Archive for November, 2008

What’s Ahead For Packers, NFC North?
November 28, 2008

Had it been April Fool’s and not Thanksgiving, it would have made sense.

This week I received in my e-mail a news release so ridiculous in its obviousness that it might as well have been sub-titled “People Prefer Drinking Soda To Being Stabbed” or “Babies Under The Age Of Three Months Found To Be Unable To Solve Economic Crisis” or “Impressionist Frank Caliendo Annoying As Hell.”

The press release in question was titled “Poll Finds Favre Favorability Plummets In Wisconsin.”

Gee, you think?

The poll, conducted among 600 Wisconsin residents, compared Favre’s favorability in December 2007 and November 2008. Shockingly, in December 2007, when Favre was guiding the Packers to a 13-3 season and setting the NFL record for touchdown passes, 73 percent of the state’s residents liked him. (Surely the other 27 percent were Bears and Vikings fans.) Now that Favre is having similar success with a different team, only 48 percent of state residents like him. (Surely that number would be lower if Favre was leading the Vikings to an 8-3 record and not the AFC’s Jets.)

(What’s more fascinating than the loss of Favre love in America’s Dairyland is the number of people among the 600 polled that had apparently never heard of Favre. 45 people. How do you live in Wisconsin and not know who Favre is, especially given that this summer Favre’s un-retirement was the most widely covered story since Watergate?)

What’s less obvious than Favre’s drop in Cheesehead popularity is how the NFC North will shake out this season. With the Bears, Vikings, and Packers all within a game of each other with five games to play (as of this writing), the division seems to be up for grabs. What is clear, though, is that the number of teams the NFC North will send to the playoffs will equal the number of hits that Katrina and the Waves had. That’d be one for those of you still a little groggy from overindulging on Thanksgiving. So winning the NFC North is a must for any of the three teams in contention.

Let’s see who’s got the best shot.

The Vikings have the toughest remaining schedule of the three teams, as they have to take on the NFC North division-leading Bears, the NFC West division-leading Arizona Cardinals, the NFC East divison-leading New York Giants, and the 7-4 Atlanta Falcons. The good news for Minnesota? The Giants, who the Vikings play in the final week of the season, should have their division wrapped up and might rest their starters. The bad news for Minnesota? Their other game comes at Detroit, and if you believe like I believe that no team — even a team as bad as Detroit — will go 0-16, then that match-up suddenly looks scary for Brad Childress’s team.

The Vikings are also faced with the possible suspensions of Kevin and Pat Williams and the continuing underwhelming (though still better than Tavaris Jackson) play of Gus Frerotte. Should the Williamses get suspended (and they could be as soon as the Monday after the Bears game), than the Vikings would have inept pass defense, inept run defense, inept pass offense, and inept special teams. Not the way to win a division.

After a strong (but short) 2-0 start, the Packers have lost six of nine and have been head-scratchingly inconsistent, mixing strong games against Indianapolis and Chicago with awful games against Minnesota and especially New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers is the key to this inconsistency, as he has  sometimes been brilliant in a “Brett Favre Who?” kind of way and has sometimes been awful in a “Looks Worse Than Brett Somers In A Bikini” kind of way. Two things that have been consistent is that the Packers are playing much better at home than on the road and that they can’t stop the run. The good news? The Packers play three of their last five at home. The bad news? Four of their remaining five opponents (save Detroit) have above-average run offenses.   

Despite the fact that only two remaining teams on the Packers’ schedule have winning records, the matchups concern me. As does their inconsistent play. As does the fact that the Bears and Vikings play this Sunday, meaning that if Green Bay loses to Carolina on Sunday, the Packers will be two games back with four to play. This team is the most talented team in the division. This team is also in grave danger of missing the postseason.

Hard to believe that a team that the Packers throughly whipped 37-3 just two weeks ago could win the division, but the Bears, especially if they can get past the Vikings on Sunday night, appear headed to do just that. They have a nice three-game home stretch coming up against teams that have struggled all season (Jacksonville) or struggled on the road (Saints, Packers) and finish off at Houston. The play of Kyle Orton and Matt Forte have been two of the biggest surprises of the season.  The defense hasn’t been great, but it’s been mostly adequate (except late in games, which has been the team’s downfall this season). 

The Bears are 6-5, but could easily be 9-2 had they not let three games get away from them late (losses to Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta). Their only bad game was against Green Bay. I could easily see them losing to Minnesota on Sunday and then running the table and finishing with a record of 10-6, which is either good enough for third place in the NFC East or first place in the NFC North. Luckily for the Bears, they play in the NFC North. But you knew that. But did you know that Brett Favre isn’t as popular among Packer fans as he used to be? Astonishing . . .

Kicks Just Keep Getting Harder To Find
November 23, 2008

Saturday — the final day of the conference’s regular season — was blowout day in the Big Ten.

Ohio State ripped Michigan 42-7. Purdue crushed Indiana 62-10. Rose Bowl-bound Penn State cruised by Michigan State 48-19. Iowa embarrassed Minnesota 55-0. The closest conference game was a 17-point Northwestern victory over Illinois in which the Wildcats never trailed.

