Archive for November, 2009

Badgers/Wildcats Preview: Giving The People What They Want
November 19, 2009

Who: Wisconsin Badgers @ Northwestern Wildcats.

Where: Ryan Field, Big Ten Network.

When: Saturday, November 21, 2:30 PM CST.

Give the people what they want.

It’s the oldest axiom in show business and one that I saw confirmed this weekend as I attended two very different concerts: Sesame Street Live and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

There was nothing horribly wrong with the Sesame Street Live show, and my two-year-old daughter loved every minute of Bert, Ernie, and Elmo extolling the virtues of having a healthy imagination.    

But myself, my wife, and — most annoyingly — my six-year-old son were forced to use our imaginations far too often during the show as we all imagined ourselves being somewhere far more interesting.

The only time the three of us snapped to attention was during the show’s finale of “I Don’t Want To Live On The Moon,” which was literally the only chestnut from the television show amid a bunch of new songs that paled in comparison to Sesame Street classics like “Doin’ The Pigeon,” “Monster In The Mirror,” and “Honker-Duckie-Dinger Jamboree.”

With that kind of rich songbook to cull from, the folks behind Sesame Street Live would be wise to just do the hits. You know, what the people want.

In contrast, more than any other Bruce Springsteen concert I’ve ever attended, Sunday night’s show in Milwaukee was about the hits and long-standing concert favorites. Rosalita. Dancing In The Dark. Badlands. Hungry Heart. The entire Born To Run album played in sequence.

In short ,the 60-year-old rock legend gave the people what they wanted. And it was a tremendous show, perhaps the best E Street show I’d seen.

Professional and collegiate sports, which are certainly close cousins of show business, are also about giving people what they want, and the Wisconsin Badgers did that tremendously last Saturday in what may have been their most impressive all-around victory of the season, a 45-24 whooping of Big Ten rival Michigan.

You like offense? Wisconsin piled up 469 yards, their second-highest total this season, of it.

You like balanced offense? (Coaches do.) Saturday’s win was by far the most balanced the Badgers had been all year, with 229 yards on the ground and 240 yards through the air.

You like big-name players playing big-time football? How about Scott Tolzien throwing for four touchdowns and rushing for one, a performance good enough to get him his second Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week award of the season? How about John Clay gaining 151 yards and going over 1,000 yards for the season? How about freshman wunderkind Chris Borland registering 11 tackles? How about O’Brien Schofield adding to his conference-leading 19.5 tackles for loss? 

And how about the defense holding Michigan’s league-leading rushing attack to a itty-bitty 71 yards on the ground?

Wisconsin’s done a lot of good things this year, but — outside of perhaps their running game and rush defense — they haven’t been particularly consistent.

Can they follow up last week’s pounding of Michigan with perhaps an equally impressive victory over an Northwestern team that has improved mightily since the last time the Badgers faced them in 2006?

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines for Saturday’s Big Ten finale:

Revenge Part II: Much was made about Bret Bielema and the Badgers seeking retribution over Michigan last week, but there is an even stronger vengeance plot here.

Saturday’s game is the first meeting of these teams since Bielema fired former Badgers defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz after the 2007 season. Hankwitz, now the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator, has done just fine in Evanston, as the Wildcats finished fourth in the Big Ten in team defense last year (four places higher than Wisconsin) and currently rank in the top half of the conference defenses in 2009.

The ousting of Hankwitz from Madison was by all accounts not amicable (Bielema this week admitted that “I’m sure I’m not very popular in the Hankwitz household), and you can be sure that Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald is plotting with Hankwitz on ways to settle the score with his former boss.

Look for the Wildcats — who have forced six turnovers in their last two games — to play very aggressively on defense. If John Clay can hold on to the football and if the Badgers offensive line can protect Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin should be create some big plays out of what could be an overzealous Northwestern defensive game plan.

