Archive for August, 2011

Badgers Season Preview 2011: Believe The Hype
August 31, 2011

Will These NC State Fans Watch Russell Wilson Bring The Heisman Back To Madison? Or Will Russell Wilson Make Badger Fans Long For Nipsey Russell? Or Wilson Phillips? (You See Where I'm Going With This . . . )

Despite their loss Tuesday night, right now it would be tough to find any team in sports hotter than the Milwaukee Brewers.

Cover of Sports Illustrated. Biggest division lead in Major League Baseball. Huge attendance. Huge merchandising sales. Two players who could legitimately finish 1-2 in MVP voting.

You’d have to go back to 2008 — when Milwaukee earned its first postseason berth in 26 years — for the last time there was nearly so much hype around the Brewers.

Fast-forward just one year to 2009: Despite understandable offseason expectations, the Brewers failed to sustain the good vibes of the previous season and finished with a losing record and out of the playoffs.

I bring this up because parallels can definitely be found between the 2008-2009 Milwaukee Brewers and the current state of the Wisconsin Badgers football team.

Like the Brewers of 2008, the 2010 football Badgers attained what was for them a rare level of success on the field, beating #1 Ohio State, then beating #12 Iowa in Iowa City, then running off an impressive streak of scary-dominant games against Indiana, Michigan, and Northwestern.

But like the Brewers of 2008, the 2010 Badgers disappointed in the postseason, coming up short in the Rose Bowl against a #3-ranked TCU team that was, if anything, even better than advertised.

And like the Brewers of 2008, who lost rented starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia after the season, some key Badgers played their final season for the team in 2010. Gone are quarterback Scott Tolzien, running back John Clay, defensive end J.J. Watt, defensive back Jay Valai, wide receiver David Gilreath, and offensive linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt.

That’s a distressing list of huge playmakers lost, each one having played a huge role in the Badgers’ 2010 11-2 season.

So can the 2011 Wisconsin Badgers football team avoid the letdown that befell the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers?

In a word, yes. In two words, most definitely. In three words, believe the hype.

Let’s look more closely at why, come December, the Badgers should be playing in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, to be followed by a very high-profile bowl game in January.

Offense:

Although Scott Tolzien was at times awe-inspiringly good last year and he put up some downright gaudy statistics (he completed 72.9 percent of his passes, for instance) as the Badgers finished the year as the most efficient offense in the Big Ten (43.3 points per game), it wasn’t as if Wisconsin completely abanondoned their run game. On the contrary, freshman James White and sophomore Montee Ball joined John Clay to engineer one of the most impressive three-headed-monster running attacks in recent college football history: The three combined last year on 46 TDs and gained an average of nearly 6 yards a carry.

And while it could be argued that the Badgers don’t exactly need any highly-regarded running back prospects, Jeff Lewis and Melvin Gordon — both freshmen — have impressed coaches thus far. Despite the loss of Clay, who, partly due to injury, was clearly outshone in the second half of the 2010 season by both White and Ball, the Badgers should have the best running attack in the Big Ten in 2011.

But few people are worried about Wisconsin’s running game. When the Badgers take the field Thursday, September 1, against the UNLV Rebels, all eyes will be on Russell Wilson, the former NC State quarterback who transferred to the Badgers in June.

Rarely if ever has a collegiate athlete transferring from one program to another created such buzz. But it makes sense: Neither of Tolzien’s heir apparents, Jon Budmayr nor Curt Phillips, had been able to impress anyone, a fact that the Badger coaches had run out of ways to try and disguise. (With Budmayr’s elbow injury, freshman Joe Brennan is set to backup Wilson.) As spring turned into summer, lingering doubts about the Badgers’ quarterback position hung like a dark cloud of despair over any talk of the team making another run at a BCS game.

Then Wilson fell into their lap. Far from a fill-in, Wilson will enter Thursday’s game ranking third among active college players both in total yards and touchdowns responsible for. In an analogy that should hit close to home for Badgers fans, it’s like the Minnesota Vikings trading up from Tavaris Jackson to Brett Favre two years back. And, for one season at least — and Wilson only has one season of eligibility left — that worked out pretty well.

If you went looking for an area of concern on the offensive side, it would be the Badgers’ receiving corps, which not only lost Gilreath, but seniors Kyle Jefferson, Isaac Anderson, and tight end Lance Kendricks. Only Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, and sophomore Jeff Duckworth have any college-level pass receptions to their credit, and Duckworth has just three of them. For Wilson to play to his potential, Toon will need to improve upon an injury-plagued 2010 campaign, Abbrederis will need to graduate from role player to starter, and someone, anyone will have to emerge.

