Archive for October, 2010

Badgers/Hawkeyes Preview: Letdown Or No Letdown?
October 22, 2010

I shouldn’t have changed my mind.

No, I’m not talking about my decision in 1983 not to buy Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger after being snubbed by the cashier at Great American Music when I was 12 years old – that was a smart decision.

(Side note: Obviously the meteoric rise of digital music downloads over the last several years is the main cause for the extinction of record stores. But I don’t think you can completely ignore the fact that when they did exist, record stores were largely staffed by either insufferable music snobs or teenagers almost completely ignorant of any music more than two years old. As much as I miss the experience of record shopping or CD shopping, I don’t miss Musicland, Tower Records, Great American Music, Midland Records, Sam Goody, Record Town, or any of those other chain stores.)

Where was I? No, I’m talking about my reversal on last week’s Ohio State/Wisconsin game. In my preseason preview, I picked the Badgers to win, saying that I liked Wisconsin to make a statement against the overhyped Buckeyes. But after the Spartans defeated Bucky and what I felt was a less than inspiring Homecoming win over a truly awful Minnesota team, I backed off and went with the Buckeyes in my game preview. Big mistake.

Well, now I’m faced with the same exact problem. In September, I picked the Iowa Hawkeyes to hand the Badgers their only loss of the season Saturday in Iowa City. But after the Badgers’ exhilarating and impressive win over Ohio State, I’m loath to pick against Wisconsin. Not only did the 2010 Badgers and Bret Bielema prove themselves capable of playing and beating the big boys last week at Camp Randall, but I simply don’t want to be Mr. Negative for two consecutive weeks.

So how can the Badgers topple Iowa and claim the Heartland Trophy for just the third time in the seven year history of the brass bull? Let’s look at the top storylines of the game:

1. Run the ball. Duh. The biggest reason I backtracked on my preseason belief that Wisconsin could beat Ohio State was not only the 2010 Buckeyes’ ridiculously stout rush defense (they had been allowing just 78.7 yards per game), but also John Clay’s pedestrian numbers against the Buckeyes over the last two years. Apparently etching your offensive linemen’s numbers into your hair makes a difference, as Ohio State was not able to contain Clay for a third time, nor could they stop freshman sensation James White, whose success could singlehandedly keep paper companies in business. After last week’s slicing and dicing of Ohio State, who now leads the Big Ten in rushing defense? Iowa, allowing just 83.8 yards per game. But after last week, I’m betting that White and Clay will get theirs.

2. Avoid the letdown. Fans might fear that after last week’s enormous victory, the Badgers’ first win over a No. 1 ranked team since 1981, that Bielema and his boys would have a hard time getting up for the Hawkeyes. While there is no doubt that playing Iowa in Iowa City a week after hosting Ohio State is a huge challenge, the Badgers would love nothing more than to take down Iowa, the only team that Bucky has a current two-game losing streak against, the only team left on their schedule standing in their way beaten them and a realistic shot at a Big Ten title, and the only team to have its logo tattooed on their head coach’s body. Not to mention that whoever wins the Heartland Trophy Saturday gets to hold on to it until 2013, the next time Wisconsin and Iowa will play under the new Big Ten divisions that take effect next year. If Bucky loses, it will because Iowa outplays them, not because they couldn’t get motivated.

3. Tolzien must avoid the turnover. Yes, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien have eerily similar statistics this season. Through six games, Stanzi has completed 99 of 145 passes for a 68.3 completion percentage. Through seven games, Tolzien has completed 105 of 148 passes for a 70.9 completion percentage. Stanzi has thrown for 1,474 yards. Tolzien for 1,353 yards. What’s not so similar are the quarterbacks’ touchdown-to-interception ratios: Stanzi has thrown 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions in 2010, while Tolzien has mustered only 7 touchdowns while throwing three picks. And Tolzien had an awful day last year against Iowa, completing just 15 of 25 passes with no less than three interceptions and no touchdowns in a depressing 20-10 loss. And that game was in Madison. Tolzien has never started a game at Kinnick Stadium, and he must have an efficient – not great, but efficient and turnover-free – day if the Badgers hope to knock off the Hawkeyes for the first time since 2007.