Looking at the day’s schedule, one would have thought that the Big Ten team with the easiest match-up was the Wisconsin Badgers, who were taking on the Cal Poly Mustangs of the Football Championship Subdivision at home.

But the game was anything but easy for Wisconsin, who eked out a 36-35 overtime victory.

To be blunt, Wisconsin should have lost this game. For being Wisconsin’s MVP, Bret Bielema should send Cal Poly kicker Andrew Gardner a sympathy card and a Chevy truck. Heck, he should send him three Chevy trucks — one for every extra point he missed.

Those crucial missed extra points, including one midway through the fourth quarter that helped Wisconsin stay within one possession of tying the game (which they did), and one in overtime that allowed Wisconsin to win it (which they did), were the deciding factors in the game.

Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson has already said the right things to the media. Oh, you can’t point to any one reason why the game turned out the way it did and a conversion here or a stoppage there was just as important as  the missed extra points.

Forget it. The bottom line is, points are the bottom line. Gardner converts on those gimme points, the Mustangs pull off the upset, giving Bret Bielema his most embarrassing home loss of his brief head coaching career.

Maybe Bielema should send Gardner three Corvettes instead. And Erin Andrews’s phone number. Wait, that was just a rumor.

What wasn’t a rumor was how good a team Cal Poly was. They came into Saturday’s game ranked first in the FCS in points per game, rushing yards per game, and total yards per game. They were 8-1 on the year, beating their opponents by an average of 24 points a game. But surely they would wither in the face of Wisconsin, their first Big Ten opponent in their history, and surely they would succumb to the pressure of playing at Camp Randall, where the Badgers — well, until this season, anyway — almost never lose.

Not only did the Mustangs not wither or succumb to the Badgers, but they beat them at their own game. Facing a team whose offense notoriously emphasizes running the football and controlling the clock, Cal Poly held the ball for a sick 39:59 (to Wisconsin’s 20:01 — no clock in overtime), and gained a whopping 276 yards on the ground — the most the Badgers gave up all season. Some bizarre things have to happen for a team to gain that much ground and control that much clock and get a special teams touchdown (as Cal Poly did on a punt return in the second quarter) and still lose the game. Fortunately for Wisconsin, they did:

  • As his proud father looked on, Badger receiver Nick Toon was able to make a circus catch off a deflection in the end zone just before halftime to complete a quick four-play, 73-yard, :28 drive that brought Wisconsin to within 20-14. 
  • Midway through the fourth, with the Badgers down 29-21, receiver David GIlreath appeared to fumble a ball that took a long roll before eventually hitting the pylon in the end zone, which would have resulted in a touchback and Mustangs’ ball. But an official review of the play ruled that Gilreath never had posession, and the Badgers’ offense remained on the field.
  • On Wisconsin’s final scoring drive of regulation, one of Dustin Sherer’s few bad passes on the day could have easily been intercepted and returned for a touchdown if not for a heads-up play by Issac Anderson, Sherer’s intended receiver. Instead of finding themselves down by two scores late, Wisconsin finished the drive with a touchdown and two-point conversion (both courtesy of P.J. Hill) to tie.
  • On Cal Poly’s final drive of the game, they moved the ball down to Wisconsin’s 29-yard line to set up for a potential game-winning field goal with only eight seconds left in regulation. But because Ellerson team had lost confidence (and rightly so) in kicker Gardner, he sent in punter Jake West to attempt the 46-yarder. Ellerson would have done better to send in music superstar Kanye West, as the kick fell embarrassingly short.
  • Oh, and did I mention the three missed extra points? On a team that until Saturday had gone 54-of-56 on PATs?

While its defense was pushed around for most of the game (it can’t be stressed enough how Cal Poly was able to run the ball seemingly at will), Wisconsin can feel good about how it moved the ball offensively. Not only did John Clay and P.J. Hill play well (combining for 168 yards on just 25 carries), but more promising, Dustin Sherer looked simply terrific nearly all day, completing 13 of 22 passes for a career-best 245 yards. Sherer didn’t throw a single incompletion until the third quarter.

Despite whatever criticism Bielema and his staff may deserve following this disappointing season, the switch to Sherer over Allan Evridge has clearly paid off and, with Sherer’s obvious chemistry with Anderson, Gilreath, and Garrett Graham, Wisconsin suddenly looks to have a potent well-rounded offense heading into next season.

The other positive to take away from this game is that for the second straight week, Wisconsin had to comeback from a fourth-quarter deficit. That fact may be less impressive considering that those comebacks were against teams that consistently shot themselves in the foot with turnovers (Minnesota) and with kicking issues (Cal Poly), but still give Bielema credit for finishing the Badgers’ season proving that his team can come back at least as often as it blows leads (Michigan, Michigan State).