Finishing Strong Part I: Though the window hasn’t completely closed on Wisconsin earning a share of the Big Ten conference title, Michigan needs to beat Ohio State in order for that to happen. And although Ohio State’s excellence is overrated, Michigan’s awfulness isn’t.

Heading into Saturday, it seems that the 5-4 Packers have a better chance to come back and win the NFC North over the 8-1 Vikings than the Badgers have of winning a share of the Big Ten.  

But that doesn’t make Saturday’s game any less important — with a win, the Badgers should finish (assuming they beat Hawaii in two weeks) tied for second in the Big Ten, which would ensure them a very nice bowl invitation. With a loss, Wisconsin could finish fourth in the conference, which would leave them in a far less prestigious bowl.    

Purdue Part II or Indiana Part II? Mike Kafka, the Wildcats quarterback, has been one of the best quarterbacks in the conference on one of the most pass-happy teams in the Big Ten — only Purdue throws the ball more. (Kafka’s efficiency has been compromised, however, in the past two weeks due to a hamstring injury that has limited his mobility.)

In recent weeks, the Badgers have faced two other teams who, like Northwestern, have effective quarterbacks and below-average running games.

Wisconsin was able to completely shut Purdue down on Halloween in a 37-0 blowout at home, but it was a different story at Indiana the following week. The Hoosiers’ Ben Chappell carved up the Wisconsin secondary for 323 yards on 25-of-35 passing attempts. (Indiana only earned 63 yards rushing in the 31-28 Badger victory.)

Either way, the Badgers should be able to emerge victorious, but if Kafka is able to get hot, it could be a nail-biter. Which is not what Wisconsin fans want.

Predicted final: Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 21. 

 

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Wolverines/Badgers Preview: Michigan Woes To Continue
November 11, 2009

Who: Michigan Wolverines @ Wisconsin Badgers

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Big Ten Network.

When: Saturday, November 14, 11 AM CST.

You have to feel sorry for Michigan.  

This week The Detroit News reported that the state expects to lose a total of 1 million jobs this decade, largely due to the collapse of the U.S. automobile industry.

The Pew Center reported this week that the most optimistic of projections suggest that the state won’t regain those jobs lost until 2025 or 2030.

Many of the more famous people born in Michigan are going through difficult times, like disgraced former ESPN analyst Steve Phillips (a Michigan alum), Bob Seger (it’s been 23 years since “Like A Rock”), and TV legends Ed McMahon and Soupy Sales (both dead).

And of course, the Detroit Tigers choked away their 2009 season and the Detroit Lions continue to be one of the very worst in a long line of bad NFL teams.

And then of course there is the Michigan Wolverines football team.

Echoing perhaps the story of the 2008 Wisconsin Badgers, most had high hopes for the 2009 Wolverines, and Rich Rodriguez’s team did live up to their promise early in the season with four straight wins, including a high-profile victory over Notre Dame.

Then, like the Badgers last year, the Wolverines went into a quick tailspin upon entering conference play, losing five straight Big Ten games, including last week’s home loss to Purdue, a team that just the previous week had shown all of the collective talent of the Kardashian family in a 37-0 loss to Wisconsin.

But unlike the 2008 Badgers, a late-season rally for Michigan appears extremely doubtful as the Wolverines have to head into Madison on Saturday and then host No. 10 Ohio State the following week to close out the season.

The Badgers, meanwhile, continue to impress after losses to Ohio State and Iowa. With winnable games against Michigan, Northwestern, and Hawaii coming up, Wisconsin is playing for a 10-2 record and an invitation to one of college’s better bowl games.

Here then, are the Channel 3000 3 storylines for Saturday’s game at Camp Randall, Wisconsin’s final home game of the season.

1. Best Served Cold. Much is being made of the revenge factor in this game, as Michigan last year came back from a 19-0 halftime deficit to beat Wisconsin 27-25 in a game that began Wisconsin’s long four-game losing streak.