If the Badgers were at home, I would take them to win this game in a heartbeat. But on the road, I have to hesitate. As I write this, the Hawkeyes are favored by six. Unfortunately, that sounds about right. Final score prediction in September: Iowa 23, Wisconsin 14. Revised final score prediction: Iowa 27, Wisconsin 20.

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Badgers/Buckeyes Preview: Can Bielema Get Biggest Win Of Career?
October 15, 2010

Mrs. Channel 3000 Sports Blogger and myself took in a late showing of The Social Network this week, breaking our personal-best streak of 169 films that we intended to see in the theaters but did not.

(One question: After his solid Social Network performance as Napster co-founder Sean Parker and his surprisingly hilarious SNL hosting appearances – including of course “Dick in a Box” – is it socially acceptable for non-teenage girls to declare themselves fans of Justin Timberlake? If so, is it OK to say that I thought “SexyBack” was a really good song?)

Anyway, since we don’t go to that many movies anymore, I thought it appropriate to light it up like it’s dynamite and consume some ultra-expensive movie concessions in mass quantities.

But after we ordered the large soda and large popcorn, my wife floored me by not only requesting the heart attack-inducing butter flavoring but also by pouring copious amounts of Sodium Chloride into the 60-gallon drum of corn (yeah, I’ll get right on that free refill).

I complained about the unnecessary and unhealthy additives to the popcorn – especially since we both knew without a doubt that I was going to eat more of it anyway – but I was immediately shot down by cries of “Don’t be a killjoy.”

Well, nobody, including my wife, likes a party pooper, so it is with great regret that I find myself pooping on two parties in two days:

In what is undoubtedly their biggest game of the season, the game that Badger fans have had circled on their calendar for months, the game that brings to Camp Randall Stadium ESPN’s College GameDay program with Kirk Herbstreit (a graduate of Ohio State and partial to the Buckeyes) and Lee Corso (a spokesperson for Hooters and partial to short nylon orange runner’s shorts), the No. 18 Badgers are going be beaten by the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes. Perhaps badly.

Not so fast, you say? Let’s take a look at the five main storylines heading into this nationally-televised (ESPN) prime time game.

1. Bielema Needs It. And Needs It Bad. On the surface, Bret Bielema has been wildly successful in his first four-plus years as the Badgers’ head coach. But a closer look at his 43-15 record reveals a lack of big career-defying wins. While the Ohio State program gets national grief for floundering on the biggest of stages (losing three of their last four bowl games), Bielema’s record is worse in spotlight games: He is 0-4 against teams ranked in the top ten and in three attempts he has never bested Jim Tressel’s team, losing leads in each loss. Both of those streaks are likely to end at some point in what should be a long head coaching career at Wisconsin, but there’s little reason to believe that it will be this weekend.

2. Terrelle Pryor versus the Badgers’ pass defense. Ohio State leads the conference in scoring offense in 2010, in part because of their relatively soft schedule, but also in part to the continued maturation of quarterback Terrelle Pryor. The junior out of Pennsylvania has been terrific so far this season, completing 68 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions, even while suffering a leg injury two weeks ago against Illinois, which unfortunately for Badger fans has improved very quickly.

On the contrary, the Badgers pass defense has been shaky all season, giving up 518 yards and six passing touchdowns in just the last two games. And while much of the Gophers’ total came in junk time last week, the fact that Bielema went for a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter last week suggests that he wasn’t allowing anyone to take any plays off.

Pryor’s talents pose an added problem for Wisconsin’s defense, as if Bielema decides to leave too many men in coverage, that will open up the field for Pryor to run at will. Not only does Pryor have three games with over 100 yards rushing this season alone, but he knows how to scramble at Camp Randall: His 11-yard touchdown run was the winning score in a 20-17 Buckeye victory in Madison just two years ago.

