victory in the Copper Bowl. They’ll be hard pressed to match that this year. But more on that later.)

  1. The Dustin Sherer experiment failed. Here again the numbers don’t tell the whole story: Sherer finished 17-of-34 for 161 yards and two interceptions. Not great numbers, but they don’t accurately reflect how poorly he threw the football. Precious few of Sherer’s passes were on-target, and while Garrett Graham (6 catches for 74 yards), Travis Beckum (4 catches for 41 yards), and Issac Anderson (3 catches for 48 yards) made some nice plays, too many times Sherer’s throws were simply uncatchable. Sherer is clearly Andrew Ridgely to Evridge’s George Michael. Both stink, but Evridge stinks far less. Bielema needs to give Evridge the starting job back next week.
  2. Sophomore quarterback Scott Tolzien started the final two drives. See number 1.
  3. Wisconsin can’t cotain big playmakers. Last week it was the triple-headed monster of Darryl Clark, Evan Royster, and Deon Butler that shredded them. This week it was running back Shonn Greene, who rushed for a ridiculous 220 yards on 25 carries for four touchdowns. Wisconsin defenders trying to tackle Greene looked like my sixteen-month-old daughter trying to open up a box of Ritz Bits: They both swing their arms at their desired object for a while before simply giving up. Greene’s second touchdown run in the second quarter in particular was an embarrassing string of missed tackles.
  4. Wisconsin needs to win the turnover battle. More significant than Wisconsin’s three turnovers on Saturday was the fact that they didn’t create any. They are now minus-2 on turnovers for the season. Simply put, they need the field position help and momentum that turnovers usually create.
  5. Wisconsin isn’t playing “Wisconsin football” as well as other teams in the conference. At the half, with his team down only 14-3, Bret Bielema talked about having to play “Wisconsin football” in order to win the game. Last time I checked, “Wisconsin football” involved winning the line of scrimmage battles, running the football, stopping the run, and creating turnovers. Sounds good, but when your opponents routinely beat you at your own game, you have to be able to create plays in your passing game. Last year, Tyler Donovan could do that. Evridge and now Sherer have proven they can’t. Saturday, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi only threw for 114 yards, but Iowa won because they dominated the line of scrimmage and ran the football insanely well. In short, they out-Wisconsined Wisconsin. Wisconsin can’t play their game and they certainly can’t play the wide-open passing game. That spells trouble.
  6. Unnecessary celebrations. OK. Not a key to the game, but it bugged me when Zach Brown scored the touchdown that made the game 38-16 — with his team on the short end — and celebrated like he just scored the winning touchdown in the national championship game. Give the ball to the official, go back to the bench, and hang your head like a player who plays for a team in the midst of a freefall. ‘Cause you are.

At some point in the game, the Big Ten Network ran an ad for the upcoming film Saw V. My first reaction was, “Who wants to see more of that?” After Saturday’s second straight lopsided loss, I’m sure a lot of fans are having the same reaction about Badger football. Looking at the upcoming schedule and looking at how the Badgers are playing, I can only see two sure victories — at Indiana and the finale against Cal Poly, which would put the Badgers at 1-7 in the Big Ten and 5-7 overall, which would keep them out of the bowl picture. For them to win next week’s Homecoming game against Illinois (a scarily good offensive team) and the Big Ten finale against Minnesota (overachieving so far), they will have to tackle better, block better, and run the ball more effectively. And that’s just for starters. Running the ball will be a lot easier if P.J. Hill, who left the Iowa game in the second quarter with a knee injury, can return healthy. If they can, they can maybe get back to so-called “Wisconsin football” and maybe become watchable again. One thing is for sure: No one wants to watch anymore of what they’re playing now.

Is it Badger basketball season yet?

Eight Games To Watch This Weekend
October 17, 2008

Call me old and stodgy, but I still roll like it was 1998. We have an iPod and an iPhone at home, but I prefer to listen to music on CDs. Blu-Ray intrigues me, but I don’t plan on ditching DVD anytime soon. And I still donate a huge chunk of my time to watching primetime network television. On a TV. (And not even a HDTV at that.)

