Kicks Just Keep Getting Harder To Find

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.

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