3. Special teams far from special. Taking out the stats from the Austin Peay scrimmage, the Badgers have been horrific on special teams this season. They allowed 261 return yards against Arizona State, 98 return yards and one touchdown against the Spartans, and 107 yards against the Gophers. In those three games, the Badgers’ opponents averaged a whopping 35 yards per kick return. Not coincidentally, the Buckeyes last year burned the Badgers for 139 kick return yards, including a 96-yard touchdown. Even if Ohio State doesn’t take one to the house, Wisconsin has to somehow contain Ohio State’s return game: Giving Terrelle Pryor a short field is a quick way to secure that Bielema remains 0-for against Tressel.

4. White the answer? No doubt one of the best stories of the Badgers’ 2010 season has been the emergence of running back James White. White has been terrific as of late; after a relatively slow start, the freshman has tallied 361 yards and eight touchdowns in just the last three games. Bielema clearly has confidence in White, and he will need him Saturday night, as the Buckeyes have been one of the few teams able to contain stud running back John Clay. In his two games against Ohio State, he has managed just 128 yards and no touchdowns, paltry numbers for Clay.

5. Ohio State pass defense versus Scott Tolzien. Last week Ohio State completely shut down Ben Chappell and Indiana’s high-flying passing attack. Chappell, who has given Wisconsin fits, finished with just 106 yards passing one week after putting up 480 on Michigan. Despite stumbling against Michigan State, Tolzien has had a very strong follow-up year to his breakout 2009 season. He will need to continue that – and get some help from his drop-happy receivers – to give Wisconsin a chance on Saturday.

So, if White can help the Badgers control the clock, if Tolzien can penetrate the Buckeyes’ stout pass defense, if Wisconsin can play better in kick return coverage, and if they can contain Terrelle Pryor better than they contained Adam Weber and Kirk Cousins, the Badgers can definitely give Bret Bielema his first win over the Buckeyes. But that sounds like a lot of ifs.

Final score prediction: Ohio State 29, Wisconsin 17.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have leftover (and soggy from too much butter topping) popcorn to eat.

The Packers And The NFL: Loads Of Uncertainty
October 11, 2010

For anyone like me who devours anything Beatles or Beatles-related, this was a big week. John Lennon’s 70th birthday celebration on Saturday brought with it a ton of John Lennon-related events and (of course) new Lennon stuff to buy. Principal in the Lennon birthday campaign was the reissue of (almost) all of his solo albums, a couple of new compilations, and a spendy box set. Basically, Yoko Ono and Capitol Records are asking you to plunk down a bunch of coin for stuff you’ve already bought, perhaps two or three times already.

(Not to be outdone, Sir Paul McCartney has recently announced the beginning of a set of reissues under the umbrella title “The Paul McCartney Archive Collection,” which kicks off, predictably enough, with several different versions of Band on the Run being issued on November 2.)

A sentimental favorite of most Lennon fans, is, of course, the 1980 song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” a syrupy ballad written for his young son Sean that became incredibly poignant in the wake of what happened to Lennon just three weeks after the song’s release on Double Fantasy.

Where am I going with this besides taking the chance to give a much-deserved shout-out to Dr. Winston O’Boogie?

Well, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” includes the heartbreaking lyric “I can hardly wait to see you come of age/But I guess we’ll both just have to be patient,” lines that are equally appropriate for the current NFL season.

More so than any NFL season I can recall, this one has me downright stymied. And I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out. But I guess we’ll all just have to be patient.

Here are some teams I have major questions about:

Green Bay Packers. Nothing wrong with a 3-2 start, but there is something wrong with a team thought by many (including me) to be the class of the NFC that is now coming off a 1-2 stretch that included an unimpressive home victory over the Lions. Green Bay’s issues can be summed up in one word: injuries. It has been and will continue to be fascinating to see how Mike McCarthy’s squad can respond long-term to some of their unforeseen substitutions. And while you may be able to chalk up the loss on Sunday to LB Clay Matthews missing significant time in the second half, which allowed Donovan McNabb crucial time to throw the football, there are other concerns that aren’t necessarily injury-related: What happened to Greg Jennings? What’s with all the dropped passes?  And yes, Ryan Grant is out, but Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn aren’t complete garbage. How about at least trying a little offensive balance? And if the team is really that unhappy with what it sees in Jackson and Kuhn, they should have traded for Marshawn Lynch. Or barring that, Jane Lynch. Hey, the Packers just need bodies.