I’m committed to so many shows that by this time of the fall, I’m already behind. My TiVo (OK, I don’t totally roll like Clinton is still the POTUS) serves as a daily reminder that my TV habit is more than I can handle. And it only gets worse in the new year when 24 and Lost return.

Why am I pontificating on all this in a sports blog? Because often it is watching sports that gets me behind. Just last night, I put off catching up on 90210 (no, that’s not a joke, and please producers, we need more Joe E. Tata) because of the Red Sox’s improbable but still not totally surprising comeback against the Rays.

But the wacky sexual exploits of those beautiful-but-tortured kids at West Beverly High will undoubtedly have to wait a few more days as I have a weekend of sports on TV to look forward to. Here’s what I’ll be checking out:

1. Red Sox at Rays (Saturday and possibly Sunday, 7 PM, TBS). What’s the only thing less surprising than Pacman Jones getting in further trouble? No, not the fact that the car driving 45 in the left-hand lane of the Beltline is driven by someone old enough to be able to offer a first-hand comparison of today’s economy with the Great Depression. It’s that the Red Sox staged yet another comeback, this time rallying for eight runs in three innings to beat Tampa 8-7, forcing a Game 6 in Tampa Saturday night. I still like Tampa to hold off the now-surging Sox, and not because Dustin Pedroia has taken to looking like Mose Schrute, Dwight’s cousin and co-owner of Schrute Farm. I’m pulling for Boston because the disinterested Tampa fans don’t deserve a World Series-bound team.

[Sidenote: I haven’t taken a scientific poll, but I would guess that most Brewers fans are also pulling for Boston. Here’s the general logic: Why do we wait years and years for the Brewers to grow and get better when a team like Tampa can go from worst to first in one season? It’s like the frustration Vikings fans felt watching Matt Ryan of the Falcons step in looking like a seasoned veteran almost immediately when they’ve been stuck with Tavaris Jackson showing little to no improvement game after game.]

2. Colts at Packers (Sunday, 3:15 PM, WISC). Are either of these teams any good? The Colts have largely struggled to a 3-2 record while the Packers ended a three-game losing streak last week to stay in a three-way tie atop the NFC North. Here’s the problem: The Colts destroyed the league’s top-rated defense (Baltimore) last week, while the Packers rather unconvincingly beat a very bad Seahawks team. While Aaron Rodgers has been terrific, Peyton Manning, after two great games, appears ready to re-assert himself as the best quarterback in the league. Neither team has been great on defense and both teams have running back issues: Joseph Addai is out for the Colts and Ryan Grant has been plain lousy. But I like Dominic Rhodes to play well for the Colts more than I like Ryan Grant to get out of his funk — even though I’ll continue to start Grant on my fantasy team. And as impressed as I’ve been with Rodgers, I can’t give him the nod over Manning. I look for the Colts to win what could be a wild one.

3. Wisconsin at Iowa (Saturday, 11 AM, Big Ten Network). Remember Charter customers’ year-long struggle to get the Big Ten network added to their lineup? Well, if the Badgers play Saturday like they did last week, I expect Charter customers to call and ask for the channel’s removal. Coming off an embarrassing beatdown at Camp Randall, Wisconsin is looking to make a statement. Unfortunately, that statement might be “Look out, Cal Poly!” Simply put, this is not a good matchup for the Badgers. For a team struggling on offense over the last 2.5 games, Iowa is fifth in the nation in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense. After Allan Evridge’s regression, you know Bret Bielema wants to put the game in the hands of P.J. Hill and John Clay, but Iowa allows less than one hundred yards a week on the ground. If he starts (and that appears doubtful), Evridge will have to consistently make plays for the Badgers to salvage anything out of this season. I would not be surprised to see Wisconsin man up and beat Iowa in a hard-fought, hard-hitting game. Then again, I would not be surprised to see Iowa win by 20 and see Evridge dropped to third in the QB rotation. Although it’s not yet Halloween, this game scares me.