Though it’s being hyped as a “revenge game,” retribution should not be a major motivation for this game: Michigan can hardly be blamed for all four of those losses in 2008, Wisconsin not only bested Michigan’s record last year but will this year as well, and many of this year’s players on both sides of the ball for both teams — most notably both quarterbacks — didn’t even play in that game.

It’s almost as ludricious as if the Packers were to play the Colts this season and someone were to suggest that Green Bay was out for revenge for their embarrassing 1997 loss to the then-winless Colts. It’s just irrelevant history at this point.

But despite Michigan’s recent struggles, Wisconsin will certainly take some measure of satisfaction in beating a team that has run up an all-time 49-12-1 advantage (including 19 wins at Camp Randall) in their meetings.

And Bret Bielema’s team should be at the very least annoyed by indications that the Wolverines are looking past Wisconsin to the November 21 game against Ohio State. Wolverines safety Troy Woolfolk said, “As bad as the season is going, I think it would be redeemed if we beat Ohio State.” As almost an afterthought, he added, “Wisconsin, we want to beat them, too.”

Do comments like that suggest that Michigan disrespects Wisconsin, doesn’t think they can compete with Wisconsin, or simply doesn’t care about Wisconsin? After the Badgers beat them, it won’t really matter.

2. Big Blue’s Big Play Potential. Despite last week’s victory against Indiana, the Badgers should be worried about the number of big plays they allowed in what was without a doubt a too-close 31-28 win.

With 323 of the Hoosiers’ 386 offensive yards gained through the air, the majority of those big plays were in the passing game, most notably an 80-yard touchdown drive that consisted of just three Ben Chappell completions, and a 30-yard Chappell-to-Demarlo Belcher reception on a fourth-and-five that led to one of Indiana’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns.

The Wolverines may be struggling, but their problems can’t be blamed on their offense. Michigan leads the Big Ten in scoring with 32 points per game, but fortunately for Wisconsin, it’s running the ball where they truly excel — the Wolverines lead the conference with 2,083 total yards.

Since Wisconsin is much better at defending the run than the pass, look for Rodriguez to call on his freshman quarterback Tate Forcier to make some plays. While Forcier isn’t the talent that Chappell is (at least not yet), the Badgers will have to do a better job defending the pass than they did last week. With the home crowd behind them, that seems extremely doable.

3. Havin’ A Ball. The flip side of Michigan’s efficiency on offense is their awfulness on defense, particularly late in games: The Wolverines have been outscored 75-12 in the second half over the last three weeks. So it’s fair to assume that Wisconsin will be able to move the ball, and it’s fair to assume that they will choose to run the ball to control the clock and keep Michigan’s offense off the field.

Although John Clay has been cleared to play after suffering a head injury close to halftime in the Indiana game (Bielema said it wasn’t “officially” a concussion, but that’s like saying The Jay Leno Show isn’t “officially” a failure; some things don’t have to be “official” to be believed), his health has to be a concern.

Therefore, don’t be surprised to see freshman running back Montee Ball, who had a bit of a coming-out party last week with 115 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns, steal some carries away from John Clay on Saturday. Oh, and if you have Zach Brown on your college football fantasy team, cut him.

Ball and the rest of the Badgers should have a ball celebrating a big win on Saturday.

Predicted final: Wisconsin 38, Michigan 20.

Badgers/Hoosiers Preview: Wisconsin Looks For Another Rout Against Indiana
November 6, 2009

Who: Wisconsin @ Indiana

Where: Memorial Stadium, Big Ten Network

When: Saturday, November 7, 11 AM CST.

It’s been a terrible week for former Wisconsin Badger football stars now playing in the NFL.

First tight end standout Owen Daniels injures his knee on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. He’s out the rest of the season, cutting short a terrific year in which he was ranked second among tight ends in receptions.

On Monday, wide out Chris Chambers was waived by the contending San Diego Chargers. He was then picked up by the truly awful Kansas City Chiefs the next day.

