Badgers/Buckeyes Preview: Can Bielema Get Biggest Win Of Career?

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.


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