A Bad Loss To A Bad Season

Have you ever gone to a movie that starts off promising but falters somewhere along the line and you end up absolutely hating it?

That’s how I felt about Tropic Thunder, a movie that I know a lot of people really enjoyed but one that annoyed the heck out of me. When it was over and I was cursing the fact that my wife and I had spent a rare night out on it, I tried to replay the film — one I had very much wanted to see — back in my mind to try and figure out where it had gone wrong for me. I decided that it was Tom Cruise’s “performance” as the producer that turned me against it; what some saw as hilarity I saw as a pompous actor thinking that a bald cap and a fat suit equalled comedic genius. By the time the credits rolled and Cruise was hamming it up in an extended dance routine, I wanted to claw my eyes out.

So after sitting through Wisconsin’s humilating 42-13 Champs Sports Bowl defeat at the hands of the Florida State Seminoles, I tried the exercise again: Where did this game, a game that had been somewhat competitive for quite some time, go completely off the tracks?

Was it in the first quarter, when eventual game MVP Graham Ganopinned the Badgers offense at their own 3, their own 1, and their own 1 again with a succession of phenomenal punts? Well, it couldn’t have been, because at the end of the quarter the game was scoreless and Wisconsin had outgained the Seminoles, twice getting out of their nightmarish field position with decent, albeit not scoring, drives.

Was it two minutes into the second quarter, when Badger quarterback Dustin Sherer tried to throw a lateral pass to P.J. Hill, only to have it deflected and run back 75 yards by FSU linebacker Derek Nicholson for the game’s first score? Well, that clearly was a huge momentum shift and spoiled what had been a nice 74-yard drive by Wisconsin, but being down by one score doesn’t put a game out of reach.

Was it later in the second quarter when ESPN inexplicably brought out “sideline pitchman” and all-around most obnoxious man on the planet Billy Mays for the biggest waste of television air time since Saved By The Bell: The College Years? Well, that was when the telecast went wrong, but clearly not the game itself.

Was it still later in the second quarter when Wisconsin had first-and-10 on the FSU 19-yard-line but had to settle for a field goal? Well, it was frustrating, but again, a 7-3 deficit is hardly impossible to overcome.

Was it forty seconds before the half, when Wisconsin’s defense, which had been stout up to this point, allowed FSU quarterback Christian Ponder to go 47 yards in only four plays and 33 seconds for a touchdown-scoring drive that made it 14-3 at the half? Well, since Ponder had only hit on six of his first 15 passes before going three-for-four on that drive, and the confidence he gained from that drive carried over to his sterling nine-for-12 second half performance, then maybe. But still, with a ground game that was gaining nearly five yards a carry and with a defense that had held FSU to 28 yards on 15 carries, overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit seemed more than doable.

Perhaps it was in the third quarter, when Florida State went on a massive, 85-yard, 7:46 touchdown scoring drive that included: A debatable, overturned call on what was originally ruled a Wisconsin interception that would have given the Badgers the ball on the Seminole 28-yard-line and a 20-yard Ponder-to-Greg Carr (he finished with 8 catches for 78 yards) pass completion on a 3rd-and-19. Surely that drive, that made the game 21-6, was the killer for the Badgers?

Nope. It was the fumble by P.J. Hill three plays later that sealed it for me. From then on, everything that went wrong for Wisconsin, and there were a lot of things, seemed to be pre-scripted events in a pre-determined game of presaged futility for the predictably overmatched Badgers.

A ridiculous phantom call against Wisconsin for roughing Graham Gano? Maddening, but didn’t seem to matter. A sack and forced fumble that led to Florida State’s second defensive touchdown of the game? It was long over by that fourth-quarter debacle. A four-play, 41-yard, blink-and-you-missed-it touchdown-scoring drive that made the game 42-6? Only made me almost — almost — wish that ESPN would cut back to Billy Mays for an OxiClean demonstration. A Dustin Sherer touchdown pass to seldom-used Elijah Theus that made the final score 42-13? I think even the Detroit Lions could have scored against the disinterested FSU defense by that point.

At the end of the day, what led to Florida State’s largest-ever margin of victory in a bowl game (and they’ve won 20 of them) was simply the fact that Bret Bielema’s team was simply not good enough. After all, Florida State was a team that finished near the top of a very difficult Atlantic Coast Conference, whereas Wisconsin placed in the middle of the pack in a weak Big Ten.  While Florida State finished the season with one bad loss, Wisconsin finished the season with two nail-biting wins against bad teams at home. Florida State’s defense was sound nearly all year, Wisconsin’s suspect nearly all season. And most importantly — most importantly — Florida State could count on its quarterback to make plays when he had to. Wisconsin couldn’t do that, not Saturday, and not all year.

Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst have made it clear that the quarterback play has to be better next season. While there are other areas the Badgers need to improve at to compete for a Big Ten title, no one could argue that the quarterback position is the most obvious and the most crucial. Sherer is quickly becoming one of the most forgettable signal-callers in recent Badger memory, and considering that that list also includes the likes of Darrell Bevell and Brooks Bollinger, that is far from good enough for a football program of Wisconsin’s stature.

The Badgers did improve somewhat this season when Sherer replaced Allan Evridge. But it’s not enough. As I walk away from the Champs Sports Bowl and the 2008 Wisconsin football Badgers, the bad taste in my mouth is largely a result of the quarterback play. And unlike when I walked away hating Tropic Thunderbecause of Tom Cruise, Sherer hasn’t built up any  Born On The Fourth Of July or Rain Man-size goodwill to save him.

But hey, at least the Packers beat the Lions! Now that would have been embarrassing . . .


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