Archive for December, 2010

Rose Bowl Preview: Who Wins?
December 24, 2010

The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s impressive run aside, a sizable number of streaks have ended recently. The Detroit Lions’ road losing streak. Brett Favre’s consecutive starts streak. Survivor’s streak of entertaining seasons. (Guess CBS should sign Russell Hantz up to a long-term contract.)

One streak in danger of coming to an end this New Year’s Day is the Wisconsin Badgers’ run of not losing at the Rose Bowl.

Hey, maybe it’s not as impressive as Grandpa Favre starting in 297 consecutive NFL games, but you’d have to go back to 1963 to find a Rose Bowl game that the Wisconsin Badgers went to and lost.

When they take on the undefeated TCU Horned Frogs on New Year’s Day, can the 11-1 Badgers make it four Rose Bowl victories in a row?

Let’s take a look at the matchups:

Wisconsin’s run offense vs. TCU’s run defense. This is the marquee matchup of the game. While Wisconsin has been running all over its opponents this year to the tune of 247 yards per game, TCU’s defense has been treating opposing rushers like Betty White in a Snickers commercial, allowing just 89 yards per game on the ground. And before you say that TCU hasn’t faced a rushing attack as good as Wisconsin’s, they actually have. In October, TCU took on Air Force’s third-ranked rushing offense and did OK, holding them to 184 yards, or about 133 yards below their season average. Meanwhile, Wisconsin finished the year 12th in rushing offense, but Montee Ball and James White got better each week as they led the Badgers to three straight games of over 300 yards on the ground to end the regular season. On the flip side, Wisconsin has faced a rush defense almost as good as TCU’s in Ohio State — the Buckeyes allowed about 94 yards on the ground per game this season, and the Badgers doubled that at 184. With John Clay reportedly healthy, and White and Ball running ridiculously well behind the Badgers’ massive offensive line,  Bielema’s three-headed monster should be enough to scare TCU’s run defense into mediocrity. Don’t look for the Badgers to break 300 yards on the ground again, but 200 isn’t out of the question. Which would be a victory for Wisconsin. Advantage: Badgers.

TCU’s run offense vs. Wisconsin’s run defense. Wisconsin’s rush defense fell off sharply from last year but was far from laughable, allowing about 132 yards per game. More imporantly, they held the best rushing offenses they faced — Michigan and Ohio State — well below their season averages. However, TCU runs the ball better than Michigan or Ohio State, or, surprisingly enough, even Wisconsin. But as the Badgers’ run game improved as the year continued, TCU’s rush offense, led by sophomore Ed Wesley, regressed. Wesley should be easier for Wisconsin to defend then their own threesome, but it’s not difficult to imagine that he comes back from the month-long break refreshed enough to give the Badgers’ defense fits.  Advantage: Horned Frogs.

Wisconsin’s pass offense vs. TCU’s pass defense. As good as Scott Tolzien has been this season — and he’s been superb, completing nearly 75 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns and only six interceptions — he’s been successful largely because of the dominance of his ground game and the tendency of opposing defenses to overcommit to stopping the run. (A commitment that usually fails.) If TCU can resist most opponents’ habit of overplaying the run, the Horned Frogs, who lead the country in pass defense, should be able to limit Tolzien. The good news for Wisconsin is that they don’t ask Tolzien to do too much. The bad news is in this game he might not be able to even do that. Advantage (slight): Horned Frogs.

TCU’s pass offense vs. Wisconsin’s pass defense. TCU’s Andy Dalton has a more eye-popping resume than Scott Tolzien: He has the most wins — 41 — of any current starting player in college football, and whereas Tolzien threw for 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2010, Dalton tossed for a whopping 26 touchdowns with only six interceptions. However, Wisconsin’s pass defense has been opportunistic of late, and players like DE J.J. Watt, and CB Antonio Fenelus are better than what Dalton sees in the Mountain West Conference. Even so, it’s hard to argue with a player who has had as much continuous success as Dalton. Advantage: Horned Frogs.