That might not be lavish praise, (in fact, I think that’s what they call “damning with faint praise”), but that kind of suppressed enthusiasm is all one can really muster after the Badgers’ disappointing year. Still, the team did finish the season winning four out of its last five games, which clearly gives some hope for the immediate future of the program. A win in what should be a winnable bowl matchup would only add to that hope. But the Badgers will need to play better, particularly in the area of run defense, in their bowl game than they did Saturday. They won’t be able to count on three missed extra points again. Unfortunately.

Gophers’ Turn To Implode
November 16, 2008

All week long  the fear was there.

Knowing that its much-anticipated, steeped-in-tradition, just-try-and-get-tickets-for-it season-ending tilt with their non-conference rival the Cal Poly Mustangs was next week, would the Wisconsin football Badgers be able to focus on this week’s game with Minnesota?

Surely some measure of looking past the Gophers and the battle for the Paul Bunyan Axe in anticipation of facing the team that just this season pulled off the nearly-unthinkable sweep of the Mount Rushmore State with decisive wins over both South Dakota and South Dakota State was natural, was it not?

Well, that’s what it looked like early on. The Badgers were simply unwatchable in the first half against Minnesota on Saturday, as they stumbled and fumbled their way to a 21-7 halftime deficit.

But behind quarterback Dustin Sherer’s best half of the season, Wisconsin rallied for a remarkable 35-32 victory, the Badgers’ fifth straight win over their border rivals. The comeback was all the more remarkable as it was the first time this season that Wisconsin, now 6-5 overall and bowl eligible, was down at the half and came back to win. Most fans don’t need to be reminded of the games in Michigan against both the Wolverines and the Spartans in which the Badgers led at the half only to implode.

On Saturday at Camp Randall, the imploding came early. Well, not that early. First there was a botched handoff between Gopher quarterback Adam Weber and running back DeLeon Eskridge that gave the Badgers the ball at the Minnesota 10-yard-line. After another gutsy decision by Bret Bielema to go for it on fourth down, a heavily-pressured Sherer found Garrett Graham in the back of the end zone to put Wisconsin up quickly 7-0.

Then nothing went right for the Badgers. The Gophers dominated the line of scrimmage, limiting Wisconsin’s vaunted rushing attack to only 38 yards. The passing game was lousy, as Dustin Sherer (9-for-18 for 91 yards in the first 30 minutes) was a victim of dropped balls and his own jaw-dropping inaccuracy. Philip Welch had a field goal attempt blocked. Most significantly in falling behind 21-7, the Badgers became easy victims of the Gophers’ ball-hawking defense as they lost no less than three fumbles. And most disturbingly, receiver Kyle Jefferson was the victim of a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit that resulted in him lying motionless on the ground for several minutes before being carted away in an ambulance.

Fortunately, Bret Bielema was able to say after the game that initial tests on Jefferson’s head and neck injuries gave “very encouraging” results.

As distasteful as it may be to say, Jefferson’s scary injury seems now to have been the turning point of the game, perhaps sucking some life out of Minnesota and providing Wisconsin with a rallying point. Consider this: The result of the play that injured Jefferson was a fumble recovered by Minnesota, giving them the ball on their own 21-yard-line with 2:05 remaining on the clock and two time outs. Instead of attempting to score — and the Gophers were at that point having about as much trouble moving the ball on Wisconsin as John Madden has trouble inhaling a tender and juicy turducken — Gopher coach Tim Brewster, either feeling overconfident with his 14-point lead or thinking it unsavory to score again on a team that just had one of its players leave on a stretcher, ran out the clock.

In contrast, the Badgers responded to Jefferson’s injury by coming out for the third quarter hotter than Cheryl Tiegs circa 1978. All three drives started in the third quarter resulted in points and a 24-24 tie. Dustin Sherer was remarkable in the face of heavy pressure, throwing accurate strike after accurate strike, particularly on a key 3rd-and-7, 31-yard pass play to Issac Anderson on the second scoring drive of the quarter. Anderson and Sherer found an unexpected but undeniable chemistry in the game’s second half — Anderson had just one catch for 11 yards in the first half, but finished with six catches for 114 yards.  And while the Badgers’ run game couldn’t match last week’s ridiculous totals (441 yards), P.J. Hill still managed to rack up 117 yards and two touchdowns.

The Badgers’ defense, burned for so much of the first half, more than matched the offense’s intensity over the final 30 minutes, shutting down quarterback Adam Weber and therefore the entire Gopher offense, which only was able to muster 123 yards of offense in the second half. Of particular note was a flurry of series in the fourth quarter after the Badgers had come all the way back to tie the score. First the Badgers’ special teams came through with a safety on a fumbled kick-off return that gave Wisconsin its first lead since 7-0. Then on the Gophers’ next possession, Mike Newkirk came through with two sacks, the second one resulting in another safety that put Wisconsin up 28-24. Then Jonathan Casillas came up with a fumble recovery on the Gophers’ next drive, a turnover that Wisconsin turned into a quick two-play touchdown drive to make the score 35-24. The Badgers’ performance Saturday was reminiscent of their performance in the Michigan game, only with the halves reversed. It was simply a remarkable turnaround as opposed to a remarkable collapse.