Minnesota Vikings. Will Brett Favre’s short-lived career in amateur self-photography be a fatal distraction to a team already looking far from the squad that nearly ended the Vikings’ 33-year Super Bowl drought? Or will the league step in and suspend the legendary quarterback, ruining his consecutive starts streak and tarnishing what is most likely the grandfather’s final NFL season? Or will the simultaneous scrutiny and acquisition of troublemaker but still lights-out receiver Randy Moss light a competitive fire under Favre that will make worried Vikings fans soon forget about their sloppy 1-2 start? And what to make off the Moss situation? Yes, he’s a great player, but he’s a great player when he’s happy. Seems to me he didn’t leave Minnesota the first time around on very good terms. True, the team and coaches are largely different, but if the Vikings don’t make any moves to sign Moss to a contract extension, how long can he stay interested? You just don’t know right now if the Vikings are headed for disaster or greatness. It’s probably somewhere in the middle, but at least at this point it’s unclear. A week ago it wasn’t.

Chicago Bears. Could Jay Cutler’s forced absence from yesterday’s messy victory over the godawful Carolina Panthers have been a blessing in disguise? By having to take the ball out of backup Todd Collins’s hands as much as possible – dude had almost as many passes intercepted (four) as completed (six), the Bears rediscovered their run game with Matt Forte, who finished with a fantasy-stud day of 166 yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. Granted, you aren’t going to get to run against the porous Panthers every week, and Bears fans trust that their offensive line won’t break down about as much as they trust that a quick lunch at the Des Plaines Travel Oasis won’t give them heartburn. But with Cutler back in the fold probably by next Sunday’s game against Seattle, I’m liking my preseason sleeper pick right now. Oh, and their defense is pretty good too.

Detroit Lions. Can they follow up their most lopsided victory in 15 years with even a non-lopsided victory? With Shaun Hill playing so well, are the Lions in any rush to bring back brittle Matthew Stafford? And how much will the injury to stud receiver Calvin Johnson slow this team’s already protracted crawl out of the NFL dumpster?

New Orleans Saints. Perhaps the only 3-2 team in the league that has been a bigger disappointment than the Packers. Three squeaky wins against teams with a combined 1-12 record. And then a loss to the (I thought) horrid Arizona Cardinals? People in New Orleans are used to hangovers, but the Saints are mired in a Super Bowl hangover that doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon.

The NFC West. This division is more putrid than that new William Shatner show. Speaking of Arizona, they could be the worst team since the 1987 Minnesota Twins to win a professional sports division. (Although I don’t see Max Hall winning a championship the way those ’87 Twinkies did.) It will be interesting to see if the acquisition of Marshawn Lynch can elevate the Seahawks to anything other than wretched, and the Rams, a team I was starting to modestly believe in, took a huge step back with Sunday’s embarrassing blowout loss to the Lions. But the biggest question for me is: Can the San Francisco 49ers still pull out this division? Even at 0-5, with their upcoming schedule, I wouldn’t bet against it.

New England Patriots. How will the Pats, already struggling to deal with Tom Brady’s hair, deal with the loss of their main deep threat in Randy Moss? You have to like Belichick’s odds, but there is no way the Patriots don’t take a step back. In the ultra-competitive AFC East, a step back could be fatal.

New York Jets. With a resurgent LaDainian Tomlinson, a looser Mark Sanchez, and a (presumably) healthy Darrelle Revis, is this the team that’s now poised to challenge for the AFC title? After a bad first game, they’ve been tremendous. (But they still should have cut moron Braylon Edwards.)

Dallas Cowboys. How many losses until people stop saying how talented this team is and they start saying how underachieving this team is? Like the Packers, they can’t run the ball for anything, despite having three supposed talented rushers.

Denver Broncos. Speaking of not being able to run the ball, does Denver’s league-worst 51.8 rush games per game make Kyle Orton a viable MVP candidate? Maybe in fantasy football, but not in reality football, despite the fact that no other quarterback is asked to do more with less than Orton. And he’s doing it.

The NFC East. Why is it that every time I see one of these teams play, they look as awful as a Katherine Heigl romantic comedy, yet three of them are 3-2? Can the Giants, who right now look like the class of the division, avoid a defensive freefall like they had last season?