Special teams. Wisconsin’s kick returner David Gilreath, with his opening kickoff return for a touchdown against Ohio State, and Badger punter Brad Nortman, with his fake punt against Iowa, are special teams players responsible for two of the biggest plays in a Badgers season full of big plays. But they’ve been solid all season: Gilreath has been averaging 25.7 yards per kickoff return while Nortman (although he hasn’t been punting that much) averages 42.8 yards per punt. Kicker Philip Welch has been perfect this season on extra points and has converted on 15 of 19 field goal attempts. TCU is no slouch in this area either, as their main return man, wide receiver Jeremy Kerley, has been named the Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year for the last two seasons. Anyone who watched the Arizona State game early in the season knows that kick coverage can present problems for Wisconsin, so Kerley could have a big game here. But Gilreath is still the bigger threat. Advantage: Badgers.

Intangibles. As the only undefeated team not to be in the BCS Championship Game, TCU is playing to prove to the college football world that they belonged in that game. But TCU’s presence in the Rose Bowl should elevate Wisconsin’s game as well, with Bret Bielema using TCU’s undefeated status to sell the game to his players as a secondary “championship game.” While it’s tough to look at TCU’s body of work this year and find many holes, it does simply come back to the level of competition that they’ve faced, not to mention that in the next-to-last game of the season they almost got beat by San Diego State at home. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has been breathtakingly good playing bigger programs in a tougher conference. Yes, the RPI rankings say that TCU faced a tougher schedule than the Badgers, but that seems to be largely a function of Wisconsin’s soft non-conference schedule (Austin Peay?). Advantage: Badgers.

Coaching. TCU’s Gary Patterson is one of the most respected coaches in college football, having earned an astounding seven coaching awards after the 2009 season, including the AP Coach of the Year award and the Eddie Robinson Award. More importantly, his teams win: His 97-28 record amassed during ten years at TCU is outstanding. While Bielema’s numbers aren’t quite as gaudy, they are nothing to laugh at either: 49-15 over five seasons at Wisconsin. Bielema has also shown an impressive maturation over the last couple of seasons, as the sideline meltdown of 2008 seems like something out of the distant past. He has the Badgers playing at the highest level they’ve played at for years, if ever, and although he’s gotten some heat for running up the score (A 2-point conversion against the lowly Gophers? Really?), he’s shown great and gutsy decision-making when things get tight, most obviously the fake punt call against Iowa. Again, this largely comes down to level of competition, but Advantage: Badgers.

Final score prediction: In one of the most anticipated Rose Bowl matchups in years, this one won’t disappoint. TCU will prove that it belongs, but Wisconsin will prove that it’s the more battle-tested, skilled team. In one for the ages, Wisconsin 35, TCU 31.

Rose Bowl Preview: Where Does 2010 Badgers Team Rank?
December 23, 2010

If Bret Bielema’s Wisconsin Badgers defeat Gary Patterson’s TCU Horned Frogs on January 1, will Bielema be credited with putting together the best Badgers season of the last twenty years?

Clearly Bielema’s tremendous 2010 campaign is predominantly being compared with Barry Alvarez’s three Rose Bowl-winning seasons of 1993, 1998, and 1999.

Let’s take a look at those three Alvarez-helmed seasons and Bielema’s yet-to-be-finalized 2010 season.

1993: The year that older (re: non-student) fans will probably always think of as the Badgers’ “championship season.”

Coming off of a pedestrian 5-6 season in 1992, most followers couldn’t have seen what was to come in 1993 (although a 1992 victory over Ohio State was a portent that the Badgers were gaining some level of respectability). The Badgers won their first six games of the season by an average margin of 18 points (proving that Bielema didn’t invent the lopsided victory), but then had a setback with an inexplicable loss at rival Minnesota. 

The following week’s victory over Michigan was bittersweet: The 13-10 win over the Wolverines was a rarity at the time for the Badgers, but the joy at winning the game turned quickly to sorrow as 73 fans were injured after the game as thousands stormed the field in celebration. Fortunately, no such incident occurred the next week in what turned out to be a more signficant contest against then-undefeated Ohio State. In the days before college overtime, the Badgers tied the Buckeyes 14-14.