But even though the 81,228 fans in attendance (including many Minnesota fans) probably assumed that midway through the fourth quarter with the Badgers up by eleven that the Paul Bunyan Axe was not going to be enjoying the winter in the land of the Mall of America and Prince, the Gophers weren’t quite ready to lay down. The Gophers then went on what was undoubtedly their best drive of the second half, a 60-yard, 11-play drive highlighted by a 4th-and-18 conversion from Adam Weber to freshman receiver Brandon Green. When Shady Salamon scored on a one-yard touchdown plunge, suddenly the Gophers were only down 35-32 with over four minutes on the clock.

When Wisconsin’s run game then came up short (as it had for all of the first half), and the Badgers were forced to punt, it was looking like perhaps the Gophers might be able to pull out a last-second victory after all. But like the Packers had come up short in last week’s border battle, Minnesota could not capitalize on its last chance as Badgers corner Niles Brinkley intercepted Adam Weber on a 4th-and-4, ending any hopes Minnesota might have had of at least pushing the game to overtime.

Who said the Badgers can’t overcome adversity? Well, we all did, but the team clearly proved otherwise on Saturday with its thrilling, immensely impressive comeback. Now fans have to hope that the Badgers didn’t exhaust themselves in the name of retaining the Paul Bunyan Axe so much that they’ll be unable to withstand the onslaught that will be the Cal Poly Mustangs in next week’s regular-season finale. Because that’s the game we’re all really waiting for.

Rivalry Weekend: Gophers, Bears Come To Wisconsin
November 14, 2008

Thursday night’s great Jets/Patriots game has put me in a fiery buffalo football-watching mood for this weekend. Although part of it could be that I’m just looking to delay putting up the Christmas tree for another weekend. (I know, it seems early to put up the tree, but between assembling the fake branches, putting up the lights, and hanging the ornaments, it’s a several-weekend job. If I don’t get started soon, Santa will have to put the presents under the television. Which might get confusing if he brings us a new 1080p HDTV, which is what I’m hoping for. Oh, and some socks.)

Anyway, here’s what you’ll be watching pigskin-wise this weekend:

Minnesota at Wisconsin, Saturday 2:30 PM, ABC. In order to have a true rivalry game, you need to have two competitive teams. And while some still insist on hyping border battle football games between America’s Dairyland and the Land of 1,000 Lakes, both the Packers and Badgers have been so dominant in recent years that much of the juice has been drained from these matchups.

But just as Sunday’s close loss to the Vikings goes a long way in re-igniting what had been a dormant Packer-Viking rivalry, a Gopher win Saturday at Camp Randall would add some sex appeal to the annual Paul Bunyan Axe game. And a couple of weeks ago, as Minnesota got off to a 7-1 start while the Badgers floundered, it seemed that Wisconsin’s four-game win streak against the Gophers would end this year.

But then the Gophers lost two straight home games, a heartbreaking last-second loss to Northwestern and a surprising 29-6 beatdown by Michigan. Meanwhile, the Badgers are coming off their most dominant performance of the season, last week’s 55-20 crushing of Indiana. And now it looks like the Gophers’ woes against the Badgers are likely to continue.

Minnesota had been winning this year thanks to an opportunistic defense and its passing game. But in the last couple of weeks, the Gophers have turned it over as much as they’ve created turnovers, and quarterback Adam Weber has been as good as John Oates without Daryl Hall with the loss of his roommate and favorite target, wide receiver Eric Decker, who leads the Big Ten with 74 receptions. (To compare, Wisconsin’s leading receiver, Garrett Graham, has 35 catches.) Decker suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago and won’t play against Wisconsin.

Minnesota hasn’t been able to turn to its running game to compensate for its ailing passing attack, as the Gophers are dead last in the Big Ten at running the ball. More importantly for Saturday’s matchup, their defense has been lousy at stopping the run lately, giving up 232 yards on the ground to Michigan and 220 rushing yards to Northwestern. Obviously neither the Wildcats or Wolverines have the ground game that the Badgers enjoy, as Wisconsin leads the league in running the ball and are coming off a game in which they rushed for a staggering 441 yards.

I look for Wisconsin to be able to play its game, which for anyone who has just moved here from Guam, is control the line of scrimmage, run the football, control time of possession, and force quarterback Adam Weber to make plays, which he has been unable to do without Decker. Wisconsin 27, Minnesota 13.

Chicago at Green Bay, Sunday, 12 noon, FOX. Despite the disappointing seasons of both, I have been much easier on the Packers than I’ve been on the Badgers. I found the preseason expectations of the Badgers ridiculous, and was ready to pounce when they were proven so. Also just due to the nature of college football, the Badgers were out of Big Ten contention so quickly, whereas for much of this season I felt that even given their struggles, the Packers still had to be considered the favorites to win the NFC North.