Then on Thursday, former All-American defensive end and current NFL bust Erasmus “The Eraser” James was arrested on a tentative battery charge after he apparently got upset that he couldn’t get a drink past bar time at a popular UW-Madison watering hole. Methinks James would have calmed down if someone had just said to him, “Hey, Eraser, things could be worse. You could be playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.”

Meanwhile, Travis Beckum continues to be a forgotten man on the slumping New York Giants,  and the owner of Joe Thomas’s team, the Cleveland Browns, has been reduced to taking meetings with fans to apologize for the colossal embarrassment they’ve become.

(Hey, where’s my meeting with Dan Aykroyd? I’d like to talk to him about how he’s let his career go to hell for the majority of the last twenty-five years . . .)

Fortunately, things are much better with Bret Bielema’s current Badgers squad: Coming off a dominating 37-0 shutdown of a Purdue team that redefined just what the phrase “bad football” can mean, the Badgers are now back in the national rankings (#24 in AP; #22 USA Today) and look poised to win their last four games (despite three of them being on the road), which would give them a fine regular-season record of 10-2.

The final month of the season starts Saturday at Indiana, a team with only one conference win but a team that just last week took a lead against undefeated Iowa into the fourth quarter before eventually losing 42-24.

Here are the Channel 3000 3 storylines to watch in Saturday’s Wisconsin/ Indiana game at Memorial Stadium. 

1. Wither Scott Tolzien? Lost in the celebratory mood surrounding the Badgers’ destruction of the Boilermakers was the fact that quarterback Scott Tolzien struggled for the third consecutive week, completing only six of the thirteen passes that he threw for just 87 yards, all season lows.

Granted, Saturday’s game was about John Clay and the Badgers’ defense, but when Tolzien was called on to throw the ball, he looked as uncomfortable as Jack Black did making out with Cloris Leachman on last year’s post-Super Bowl episode of The Office. And the accuracy of his throws would have made JaMarcus Russell recoil in horror.

The Badgers would presumably like to improve on last week’s win by getting back to the more balanced style of offense they had earlier in the season. Indiana, ranked last in the Big Ten in passing defense, should be the team to help cure whatever is ailing Scott Tolzien. 

In his limited play, Curt Phillips has shown absolutely nothing to make anyone believe that he can realistically compete for Tolzien’s job. Getting Tolzien back on track is imperative for Wisconsin on Saturday.

2. Feet Of Clay. On the other hand, why fix it if it ain’t broke? Indiana’s run defense is better than its pass defense, but nobody would confuse Indiana’s front seven with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run-stopping group. John Clay will undoubtedly be able to have success Saturday, so perhaps Bielema will just continue to ride his best offensive weapon.

Feeding the ball to Clay early and often may say less about Bielema’s confidence in Tolzien and more about his desire to keep Indiana’s Ben Chappell — the fourth-ranked QB in the conference despite having only one superb game — off the field. Chappell and receivers Tandon Doss and Damarlo Belcher are the best things going for Indiana right now, so limiting their playing time would be a solid gameplan.

3. One Shutout Is Good, But Two Is Better. Let’s not mince words. Wisconsin should bury Indiana. The Badgers have won four straight against the Hoosiers, including a 55-20 smackdown in Bloomington last year. And no one in Wisconsin needs to be reminded that the Badgers simply weren’t that good last year.

Can the Badgers’ defense, which has been stout since allowing 23 second-half points to Michigan State on September 26, pitch two shutouts in a row? Probably not, but they’ll come close enough to make it another long day for Indiana Hoosier fans.

Predicted final: Wisconsin 30, Indiana 7.

Sorry, Titletown. It’s Not 2003 Anymore.
November 3, 2009

It was Ted Thompson’s worst nightmare, and fittingly enough, it happened just hours after Halloween had expired.