The Badgers then went on to dominate Illinois and Michigan State, the latter game being the final annual “Mirage Bowl” which took place in Tokyo, Japan. The time difference between Tokyo and Madison meant that the Badgers’ sealed the invitation to the Badgers’ first Rose Bowl in thirty years at about 1 a.m. Madison time. Predictably, a huge party erupted downtown, and fortunately it was not the final time of the season that Wisconsin fans would feel compelled to celebrate as the No. 9 Badgers beat the No. 14 UCLA Bruins 21-16 on January 1. The Rose Bowl victory in front of 101,237 in attendance was impressive and not as close as the final score indicated: The Badgers’ suffocating defense forced six turnovers, MVP Brent Moss ran for 158 yards and two touchdowns, and QB Darrell Bevell scored an unlikely (for him) 21-yard touchdown run to give the Badgers what proved to be an insurmountable 21-10 fourth quarter lead.

1998: ESPN analyst Craig James famously called Alvarez’s 1998 11-1 Badgers team “the worst team to ever play in the Rose Bowl.” After Wisconsin beat UCLA 38-31, Alvarez famously shot back, “I know we’re at least the second worst.” But did James have any legitimate basis for his remarks?

Well, the team was able to avoid facing 11-1 Ohio State and got beat badly at No. 12 Michigan 27-10. But behind running back Ron Dayne  and a brilliant defense, the team had little trouble with the rest of their schedule, beating No. 21 Penn State by 21, and outscoring Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota by a combined total of 132-17. What the Badgers didn’t have in 1998 was solid quarterback play: Senior Mike Samuel threw just six touchdowns all season while only completing 52 percent of his passes. The team also showed a surprising vulnerability on defense when it surrendered a record-setting 538 yards to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. As ridiculous as James’s comments were, the 1998 team was indeed the least well-rounded of Alvarez’s Rose Bowl teams. But it was fun to watch Ron Dayne rumble.

1999: And Ron Dayne continued to rumble in 1999, gaining 1,834 yards on the ground, setting the NCAA career rushing record mark with 6,397 yards, and taking home the Heisman Trophy.

But early on things didn’t look so promising for the team during Dayne’s senior season. A shocking loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats and yet another defeat to Michigan left the Badgers at 2-2 four weeks in. But in week five, the Badgers blew out their rival Ohio State 42-17 and then didn’t slow down the rest of the year, finishing the season with eight straight wins and a school-best No. 4 ranking.

Unlike recent Rose Bowl seasons, the Badgers didn’t need a tie-breaker to advance to Pasadena, as they were the only Big Ten team to finish 7-1 in the conference. And while freshman quarterback Brooks Bollinger, who completed 59.5 percent of his passes with just eight touchdowns, wasn’t an enormous improvement in the passing game over Mike Samuel, his ability to run added a dangerous dimension to the offense. Bollinger totaled five touchdowns on the ground, ran for 427 yards, and took home Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. 

Also in Alvarez’s final Rose Bowl season, the Badgers averaged more than 35 points a game and were among the top ten programs in the nation in scoring offense. Oh, and the defense was pretty good too, culminating in a suffocating Rose Bowl performance during which they surrendered a ridiculous minus-5 yards rushing. After beating Stanford 17-9, the Badgers became the first Big Ten team to win the Rose Bowl two years in a row. Alvarez’s best team.

2010: But not as good as this one.

Despite nostalgia for Alvarez’s early years and the return to power of Wisconsin football, despite wonderful memories of Ron Dayne shredding opposing defenses, Bielema’s team in 2010 was simply astonishingly good. Instead of Dayne solo’s act, Bielema had an embarrassment of riches in the backfield with John Clay, Montee Ball, and standout freshman James White. And while the defense as a whole perhaps wasn’t as solid as in Alvarez’s glory years — hard to fault the intensity wavering a bit when your offense is putting up 83 points — defensive end J.J. Watt, recipient of the 2010 Lott Trophy, and safety Jay Valai — he of the key blocked PAT against Arizona State — in particular were phenomenal contributors.

But the biggest difference between this and previous Badger Rose Bowl teams was the quarterback play. Scott Tolzien completed a whopping 74 percent of his passes for 16 touchdowns, giving the Badgers a dimension on offense that they simply didn’t have before. They became shockingly efficient on that side of the ball, ranking number four in total offense. In the nation.