Now after two straight losses and five losses out of seven, I’m finally starting to have my doubts. The Packers have looked remarkably undisciplined this season — they lead the league in penalty yards, their tackling has been lousy, and they have been as effective at stopping the run as my neighbor’s “no socialism” sign was at getting McCain elected. I’m still waiting for Ryan Grant to get going (that 69 yards a game and two TDs all season is killing my fantasy team), and worst of all, Aaron Rodgers’s performance over the last two weeks has caused fans to utter the dreaded “f” words (“Favre” being one, the other being one I can’t use on this Web site) and begin to wonder whether, after playing so sparingly before this season, he has hit the proverbial wall that many rookies do in their first season.

Rodgers’s play is important because if the Packers are to avoid losing two crucial division games in two weeks, he will have to perform better. The Bears have only allowed 73 total rushing yards in the last two games, meaning that Ryan Grant will likely continue his season-long streak of being of limited value. (Note to self: Get Grant out of fantasy lineup). The good news is that in those same two games, the Bears have allowed Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins to be as dominant as Dan Fouts and Phil Collins circa 1985. Rodgers should be able to bounce back, provided that he can get better protection than he got last week at the Metrodome. I don’t see how it could be any worse.

On the Bears side of the ball, it’s a question mark whether Kyle Orton’s ankle will allow him to play or whether Rex Grossman will start for the second week in a row. Signs favor Orton starting, which certainly helps the Bears, but if the Packers run defense continues to stink and the team can’t contain Matt Forte (sixth in the NFC in rushing), it’s moot who’s under center.

Bears head coach Lovie Smith has been as effective at beating the Packers as Vikings head coach Brad Childress has been ineffective. Smith has never lost at Lambeau and the Bears have won six of the past eight overall. Frankly, most signs point to Smith continuing his streak, but something tells me as Childress’s streak of futility against McCarthy (barely) ended, so will Smith’s streak of excellence at Lambeau (barely). Packers 28, Bears 27.

35 Ways To Pummel Indiana
November 9, 2008

On Friday I wrote here that the Wisconsin football Badgers would beat the Indiana Hoosiers by 30 points on Saturday.

I was wrong. Bret Bielema’s team won by 35 points, 55-20.

In honor of the Badgers’ largest margin of victory in this difficult season, here’s 35 reasons the Badgers won big on Saturday:

1. It was Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, Indiana has been so devastated by injuries that by the end of the game they were forced to field actual seniors.

2. Indiana head coach Bill Lynch looks a little too much like Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh. It’s not as close as Ned Yost/George W. Bush, but it’s there. The resemblance must undercut his team’s respect of him.

3. Wisconsin quarterback Dustin Sherer hails from the Indianapolis suburb of Cicero. And while Sherer’s stats weren’t mind-blowing (10-of-19 for 143 yards and an interception), he played mostly very smart football. Obviously Sherer wanted to impress his home state.

4. Wisconsin quarterback Dustin Sherer’s younger brother is a redshirt freshman linebacker for Indiana. Obviously Sherer wanted to embarrass his younger brother.

5. On the first play of scrimmage, Indiana cornerback Richard Council clapped manically after P.J. Hill rushed for “only” a four-yard gain. Council must have known that limiting Wisconsin’s rushing attack to four yards a carry would have to be considered a victory for the Indiana defense. Turns out the Indiana defense couldn’t maintain that pace, as they went on to allow a whopping 7.2 yards per run.

6. Speaking of Hill, he almost singlehandedlyset the tone for Wisconsin being able to come out and play the style of game they wanted to play. Hill rushed for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone, eventually finishing with 126 yards on 19 carries and three touchdowns.

7. On Wisconsin’s first drive, Sherer threw a lateral pass to David Gilreath, which fell incomplete. Apparently not realizing it was a live football, Richard Council decided to throw a hit on Gilreath instead of picking up the football. Not smart. Isaac Anderson recovered for the Badgers.

8. Again on Wisconsin’s first drive, Bielema elected to go for it on 4th-and-7. Gutsy call from an embattled head coach. The risky move paid off, as Sherer hit Zach Brown for a 16-yard completion. The call was an early indication that Bielema did not believe that Indiana’s banged-up defense could stop his offense. Bielema would be proven correct multiple times as the game continued.

9. On the first play after the 4th-and-7 conversion, P.J. Hill gained eight yards when he should have been tackled for a loss. This is indicative of the way Hill ran all day, with a freshness and an escapability missing for much of the season.

10. After Hill’s first touchdown made the score 6-0, meek chants of “block that kick” before the PAT attempt were heard from the woefully under-capacity crowd of 30,618. Either the chant was sarcastic, or the Indiana fans were that desperate for something — anything — positive from their team. The kick was good, the fans resumed their silence, which they practiced for most of the afternoon (especially the second half). This silence surely helped the visitors.

11. The Badgers were only assessed three penalties for 35 penalty yards all game, a far cry from the 12 penalties for 121 yards they amassed last week as they imploded against Michigan State. Only one penalty — a roughing the passer call on defensive end Matt Shaughnessy on Indiana’s first drive that allowed Indiana to continue an eventual scoring drive — proved relevant.