Houston Texans. Why do Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson seem so intent on upending my fantasy football league? What did I ever do to them?

Pittsburgh Steelers. Speaking of the allegedly naughty Brett Favre, will the return of the allegedly equally-naughty Ben Roethlisberger put this team on the fast track to the Super Bowl? Their defense is sick, Rashard Mendenhall is slowly coming around, and Mike Wallace has emerged as a terrific complement to Hines Ward and Heath Miller. Though the return of Big Ben has everyone in Pittsburgh holding their breath, there seem to be fewer questions about this team than nearly any going forward.

Lots of questions, very few answers. But it all starts to sort itself out with Monday night’s game between Favre, Moss, and Rex Ryan’s Jets. I can’t wait. Oh, and happy birthday, John.

Badgers/Spartans Preview: Manners Of Difficulty
October 1, 2010

Have you ever been to a home Wisconsin Badgers football game?

 I would assume that for most that read this sporadically-produced column (sorry about that, lots of things have been coming up – you can watch Maury for all the grisly details), the answer would be “yes.”

But if indeed the answer is “yes,” then the follow-up question would have to be “are you a fan-friendly fan at home Wisconsin Badgers football games?”

Don’t worry, if you’re smart enough to have been able to unearth this column, which is often buried like the last remnants of Pompeii on the very busy web sites (yes, I said sites) on which I am honored to appear on, chances are you’re not part of the problem.

But chances are the guy or girl next to you in the red-and-white striped overalls probably is, so please feel free to share with him or her my “Camp Randall Code of Conduct”:

1. No getting up during play. This is an easy rule to adhere to, yet it is the one most often broken. Look, there is a lot, a lot of dead time in a college football game. There is no reason, short of suffering a massive heart attack or being pooped on by a low-flying bird, that anyone needs to get up as an actual play from scrimmage is in progress. There is nothing more aggravating than missing a crucial first-down pickup because someone in your row decided that they needed a licorice rope at that very second

What makes this situation worse at Camp Randall is the extremely tight quarters that ticket buyers are squeezed into. If a couple in your row decide to shuffle past you on their way to the concession stand, others in the row can’t get away with just standing up, as everyone has to also do the awkward 45-degree turn inwards, lest any of us run the embarrassing risk of certain body parts becoming way too familiar with each other.

In short, if you are with children that tell you they need to go to the bathroom during an in-progress play, tell them to wait. By the time the words are out of your mouth, the play will be over and you can go. If you are an adult, wait, preferably for a media timeout, of which there are no shortage.

The reason why number one on this list has become a bigger problem is because number two has become a big problem, limiting the number of people who actually realize that a play might be in progress.

2. Put the smartphones away. Back in the day, people used to come to games with portable radios to ostensibly listen to the radio announcers call the play-by-play, or, if the game got dull,  to listen to the hot new Hall & Oates single. (Hey, I said “back in the day.”) That was fine.

Then some people started bringing portable TVs to the game, which were less cool and subsequently made less relevant by the advent of videoboards that could spit out instant replays as fast as any TV production crew could.

Nowadays you look around at a crowd at a sporting event – and certainly Camp Randall crowds are far from the only mass gatherings guilty of this, as this is a true social epidemic – and seemingly a third of the people at any time are busy playing with their smartphones.

Now, is this behavior inherently annoying to other patrons? Not as much, but look at it this way: Home teams feed off the energy from their home crowd. They perform better with a crowd that reacts, that cheers a great tackle or a great catch, that tries to drown out the opposing quarterback as he attempts to call a play at the line of scrimmage. It’s tough to be invested in the game if you’re instead invested in managing your virtual farm on FarmVille. 

Look, I’ve been guilty of violating this rule myself. I know how distracting the phones can be once you pick them up. That’s why you should just leave them in your pocket until after the game when you need to order the night’s big UFC match on pay-per-view.

3. Know your section, know your row, know your seat. The rows in Camp Randall are poorly marked, but fans sometimes don’t take the extra time to make sure they are in the correct one. Squeezing even one extra body into those bleachers is like Jack Tripper trying to squeeze two dates with two different women into the same evening. I don’t know how it’s like that, but it is.