4. Ohio State at Michigan State (Saturday, 2:30 PM, WKOW). The biggest Big Ten game of the weekend. Can either of these teams challenge Penn State for the Big Ten title? Michigan State’s been the most impressive of the two, and thanks largely to the Spartans’ Javon Ringer, I like Mark Dantonio to get his first win over Jim Tressel.

5. Michigan at Penn State. (Saturday, 3:30 PM, ESPN). In most years, this would be a Clash Of The Titans game. Now, it’s anything but. Penn State by 50.

6. Vikings at Bears. (Sunday, 12 noon, WMSN). If it’s true that in the NFL, you’re only as good as your starting quarterback, then neither of these teams are very good. The Bears have been less pathetic on offense, so I like the Bears to take over the division lead as all three contenders head into their bye week.

7. Wisconsin at Denver (Friday and Saturday, only Friday’s game televised at 7:30 PM, FSNW). Is it too early for hockey? Maybe, but what else you going to watch Friday night?

8. Bucks vs. Warriors (Friday, 10:30 PM, ESPN2). Is it too early for NBA basketball? Maybe, but the game’s in China, so that’s interesting. Plus, the Bucks, despite their 1-4 preseason record so far, come into this season with a lot of hope. Plus, you’ve probably already given up on the football Badgers. So time to rally around the Bucks!

The Band Is Back And The Badgers Are In Trouble
October 12, 2008

In my five-year-old son’s soccer league, there is a parent-coach of a team who, apparently fed up with his team’s performance, has taken to helping out his kindergarten-age players with a pass here or a blocked goal shot there. It probably sounds worse than it is, since his team still gets beat pretty handily even with the extra help.

The Wisconsin Badgers needed someone like that parent Saturday night against Penn State. Perhaps one of the refs could have tripped up a Nittany Lion defender or knocked down one of quarterback Darryll Clark’s passes. But, like the soccer parent’s attempts to help his team, such assistance probably wouldn’t have made much difference.

On what was a beautiful 74-degree clear night in Madison, the Badgers turned in one of their ugliest performances at Camp Randall, a 48-7 shellacking at the hands of 7-0 Penn State. It was Bret Bielema’s second consecutive home loss (following a streak of 16 victories), and the worst Wisconsin football home loss since 1989, when the Don Morton-led Badgers lost to Miami 51-3.

The convincing win moved Penn State up to number three in both college football polls, while the beatdown moved Wisconsin to the bottom of the Big Ten, where only Indiana, by virtue of a worse overall record, is beneath them.

The game basically solidified that both teams, as former NFL head coach Dennis Green famously ranted after a close loss, “are who we thought they were.” Penn State is very, very good. Wisconsin is not.

Let’s look at Wisconsin’s season once the games got supposedly difficult. The Badgers pulled out a tough win against a ranked Fresno State team four weeks ago which at the time seemed impressive. Since then the Bulldogs have barely won three games against bad teams and lost to an average Hawaii team. Suddenly that Wisconsin victory doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Two weeks ago the Badgers lost a mistake-filled game to Michigan, which has gone on to get creamed by Illinois and beaten by — are you ready for this — the Toledo Rockets, both at Michigan Stadium. Last week, the Badgers lost to Ohio State, a team that struggled mightily yesterday (only 222 offensive yards) to beat Purdue at home 16-3.

In short, Wisconsin’s three victories aren’t that impressive, and two of their three losses are embarrassing. Hopes of a 2008 Big Ten title are about as realistic as the Brewers’ hopes of a 2008 World Series championship. Going into what was supposed to be the easier portion of their schedule, nothing looks easy now — especially as teams that smell blood in the water will gear up for now-winnable games against a team that coming into the season was expected to be a national championship contender. Or, as the ESPN announcers stated about Wisconsin’s season-ending game against Cal Poly, “no one will care. Except for the Cal Poly Mustangs.”