As far as the offensive line is concerned, the losses of Moffitt, Carimi, and Bill Nagy will hurt. But one look at Wisconsin’s massive opening-day offensive line, with returning players including Josh Oglesby (6’7″, 330 lbs.), Ricky Wagner — transitioning from right to left tackle — (6’6″, 320 lbs.), Kevin Zeitler (6’4″, 315 lbs.), and Peter Konz (6’5″, 315 lbs.), suggests that a long-standing strength of the Badgers will continue.

Defense:

A cursory glance at the defensive starters returning to the Badgers is bound to make fans feel at ease: safeties Shelton Johnson and Aaron Henry, corners Devin Smith and 2010 All-Big Ten honoree Antonio Fenelus, and linebackers Mike Taylor and especially Chris Borland, who missed most of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury, are a solid core.

But on the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers lost not only two of their team leaders and best big-play guys in J.J. Watt and Jay Valai, but they also lost defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who left to take over the head coaching job at Northern Illinois University. Doeren was so good Bielema decided he needed two guys to replace him: Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, who cut their teeth as Bielema’s defensive backs and defensive line coaches respectively.

Statisically speaking, Wisconsin’s defense was good if not spectacular last season, finishing fifth in the Big Ten in points per game allowed and fourth in yardage allowed. But of course those stats don’t tell the whole story: The Badgers’s offense spotted their defense to such huge leads so often last year that a little statistical letdown was inevitable. But in close games, Wisconsin’s defense could be brilliant, their performances against Ohio State and TCU in the Rose Bowl the most notable examples.

Word from camp is that Ash and Partridge will play a more aggressive defense than Doeren; it remains to be seen how that strategy, if implemented, will play out, but the Badgers certainly have the playmakers to give any new defensive schemes a high rate of success.

Specialists:

Philip Welch has been a productive — and busy — placekicker over the last three years, making 77 percent of his field goal tries and 153 out of a possible 156 extra points. While he might miss the UNLV game due to a groin injury, there don’t seem to be any fears about him missing any more time.

Punter Brad Nortman had a terrific 2010 and, although he didn’t always see a lot of action due to the Badgers’ prolific offense, became something of a folk hero after his successful and game-changing fake punt against Iowa last October.

Certainly the biggest question concerning the Badgers’ special teams is the return game: With David Gilreath gone, Jared Abbrederis and James White will share the return duty. Both have seen kick return coverage in the past, and both have the requierd explosiveness to back up Bielema’s faith: Abbrederis twice returned kickoffs for 52 yards last season, and few can question White’s ability to break tackles and get into the open field.

Intangibles:

The 2011 Badgers will have to do a better job than the 2009 Milwaukee Brewers of dealing with tons of preseason hype. The Badgers open the season ranked 11th in the AP Poll, and beyond simple rankings, they know that expectations are high. As head coach Bret Bielema recently said, “It’s fun and I think it’s a sign of respect. There’s not a lot of negativity around our program. A lot of things going around college football have stayed out of Madison. I like the character and the kids we have. Hopefully, it doesn’t go to their heads.”

What looks to be a relatively easy schedule, with only the October 1 home game against Nebraska — the Cornhuskers’ inaugural conference game in the Big Ten — and the October 22 game at Michigan State, looking worrisome, probably won’t help the Badgers players from getting overconfident. (We should know by that October 29 game if a rebuilding Ohio State program is legit or not. I’m guessing not.)

Regular Season Prediction: 10-2, first in “Leaders” division.

First up:

Thursday, Sept. 1. UNLV. Camp Randall Stadium. 7 p.m. ESPN.

The line is 45-1/2 points. The Badgers haven’t lost a season opener since 1997. Even if Russell Wilson understandably starts out rusty, the outcome shouldn’t dampen the spirits of a wired Madison crowd hungry for football and another shot at the Rose Bowl.

Prediction: Wisconsin 35, UNLV 14.

The Case For The Preseason
August 22, 2011

Nyjer Who?

Baseball fans, broadcasters, even players and managers – regardless of their team’s record – must get highly annoyed this time of year.

Every August, no matter how many compelling stories exist or how heated the division races are, relevant, significant MLB games suddenly take a backseat to meaningless, inconsequential exhibition NFL games.

Think the drawn-out NFL lockout soured professional football fans? Think again.

The NFL Network reported a whopping 67% audience increase for its first national preseason game compared to 2011. FOX notched its highest-rated Friday night in seven months with a boring Buccaneers/Chiefs blowout.

And, in the most direct and obvious evidence of preseason football’s dominance over regular-season baseball, the August 15 premiere of ESPN’s Monday Night Football featuring the Jets and Texans earned the worldwide leader in sports nearly 4.7 million viewers. The night before, a Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN, featuring at least one team in the postseason picture (the St. Louis Cardinals), earned the worldwide leader in sports only 1.8 million viewers.