Brett Favre. Celebrating at Lambeau Field. After having just beaten the Packers. As a member of the (shudder) Minnesota Vikings.

But the true nightmare for Mike McCarthy’s team is not that Brett Favre is now ahead of Ted Thompson in the greatest ongoing battle of will and ego since Roger Waters and David Gilmour fought over the use of the name “Pink Floyd.”

The Packers’ true nightmare, or at least it should be, is that by losing 38-26 to Favre’s Vikings on Sunday, they have virtually lost any hope they had of winning the NFC North title this season.

By sweeping the Packers and taking a 7-1 record into their bye week, the Vikings are virtually three games up on Green Bay’s soon-to-be 5-3 record (yes, I’m already putting next week’s game against Tampa Bay in the Packers’ win column; it’s the very definition of “lock of the week”). That three-game lead will be nearly impossible to erase over the course of eight weeks.

But hold it, you say. Aren’t the Minnesota Vikings the biggest choke artists in the history of professional sports? Aren’t they the team that a decade ago went 15-1 in the regular season and didn’t even make the Super Bowl? That started the 2003 season 6-0 and didn’t even make the playoffs? And then followed that up the next season by starting 5-1 only to finish at 8-8?

Well, yes.

It’s particularly tempting for Packers fans to look back on that 2003 season for reasons to believe that Green Bay has a shot at the NFC North title in 2009: In 2003, the Vikings held an even greater four-game lead on the Packers just seven weeks into the season. In the eighth game of the season, Green Bay beat Minnesota at the Metrodome, sparking a 7-2 run over the last nine weeks. The Vikings, meanwhile, went 3-6 over those nine weeks, culminating in a last-second loss to the terrible Arizona Cardinals that sent the purple home for the offseason and the Packers into the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the 2009 Vikings are not the 2003 Vikings and the 2009 Packers are not the 2003 Packers.

The 2003 Vikings had the turnover-prone Daunte Culpepper, the malcontent Randy Moss, the two-headed-garbage backfield of Michael Bennett and Moe Williams, a truly awful defense, and a true bonehead (Mike Tice) for a coach.

The 2009 Vikings have at worst a very good defense, an infinitely better rushing attack with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, unselfish receivers, and (yes, you knew I had to throw this in) a major upgrade at quarterback. And while Brad Childress isn’t exactly the second coming of Bud Grant, he’s not as big a putz as Tice was.

The 2009 Packers, meanwhile, look great on paper, in meaningless preseason games, and in lining up against the dregs of the NFL, but they carry with them major problems that are apparently irreparable under the current roster and regime.

This year’s Packers take too many penalties. Scratch that. They take too many stupid penalties. They don’t get pressure on the quarterback. Due to injury, they have an over-the-hill power running back returning kicks. And, most glaring of all, they possess one of the worst NFL offensive lines in recent memory which severely hinders their run game and makes Aaron Rodgers, who has become one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in an astonishingly short period of time, the biggest whipping boy since Saved By The Bell‘s Screech.

If the 2010 Packers can shore up that offensive line, they can play with anyone.

But this 2009 Packer team will be in a dogfight for one of two NFC Wild Card spots, and despite the alarming increase in godawful  NFL teams this year, the Packers will face some stiff competition for those spots: Atlanta, Chicago, and any team from the NFC East not based in the nation’s capital are talented teams that will be fighting with the Packers for a postseason berth.

To make matters worse, the Packers have already played the majority of their cupcake games: After Tampa, Green Bay must play Baltimore a rejuvenated Dallas, plus road games at Pittsburgh, at Arizona, and at Chicago.

The Vikings, meanwhile, get a very winnable three-game home stand after their bye week, and while some may question Favre’s durability as the season progresses, it seems just as likely that having the Packers games behind him has to be such a huge relief that he might even start to play better.

Favre continuing to play better? Now that he’s swept the Packers, that’s the NFC’s nightmare, not Ted Thompson’s.