Outside of the lopsidedness of the final score, the biggest story to emerge from this game has to be the benching of quarterback Allan Evridge for Dustin Sherer in the third quarter. At the time of his benching, Evridge — who has been frustratingly inconsistent all season long, echoing his coaches’ less-than-ringing endorsement of him as the starter — was 2-for-10 for 50 yards, one interception and one fumble. The fumble was arguably the game’s pivotal play, as Wisconsin had just cut Penn State’s lead to 17-7, forced a punt, and gotten the ball back with under two minutes in the first half. Instead of driving for a possible field goal to cut into the lead further going into halftime, Evridge’s fumble on the Wisconsin 16-yard line enabled Penn State to get a quickie insurance touchdown, bringing the halftime score to 24-7 and taking the home crowd out of the game for good. Evridge now has eight turnovers in the three Big Ten games.

So will Evridge get the opportunity to make more miscues or will Sherer be named the new starter? Well, Sherer (whose entrance did provoke the biggest cheers of the second half, if not the entire night) did provide a spark, but a short-lived one: His first three passes were completions, but the third one was a completion to Lydell Sargeant, who plays cornerback for Penn State. Sherer also lost a fumble, which came on his second drive at the helm. So Bielema will likely return to Evridge for next week’s game at Iowa (who beat Indiana 45-9 on Saturday), but look for Evridge to be on a very short leash.

Defensively, the Badgers took several steps back from their fairly impressive game last week. Specifically, the Badgers hardly got any pressure on Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark, and he consistently had time to find the open man — and there were a lot of them, as Clark connected with seven different receivers for 244 yards and one touchdown. Cornerback Allen Langford was particularly pedestrian in pass coverage after a stellar game against Ohio State. Unfortunately, the defense was consistently put in bad situations thanks to inept play on offense (particularly, again, in the passing game) and in special teams. Punter Brad Nortman had a lousy night, with only 29 net yards per punt, while special teams coverage was horrendous, allowing 31 yards per punt return and 24 yards per kickoff return. Of course the biggest special teams play of the night was Derrick Williams’s 63-yard untouched punt return for a touchdown. The return, which followed a spectacularly lame three-and-out, zero-yard, 31 second Wisconsin “drive,” made the score 17-0 and was the first real indication that it was to be a very long night for the Badgers and their fans.

The lone bright spot of the night was Wisconsin’s 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. The drive was the only time that the Badgers were able to consistently run the ball effectively and the only time that Evridge seemed to be in command, as the quarterback had a 19-yard rush, a 5-yard diving TD rush, and a 42-yard strike to Travis Beckum (which made up 84 percent of Evridge’s passing yards on the night). The leadership that Evridge showed on that drive is what the Badgers need more of if they are to salvage anything out of this disappointing 2008 campaign.

Badgers: Band (And Big Ten Title Hopes) On The Run
October 5, 2008

Saturday was a tough day for Bret Bielema.

Not only did the Los Angeles Dodgers finish off an unlikely sweep of his beloved Chicago Cubs, but more importantly (at least we hope he thinks so), his Wisconsin Badgers football team lost its second straight Big Ten conference game, and the second one after leading at halftime, to Ohio State. Buckeye quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s impressive 11-yard touchdown run with 1:08 left put OSU on top 20-17, and an Allan Evridge interception on the first play of the ensuing drive sealed the Badgers’ doom.

But whereas the Cubs played horribly — OK, choked — against an inferior team, Wisconsin lost — and just barely — to a better, more talented team. There are no good losses — especially in college football conference play — but Wisconsin played infinitely better Saturday than they had a week ago at Michigan.

The unfortunate parallel to draw between the Cubs’ and Badgers’ losses on Saturday — and this is the last one I’ll make — is this: The Cubs’ season is now over, and the Badgers’ hopes for a Big Ten conference title are just about over, and could be definitively over after next week’s game against a very good Penn State team.  