(Worse than losing out to exhibition football? How about losing out to the vapid Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which, on the same August 14 night and on a weaker network, nearly doubled baseball’s audience with 3.16 million viewers. Baseball fans can take some solace in figuring everyone involved with the worst television program since Saved by the Bell: The College Years has already earned their own special place in Hell. Save for Bruce Jenner, who at least seems to have some level of contempt for the ridiculous family he married into.)

While on some level I sympathize with baseball purists who must tear their hair out over baseball’s inability to compete with exhibition football, on many other levels I understand it. In fact, in regards to preseason football, I have in recent years developed a “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude – just like I did in high school when many of my friends decided that Andrew Dice Clay was the messiah of comedy.

I’m guessing my appreciation of preseason football will last a little longer than my appreciation for the “Diceman” did.

So, in case you are among the uninitiated, here is my Case for Preseason Football:

1. Welcome Back, Football. We Missed You. Unlike baseball, basketball, and hockey, football is the only major sport that has an offseason longer than a rutabaga’s shelf life. Preseason football is watchable in large part because football goes away long enough for us to know it’s been gone. Hell, when the Packers beat the Steelers in February 2011, Charlie Sheen still worked for CBS. That’s how long the football offseason is.

2. What Else Is There To Watch? Yes, there’s baseball. And yes, there’s CBS’s Big Brother. And if you have subscribe to Netflix’s streaming service, you can watch any episode of Cheers (awesome) or iCarly (not as awesome) anytime you want. But most everything else is in reruns, unless of course, you really are one of those 3.16 million people who really have to keep up with Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe.

3. Fantasy Football Research I. If you play in a fantasy football league, the preseason can be an invaluable tool for preparing for your all-important draft, especially if you have an eye on a much-hyped rookie such as Mark Ingram or Julio Jones. Skilled fantasy players will know enough not to take rookies too soon, but checking out how potential stars look in the preseason can give owners a good idea on who and potentially when to draft one for upside potential. (Especially important for keeper or dynasty leagues.)

4. Fantasy Football Research II. Preseason football is also the best way for fantasy football owners to see how players coming off of injuries look as those players get the first chance to play real tackle football and take real hits for maybe the first time in months. I’m guessing that those owners thinking about targeting Ryan Grant or Jermichael Finley feel a little better after the first two preseason games. Those thinking of targeting Peyton Manning, of course, are out of luck.

5. Discovering New Talent. Packers fans know how good Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings are. What’s fun about watching preseason football is discovering new players that display possible breakout potential, like wide receivers Chastin West or receiver/kick returner Randall Cobb. Granted, often these players are matched up against second- or third-string defenses, but the players and their potential still become compelling stories that fans like to follow through on.

6.Feel-Good Time. Like to watch the Olympics because of the “up close and personal” profiles of the athletes? Preseason games often include more personal interviews and information on both veteran players and especially rookies. I remember specifically taking an immediate liking to Packers LB Desmond Bishop a couple of years ago not only because of his tough play, but because of a moving and funny interview he gave during a preseason game. Which made me feel even worse for him when he forgot his ID and couldn’t join his teammates at the White House to meet President Obama. (Still, how do you fly to Washington specifically for an honor as big as meeting the President and forget to bring ID? I could see leaving your Piggly Wiggly preferred card behind, but a photo ID?)

7. You Call Yourself An Assistant Coach? One of the lamer bumper stickers seen on Wisconsin roadways is one that reads:Assistant Coach Green Bay. But there is admittedly a kernel of truth to that sentiment. Most football fans like to make calls (or better yet, second-guess calls) while watching games, and in the preseason, with so many players fighting for roster spots, the exercise is even more enjoyable, as fans can argue which players should make the team and which are so lousy that we hope they get picked up by our closest rival.

As much as some may want grouse about it, preseason football isn’t going anywhere. It’s too profitable for team owners (look at how quickly the lockout was resolved when owners were faced with losing out on revenue generated by exhibition games), it’s too important for coaches and GMs in determining their opening –day roster, it’s too profitable for the media outlets that carry the games, and, as annually proven by the TV ratings, it’s all sorts of popular.

Preseason football, I’m with you. Don’t ever change. And don’t ever go away.

Now, the Kardashian sisters, on the other hand . . .

Unsettling Questions For Unsettling Times
August 10, 2011

Will There Be More Reasons Than Just The Sausage Race And Bernie Brewer To Go To A Brewers Game After Labor Day?

These are unsettling times.