12. The Badgers were able to force Indiana into a lot of third-and-longs. Indiana, 10th in the Big Ten in third-down conversion, ended the day a measly 4-for-17 on third downs and zero-for-4 on fourth downs. Wisconsin, meanwhile, finished the game 5-for-10 on third down and a perfect 2-for-2 on fourth downs.

13. The Indiana defense could not stop the end-around runs from wide receiver David Gilreath. Gilreathfinished the day with a monster 168 rushing yards on only eight carries for an average of 21 yards per carry. The average was aided by a 90-yard TD run in the third quarter that was the second-longest run in Wisconsin football history. Did I mention Gilreath is a wide receiver?

14. Wisconsin was consistently able to limit the Indiana receivers to next-to-zero yards after catch. That’s YAC to those of you scoring at home.

15. After Indiana was able to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 14-10 in the second quarter, the Badgers’ Mario Goins fumbled the kickoff, giving Indiana the ball at Wisconsin’s 16-yard line. The defense allowed not a single yard, and Indiana had to settle for a 23-yard field goal. A classic example of a “moral victory.”

16. On Wisconsin’s very next drive, Dustin Sherer is intercepted by Indiana’s Donnell Jones. Again Wisconsin is able to hold off the momentum swing, as Indiana gets no points out of the ensuing drive. Their own attempt to convert a 4th-and-7 fails. Classic example #2 of a “moral victory.”

17. Instead of imploding after two straight drives that ended in turnovers, Wisconsin goes on a 11-play, 64-yard drive that featured nine straight runs (including a 4th-and-1 conversion). Gilreath practically walks into the end zone on a lateral pass on the drive’s final play. After taking much criticism for not being able to handle adversity in the team’s Big Ten losses, Wisconsin proved on Saturday that it was willing and able to overcome setbacks.

18. But the setbacks weren’t over. Gilreath, the game’s biggest star, muffed a punt late in the second quarter. Indiana took over at the Wisconsin 15. On the next play, Jay Valai forced a fumble that DeAndre Levy returned 41 yards. The great play by Valai(Wisconsin’s leading tackler with 10 total) set up a field goal and immediately sucked all the life out of Indiana.

19. Wisconsin rushed for 202 yards. In the first half.

20. Because of the Valai hit, Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell was forced out of the game. While no one would mistake Chappellfor Tom Brady, his first-half performance was passable, with 11 completions on 20 attempts for 126 yards and a touchdown. His absence in the second half would greatly diminish Indiana’s offense, as a rotation of three quarterbacks would combine on 2-of-14 passes for 15 yards in the second half.

21.  Indiana punter Chris Hagerupwas blitzed and tackled for a four-yard loss on a third-quarter punt when he attempted to run with the football. While Wisconsin could only muster a field goal out of the great field position, the play was indicative of the total domination that Wisconsin was enjoying by the third quarter.

22. Despite allowing Indiana good field position most of the game — Indiana’s Demetrius McCray finished with a whopping 191 return yards — Wisconsin’s defense held the Hoosiers to just 274 yards of total offense and a paltry 53 yards in the second half.

23. Third-quarter stats: Wisconsin, 176 total yards, Indiana, 31 total yards. Wisconsin outscored Indiana 17-0 in the period.

24. Wisconsin’s Niles Brinkley and Shane Carter were excellent on pass coverage all afternoon, although Carter got away with a clear pass interference in the third quarter. But those are the kinds of calls that dominating teams and players can often get away with. It pays to be good.

25. The Badgers, enjoying an embarrassment of riches at running back, were able to rest P.J. Hill for much of the second half in favor of John Clay. Clay finished with112 yards on 19 carries (most of it in the second half) and one touchdown. Along with Gilreath, the Badgers finished withan unheard-of three players with over 100 yards rushing each.

26. Clay continued to eat up huge chunks of yardage late in the game even when the playcalling was obvious. Indiana could simply do nothing to stop him.

27. Scott Tolzien entered the game in relief of Dustin Sherer and got  a touchdown of his own on a beautiful naked bootleg play that made the final score 55-20. Wisconsin wasn’t trying to run up the score, but did I mention  that Indiana could simply do nothing to stop them?

28. Wisconsin outscored Indiana 31-0 in the second half.

29. Wisconsin finished with 601 total offensive yards, their highest total in almost five years.

30. Wisconsin finished with 441 total rushing yards to Indiana’s 133. Wisconsin, not needing to pass most of the day, even outgained Indiana in the air, 160-141.

31. Wisconsin gained 7.4 yards per offensive play to Indiana’s 3.8 yards per offensive play.

32. Wisconsin enjoyed nearly a ten-minute time of possession advantage over Indiana, 34:13 to 25:47.

33. Wisconsin took on an obviously weaker opponent and, in a manner not seen by Wisconsin fans in quite some time, thoroughly dominated.

34. With two games left, home against a slumping Minnesota and home against non-conference “foe” the Cal Poly Mustangs, Wisconsin can still earn a spot in a bowl game. Not a New Year’s Eve bowl, but it would be a nice comeback on the season, one that should quiet the hoards calling for Bielema’s head.