And from a coaching perspective, Bielema not only distinguished himself by running up the score on several occasions — and there’s really no debate, as the Badgers clearly did. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) — Bielema also distinguished himself by making superb and gutsy coaching decisions, the most obvious being the fake punt against Iowa that directly led to Wisconsin’s winning score in a 31-30 instant classic.

Now all that’s left to seal the 2010 Badgers team as the best team in Badgers history is for Wisconsin to beat TCU on January 1.

Playing the Horned Frogs, who not only are clearly talented but are playing with a chip on their shoulder after being the only undefeated team left out of the BCS Championship Game — not to mention being marginazlied by many due to the conference they play in — is probably the biggest challenge the Badgers have faced in Pasadena.

But anyone who has watched the Badgers play this season, particularly since the October 16 toppling of then-No. 1 Ohio State, has to find it nearly impossible to bet against them.

Bielema Needs This
December 23, 2010

Aaron Rodgers has Brett Favre. Drew Carey has Bob Barker. Steven Tyler will have Simon Cowell. And Bret Bielema has Barry Alvarez.

Rodgers, Carey, Tyler, and Bielema are all men who, while very successful at face value, all have predecessors who loom excessively large in how they are perceived.

Despite his success, which includes a 49-15 record and this season’s first Badgers victory over a #1-ranked team in nearly thirty years, for many Wisconsin head football coach Bielema still toils in the shadows of former coach Barry Alvarez. 

It’s not surprising. Even more so than Favre revitalized the Packers franchise, Alvarez brought Wisconsin football back from the dead and kept it very much alive for sixteen years, compiling the longest and most impressive coaching resume in Badgers football history.

And, like Rodgers has had to deal with Favre still being active (though #4’s days finally seem to be running out), Bielema has also had to deal with Alvarez’s continued presence, thanks to Alvarez’s high-profile role as UW athletic director (to say nothing of that thunderous Alvarez-heavy highlight reel that runs before each Badger home game).

There’s also the not-insignificant fact that Alvarez remains the only Badgers coach in history to win a Rose Bowl.

Well, actually three of them.

Now Bielema, to top off his fifth and most successful season, has his chance to win the bowl game affectionately known as the “Granddaddy of Them All.”

Will a No. 4 Badgers victory over No. 3 TCU this New Year’s Day finally be enough for Bielema to escape Alvarez’s shadow?

Or, perhaps more to the point, will a 2011 Rose Bowl loss trigger unfairly negative comparisons to his former boss, who has never left Pasadena without a Rose Bowl victory under his ample belt?

After all, it was only two years ago during an uncharacteristic four-game conference losing streak that Bielema was widely accused of losing control of his team. During that stretch he was labeled as inferior not only to Barry Alvarez but also to UW men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan (who, for all of his accolades, has gotten the Badgers out of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend just once since Bielema took over the football program).

For Bielema to truly create his own coaching legacy, he has some advantage to coaching a collegiate team; part of his fan base – namely, the students, who are passionate about the team as long as the games don’t start at 11 a.m.—have little or no memory of the Alvarez glory years, just like UW students during those years had no memory of the nadir of the Don Morton era.

But since much of the Badgers fan base is made of alumni that continue to follow the team years and decades after they stopped attending house parties on Breese Terrace, there still exists a shadow from which Bielema would like to escape.

But of course even if Bielema pulls off the victory on January 1 — and the Badgers as of this writing are a minor underdog — he will still face the daunting task of needing to win two more Rose Bowls just to match Alvarez’s total.

Fortunately for BIelema, he’s young enough – rumor has it that Joe Paterno has great-grandchildren younger than Bielema – that he should be afforded plenty of time to match it.

But he can’t squander this golden opportunity to start collecting Rose Bowl wins. Or people throughout Badger Nation will be muttering,  “He’s no Barry.”

And they won’t be talking about Manilow.

Just Who (Or What) Are These Horned Frogs, Anyhow?
December 13, 2010

There’s no doubt about it: Texas Christian University has one of the silliest mascots in the country.