4. When it’s time to “Jump Around,” jump around. If Dr. Oz isn’t embarrassed by going on national television and doing something called the “Banish Bat Wings Dance Workout,” you shouldn’t be embarrassed to jump around for a few measly seconds.

5. Adult diapers, yes. Kiddie diapers, no. Camp Randall ticket policy states that children two and under do not need a ticket. My policy states that children two and under need to be kept home.

I’ve made the mistake of bringing my son to Camp Randall when he was under a year old. Yes, there are a couple of cute pictures on some hard drive somewhere in my house, but the scars remain from that day that I carried him around and around and around the concourse for nearly four hours, missing the entire game in the process. It’s not fun for the baby, it’s not fun for the football fan or fans in charge of the baby, and it’s not fun for the patrons sitting near the understandably squirmy baby.

Yes, you want to show off the baby in his or her Badger red and take some pictures of the baby with Bucky Badger. But that’s what the spring football game and corresponding Badger Kids Fair are for.

Fortunately, this weekend brings with it the start of Big Ten conference play, the time of year that tends to bring the more serious Badger football fan to Camp Randall. But the more serious football means that the above five tips are even more important during October and November. I’m pleased that with the Badgers playing Michigan State on the road Saturday at 2:30 p.m., local fans will have a week to absorb my guidelines before the Badgers return home on October 10 to play the Minnesota Gophers (which, given the Gophers’ putrid start, may not be too far off from that Austin Peay laugher).

Let’s look at the top three storylines heading into Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m. CST in East Lansing.

1. It Don’t Come Easy. Despite the fact that most preseason pundits picked the October 16-October 23 back-to-back scheduling of Ohio State (home) and Iowa (away) as the Badgers’ only true test of the season, Michigan State should prove to be a very tough out for Bret Bielema’s team.

If history repeats itself, the Badgers are headed for trouble. They haven’t won at East Lansing since 2002, and even though that span only includes two losses, both defeats stung badly: A 49-14 beatdown in 2004 during which the Badgers allowed the Spartans to pile up 551 yards in total offense. That loss ended the No. 5 Badgers’ 9-game win streak to start the season, a stretch that tied the best start in school history.

Four years later, in the middle of what turned out to be a four-game conference losing streak, the Badgers squandered a 24-13 fourth-quarter lead and lost to MSU in the final seconds 25-24.

If those memories don’t scare Badgers fans, perhaps this should: Since 2005, the Badgers have lost every Big Ten road opener, except for last year, when they opened their conference road schedule at unranked Minnesota. The 2010 Michigan State Spartans, currently ranked 24, will be a lot tougher to beat than the 2009 Minnesota Gophers.

2. Vertical Men. After holding some key players out over the last several weeks due to injury (WRs David Gilreath and Nick Toon, tackles Josh Oglesby and Ricky Wagner) and limiting stud RB John Clay simply because they could, the Badgers look to be – save LB Chris Borland, out the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury suffered in the close victory over Arizona State – remarkably healthy.

That’s crucial, since the Badgers are going to need healthy bodies not only on defense but also on offense if they’re going to match the Spartans’ incredibly efficient and balanced offense — MSU is averaging 233 passing yards and 231 rushing yards per game so far.

If the game becomes a shootout similar to last year’s 38-30 game at Camp Randall, it will be interesting to see how TE Lance Kendricks, who has stepped up huge over the last two weeks in the absence of Toon and Gilreath, remains part of the gameplan.

If Kendricks is able to come close to matching his production so far even with Toon and Gilreath on the field, that will be the proverbial silver lining for the Badgers being without their top two wide receivers for much of this young season.

3. Mark Dantonio’s Recovering Hearts Club Band. Saturday’s game will be Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio’s first game back since suffering a mild heart attack after MSU’s emotional overtime victory over Notre Dame on September 18. 

Dantonio’s return – he is scheduled to sit in a coaches’ box high above the field – is the sort of intangible factor that could spur the Spartans to pull off the mild (Badgers are favored by 1-1/2 points) upset. But I (mostly) doubt it.

Final score prediction: Wisconsin 35, Michigan State 33.