35. Indiana cheerleaders were seen cheering their team on with the Hoosiers on the wrong end of a 55-20 score. Wisconsin apparently could pummel Indiana in every way imaginable on the field but could not squelch their seemingly un-ending supply of school spirit! Darn you, peppy cheerleaders! Now my list is one short!

Hmm, coming up short. Just like the Packers.

Election’s Over. It’s Cold. Watch Sports.
November 7, 2008

If you’re like me, the same thing happens every year about this time. No, not that your child catches you eating his Halloween candy and you have to promise to take him to Chuck E. Cheese’s to make up for it. (Every smart parent knows that you take your kids trick-or-treating and then tell him that you’re keeping half the candy — the good half — for yourself as payment for all of the misery and suffering said child has caused over the year.)

No, this time of year I always find myself having a bit of a letdown following the end of baseball season yet at the same time being so engrossed in football that the beginning of hockey and basketball season sort of comes around without me paying either the attention they deserve.

Well now that it gets dark at about two in the afternoon and the temperatures struggle to get to 40 degrees, it’s a perfect time to catch up on sports, not just football, but everything. Here’s what to watch this weekend:

1. Packers at Vikings. Sunday, 12 noon, FOX. Look, I didn’t say to forget about football. This “rivalry” game is interesting not because it’s such a great rivalry — Mike McCarthy has never lost to Brad Childress — but because the teams are both tied at 4-4 and look to have weaknesses that match up perfectly with the other team’s strengths. The Packers have been lousy at stopping the run; the Vikings have Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Teams can pass at will against Minnesota; the Packers have arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL. Whether or not the Vikings can count on injured defensive end Jared Allen to play, I like the Packers in this one. The Vikings are undoubtedly a better team than the one that played at Lambeau Field the first Monday night of the season, but that doesn’t make them a better team than the Packers. And did I mention that Brad Childress has never beaten Mike McCarthy?

2. Wisconsin at Indiana. Saturday, 11 AM, Big Ten Network. The game might not be that meaningful, but don’t you want to watch just to see Wisconsin work out its frustrations on a bad team? And wouldn’t you feel silly after complaining for a year about not having the Big Ten Network not to watch it when the Badgers are on? I say Wisconsin by 30.

3. Michigan Tech at Wisconsin. Saturday, 7 PM, WISC. Yes, college hockey comes to local broadcast TV for the first of three Saturday night games that WISC-TV will air over the next few weeks. For anyone upset about the preemptions of the “crimetime Saturday” reruns or 48 Hours, WISC will run them late night. But most of us, especially those still hanging on to free broadcast TV as their only source for boob tube entertainment, should delight in seeing the hockey Badgers. Now they just need to win both games (Friday’s game is not televised) to stop their season (1-6-1 so far) from slipping away.

4. Milwaukee Bucks. FSN. This team is showing promise. And they’ve already won two road games, which maybe doesn’t sound that impressive, but they only won seven all last season. But whether or not Michael Redd, who missed Wednesday’s game with a sprained right ankle, returns Friday night, the team has a rough week ahead — at Boston (Friday), Phoenix (Saturday), at Cleveland (Tuesday), and San Antonio (Wednesday). Even if the Bucks don’t win many of these games, how competitive they are will tell us a lot about how good this team’s going to be.

5. The NFL. OK, you’re not going to totally forget about football no matter how much attention you pay this weekend to the hockey Badgers and the Milwaukee Bucks. And besides the Packers, there are some good games to watch locally this weekend: Flip over from the Packers/Vikings game to see how the Bears fare against the undefeated Titans (Sunday, noon, CBS). The Titans aren’t going to go 16-0; are the Bears (at home) the team to finally bring them down? I give the Bears a 50% chance if Kyle Orton plays, which drops to a 20% chance if the horrific Rex Grossman starts. Then there’s Indianapolis at Pittsburgh (Sunday, 3:15, CBS). Can the struggling Colts build on last week’s win over the Patriots? Can the Steelers find some offense without Willie Parker and possibly Ben Roethlisberger? Pittsburgh is so good on defense (No. 1 overall) that it might not matter.

6. The Big Ten. Could be a weekend of lopsided games. Illinois @ Western Michigan is on locally Saturday at 11 AM on My Madison TV, while the best ABC could come up with is Penn State @ the disappointing Iowa Hawkeyes (Saturday, 2:30 PM, ABC). If Iowa plays as well as they did against Wisconsin, they might be able to pull off the upset. But I doubt it. And if you want to watch a predictable game amongst predictable games on Saturday, wouldn’t you stick with the Badgers? Come on, Bielema promised he’d behave.

Well, got to go. Chuck E. Cheese’s isn’t open all night, you know. (Although that’s not a bad idea. You know, replace Munch’s Make Believe Band with a real band, maybe a couple of cage dancers . . . I think I’m on to something here . . . )

What Were You Thinking?
November 2, 2008

What were you thinking? It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately.

Major League Baseball, how could you allow Game 3 of the World Series to start after 10 PM local time? What were you thinking?