The Horned Frogs.

But what is not silly at all is the success that TCU’s football team has had in recent years.

The team has gone to nine bowl games in the ten years that Gary Patterson has coached, winning four in a row before losing 17-10 to Boise State in last year’s Fiesta Bowl.

More impressively, the team has racked up back-to-back undefeated seasons, winning 24 out of its last 25 games with that loss to the Broncos as their only blemish.

Being the only undefeated team in the country to be shut out of the BCS Championship Game, TCU still struggles at times with a lack of respect.

After all, the team competes in the Mountain West, one of those conferences that Ohio State University president Gordon Gee just dismissed as being made up of teams equivalent in talent to the “the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

No question that TCU feels it has a lot to prove as they prepare to face the Wisconsin Badgers in the Rose Bowl on January 1.

So the question becomes, can TCU, in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “prove it all night” against the 11-1 Badgers?

The numbers certainly suggest that they can.

While the Badgers have been a breathtaking example of offensive power and efficiency, scoring more than 30 points in every one of their final seven games and a ridiculous 201 combined points in just their last three, TCU has been just as good.

In fact, TCU and Wisconsin are tied for fourth in the country in scoring offense, both totaling 43.3 points a game. But TCU has been even better than the Badgers in total offense, gaining more yards both through the air and even on the ground while maintaining a greater than two-minute time of possession advantage over the Badgers.

TCU’s passing attack is led by senior Andy Dalton, who has more wins as a starter – 41 – than any other quarterback in the nation. Behind a solid and experienced offensive line, Dalton faces less pressure than most quarterbacks do just deciding what checkout line to use at the grocery store: He’s been sacked just nine times all season. Completing 66 percent of his passes for 26 touchdowns and just six interceptions, Dalton is ranked fifth in the nation in pass efficiency, just one spot lower than – you guessed it – Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien.

Undoubtedly more surprising to most Badgers fans is that TCU has run the ball this year with just as much success as the Badgers. Both schools average a nice 5.5 yards per carry. And just as the Badgers have done it with the three-headed monster of John Clay, James White, and Montee Ball, TCU has three impressive backs of its own with Ed Wesley, Matthew Tucker, and Waymon James.

In another eerie similarity, just as Clay has been slowed by injury, so has Wesley. Though both backs claim they will be back to 100 percent by January 1, neither team rushing attack should suffer too much either way.

If TCU has an edge, it is on the defensive side of the ball. While Wisconsin was more than respectable on defense (finishing as the 29th ranked unit in college football), the horned frogs were downright nasty, allowing fewer points, yards, and rushing yards than any other school in the country. Their unit is led by LB Tank Carder, who earned Mountain West defensive player of the year honors while racking up 54 tackles.

Both TCU’s and Wisconsin’s defensive units had the advantage of playing with huge leads most of the season. Assuming the Rose Bowl is close – and all statistics suggest it will be – it will be fascinating to see how the units respond to the pressure of a tight game. If a big defensive play is needed to stop a drive or preserve the victory, does any Badger follower not think that Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt will be there to make it?

While most of the scrutiny being directed at TCU involves whether they can “play with the big boys” in what is generally seen as the second highest-profile bowl game of the year, it’s somewhat shocking to discover that most RPI and computer-based rankings suggest that TCU actually played a tougher schedule than the Badgers did in 2010.

For example, final regular-season RPI rankings have TCU surviving an undefeated season having faced the 72nd toughest schedule of the year, while the Badgers played the 79th most difficult schedule in 2010. Not a big difference, but certainly contrary to most people’s perceptions of who had the easiest road to the Rose Bowl. (While the Horned Frogs faced some fairly respected opponents like Utah, Air Force, and San Diego State, the Badgers are docked big points for that Austin Peay non-conference matchup.)

The Badgers are saying all of the right things heading into their Rose Bowl matchup against TCU. There is no indication that Bret Bielema or any of his players are treating the Horned Frogs as anything remotely resembling, again in Gordon Gee’s words, “the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

Because if they did, the Badgers, and not just TCU’s mascot, might end up the silly-looking ones come Jan. 1.