But despite Penn State’s unbeaten season, I wouldn’t concede next week’s game just yet. Because the Badgers played Ohio State close. How close? OSU outgained Wisconsin by one measly yard — 327 to 326. The Badgers gained two more first downs than the Buckeyes, 19 to 17. The average gain per play was 5.5 yards to 5.1 yards in favor of Ohio State. OSU outgained Bucky on the ground by four yards while Wisconsin outgained the Buckeyes three yards through the air. The Time of posession battle was within a minute, with OSU holding the ball for 30:32 over Wisconsin’s 29:28.

With such a close game, you have to look for certain plays that made the difference, and there were several, all favoring Ohio State. If Travis Beckum gets out of bounds on a sideline pass — and Bielema clearly thought he had — near the end of the first half, maybe Wisconsin has time to score a touchdown instead of settling for a chip-shot 20-yard field goal as time expired. If P.J. Hill and Isaac Anderson don’t drop easy receptions on the first drive of the third quarter, maybe Wisconsin maintains its momentum coming off a huge second quarter; instead they have to give the ball back to Ohio State, who then goes on a 10-play, 77-yard drive and ties up the game with a field goal. If Ohio State doesn’t recover either of their two fumbles on their last touchdown drive, the Badgers either score and put the game out of reach or at the very least eat up some valuable clock with their running game, which had just killed — particularly the runs by John Clay — Ohio State on the previous drive. If the Wisconsin backfield doesn’t leave Brian Hartline wide open on a crucial 3rd-and-6 on that last drive, resulting in a 19-yard reception, Ohio State would have had to punt the ball away instead of continuing what would turn out to be the winning drive. And, of course, if Allan Evridge doesn’t throw a terrible interception with 1:03 to play, maybe Wisconsin drives the ball enough to get a field goal and force the game into overtime.

That’s a lot of plays, any one of which may have made the difference between a close loss and a close victory.

So what went right? The defense, particularly corner Allen Langford, who had one interception and was great on pass coverage all night, and safety Jay Valai, who forced two fumbles and had seven total tackles, played very well. Unfortunately, the defense was completely pushed around on Ohio State’s two touchdown drives, which happened to be their first and their last drives of the game. On those two drives alone, Ohio State gained half of their yardage for the day and scored more than half of their points.

Offensively, Travis Beckum is back and better than ever, hauling in nearly half (six) of Evridge’s thirteen completions for 60 yards. The running game was solid too, particulalry John Clay, who ran right through the heart of the Buckeye defense for 69 yards on only ten carries, and David Gilreath, who scampered for 43 yards on several end-around plays. Special mention must be made also of a stunning, 15-play, 91-yard drive that ate up 8:16 of the second quarter and resulted in Wisconsin’s first touchdown, a 9-yard Evridge pass to Mickey Turner. That sort of drive usually kills the spirit of opposing teams — but Ohio State is simply too good for that.

People that thought Wisconsin would win Saturday’s game pointed to the Badgers’ 16-game home win streak, which was the second-longest in the nation. But another, perhaps more impressive streak was on the line last night. Coming into Saturday, Ohio State had won 11 straight Big Ten games on the road. Considering how tough it is to win on the road in conference play, that’s astounding. Oh, and it’s now 12. Ohio State now seems far removed from that 35-3 drubbing at the hands of USC back on September 13, whereas Wisconsin — out of the AP poll entirely and 24th in the USA Today poll despite basically a good performance on Saturday — now seems far removed from that preseason number five ranking.

Band On The Tube: Much was made of the Wisconsin marching band being suspended for Saturday night’s game while an investigation into hazing, alcohol abuse, and sexual misconduct is ongoing. While the band was absent from appearing at Camp Randall, they were noticeably present on ABC’s telecast. In a laughably misplaced promo, the UW marching band was heavily featured in a University of Wisconsin “forward thinking” image spot that aired near the end of the first quarter. Hazing, alcohol abuse, and sexual misconduct? I doubt that’s the type of image that the University wants to promote. A bad oversight that should have been caught before air.

It’s official:The Brewers are done. Gone in four games and gone before Sabathia could redeem himself in game five. More on this soon.