Major League Baseball, how could you try to play Game 5 of the World Series on a field that was basically “underwater”  (Chase Utley’s accurate description)? What were you thinking? (Although at least the league did the right thing by completing the suspended game the following night.)

Owners of several houses that my son trick-or-treated at, how could you give out just Tootsie Rolls? And not even the king-size ones, but the little dinky ones? What were you thinking? (Seriously here, Halloween to a five-year-old is the second biggest day of the year. Instead of another proposed stimulus check, every household in the country should have been mailed several bags of Sour Patch Kids, Snickers, and Twix bars early last week.)

To myself after downing six White Castle cheeseburgers in one sitting during a visit to Minnesota this past week and suffering the severe gastric distress that I undoubtedly deserved, what were you thinking?

And finally, to Wisconsin Badgers head football coach Bret Bielemafor calling a timeout with under 30 seconds to go and allowing the Spartans time to set up for the game-winning field goal for Saturday’s nauseating 25-24 loss at Michigan State, what were you thinking?

OK, Bielema’s gaffe at the end of Saturday’s game was not the sole reason Wisconsin lost. And MSU’s Brett Swenson, who had already made three field goals before the game winner, might very well have made the 44-yard field goal kick even if he and his team had had to rush the kick as time wound down. But why would a coach who has taken so much of the blame (unfairly, I think) for his team falling far below preseason expectations want to put himself in the cross hairs like that?

It wasn’t the first time in the game that Bielema and his coaching staff weren’t thinking. The decision to challenge an obvious touchback early in the fourth quarter cost his team a challenge and a timeout when it was predictably upheld. Later, twenty yards of penalties slapped on due to sideline interference and subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct (when Bielema later admitted telling a referee that he “wasn’t really doing a good job”) heavily aided Michigan State on their first of two fourth-quarter touchdown drives.

Telling off a referee? Really, Bielema? What were you thinking?

The head coach’s apparent lack of self-discipline on Saturday seemed to trickle down to his entire team, as the Badgers amassed a whopping 121 penalty yards — over a third of what Wisconsin’s defense allowed the Spartans to earn — on 12 calls. That total, that included eight penalties for 66 yards in the fourth quarter alone, could have been worse had the generous refereeing crew not let a couple of fairly obvious pass interference calls on Badger cornerback Niles Brinkley go. (Brinkley was tagged for two pass interferences, while Allen Langford was called on one. Brinkley also had a holding call go against him.)

But perhaps the biggest penalty came with 2:46 left to go in the game; nursing a slim 24-22 lead (Wisconsin never trailed until Swenson’s final field goal), John Clay rushed for a first down on a third-and-one, meaning that with MSU out of time outs, Wisconsin was set to run out the clock. But instead center John Moffitt was called for holding, negating the crucial first down. A false start penalty added insult to injury and Wisconsin was forced to punt. (Bielema elected to punt instead of trying for a 52-yard field goal, a fair decision given that Philip Welch had already missed a 44-yarder).  The Spartans took the ball 56 yards in eight plays for the winning score.

The pervasiveness of the penalties for Wisconsin was overall the most obvious reason for the head-scratching loss. Because outside of the flags, the Badgers played a good football game. Both units controlled the lines of scrimmage as both P.J. Hill (106 yards) and John Clay (111 yards) racked up triple-digit rushing yards, the first time the Badgers had two 100-yard rushers in the same game since 2005. In fact, the Badgers hadn’t had a single100-yard rusher since beating Fresno State in September. More impressively, the Badgers almost completely shut down the nation’s leading rusher, Javon Ringer, who had by far his worst game of the season with only 54 rushing yards on 12 carries (though he did pad his national-best TD total to 18 thanks to two short runs). Overall, the Badgers completely crushed the Spartans in total rushing yards, 281 to 25, a figure that allowed Wisconsin to win time of possession by over five minutes.

And while quarterback Dustin Sherer perhaps took a step back from last week’s improvement, his 14-of-28 for 149 yards performance wasn’t terrible (though admittedly several of his throws were). Worse than his 50 percent completion percentage, though, was a second-quarter fumble that resulted in Michigan State’s first scoring drive (a Brett Swenson 27-yard field goal). Sherer’s play was perhaps more acceptable because if anything he looked better than Michigan State’s Brian Hoyer, who only completed 19 of his whopping 44 attempts, although Hoyer was burned by several dropped balls, including a sure touchdown by B.J. Cunningham in the second quarter.

Like the rest of his team, Hoyer played his best football in the fourth quarter, connecting on seven of his 19 completions for 133 of his 252 total yards. And what is becoming a season-long theme, the Badgers most decidedly did not play their best football in the fourth quarter, losing for the third time this season after taking a lead into the final stanza. The first of those games was a stunner in Michigan at Ann Arbor. That was back when Wisconsin had thoughts of a Big Ten championship and possibly a BCS bid. Now, after losing again in Michigan and making it five losses out of six games, nobody is stunned. All the Badgers and their fans can muster are shrugs, sighs, and — particularly from the head coach — sarcasm.

Seriously, Bret, what were you thinking?