Stocks are fluctuating more wildly and unpredictably than Kirstie Alley’s weight.

Rioting in London seems to be as widespread as Doctor Who reruns on BBC America.

There appears to be a new Justin Bieber in our midst.

And right here at home, Wisconsin’s recall elections, while some may argue highlight our nation’s glorious democratic process, in reality only highlight our nation’s inglorious, crippling, and deepening political divide.

Is it any wonder that most of us find ourselves walking around looking as weary and confused as Bruce Jenner trying to make sense of his goofball stepfamily on Keeping up with the Kardashians?

But at least we can all take solace in the escapist world of sports, right?

Not exactly.

Even though restless souls across the nation were somewhatsoothed by the ending of the NFL lockout, the sports world still contains many unsolved mysteries, most of which keep better men than me up way past our bedtimes (well, that and the hope of coming across that Ahh Bra infomerical).

Let’s look at some of the biggest question marks in sports and see how concerned you should be about each confounding conundrum:

1. The Milwaukee Brewers Are For Real. The Brewers are unquestionably the hottest team in baseball, winning 12 out of their last 13, in the process turning what was recently a four-team race in the NL Central into a two-team race between them and their closest rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. (And that one loss? A one-run extra-inning heart breaker to, who else, the Cardinals). Best of all might be the fact that Milwaukee, who throughout the season have traveled about as well as these guys, have won their last four games on the road. Some may nitpick that Milwaukee has gotten a little fat off of playing the likes of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, but all one has to do is look at the example of the until-recently-contending Pittsburgh Pirates to realize that, no matter who you play, it’s not easy to win as the pressure of a pennant race builds. The Pirates lost seven in a row to the same Cubs and equally inept San Diego Padres to fall out of contention in the NL Central.

Though the Brewers have broken hearts before, most recently two years ago when they toyed with contention long enough to make things interesting (they eventually finished two games under but 11 games back of the Cardinals), it would be tough to be too critical of what is happening in Milwaukee these days. The Brewers are the third-best hitting team in the NL. Prince Fielder has broken out of his mini post-All Star slump. Nyjer Morgan continues to impress and is now challenging Ryan Braun for the title of the Brewers most-consistent hitter.

Most importantly, the pitching staff isn’t consistently letting down their offense. Zach Greinke, after a disappointing at best start to the season, has won three straight decisions and has dropped his ERA by more than a point in the last month. The addition of Francisco Rodriguez (nine scoreless appearances out of 11 with Milwaukee) has solidified the Brewers’ middle relief, and the appearances by closer John Axford (30 consecutive saves) have been as consistently satisfying as Regis Philbin’s appearances on David Letterman. (Or anywhere, really. Regis is king.)

What does “for real” mean? If it means a team that will contend for the league pennant, I say the Brewers have proven to be for real. Cause for concern: Minimal.

2. The Eagles Have Surpassed The Packers As The Favorites In The NFC. What the Philadelphia Eagles have done, with signing seemingly most of this year’s available free agents, is awesome.  It’s awesome for football, because it creates another team now everyone can collectively hate (the NFL’s version of the Miami Heat), it’s awesome because it creates a never-ending story that should captivate even the most casual NFL fans and fantasy football players, and it’s awesome because it won’t work.

I’m not suggesting that the Eagles won’t be a good team in 2011. With Michael Vick back, DeSean Jackson  ending his holdout, the free-agent signings of Nnamdi Asomugha, Cullen Jenkins, Ronnie Brown, Vince Young, and the trade for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Eagles will be a solid team. But a comparison to the 2010-2011 Miami Heat is apt because the 2011 Eagles will be good, but not good enough. There are too many issues of health (Vick) depth (QB and RB) and areas of weakness (offensive line, linebackers).

And for all of their signings, only Asomugha is likely to have the impact of the Patriots’ acquisitions of Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. Hey, quantity over quality sometimes works in fantasy football, but not in the real deal.

True, the Packers haven’t done much and they’ve lost more big names (Jenkins, Mark Tauscher, Nick Barnett) then they’ve retained (James Jones, Mason Crosby). But surely not everyone has forgotten how good this team looked from about October on last year (OK, throw out that painful 7-3 loss to the Lions). Now add Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant back to that mix?

Sorry, Philly. Enjoy that NFC East title, though.  Cause for concern: Trifling.

3. The NBA Lockout Will Result In The Loss Of The Entire 2011-2012 NBA Season. How bad is it for the NBA? Union chief Billy Hunter just revealed that he would bet against a 2011-2012 season .  And he’s one of the more optimistic parties. Meanwhile, more and more players (like Wisconsin’s Jon Leuer) are packing their bags to play overseas. Hope they packed plenty of underwear, because their exile could be a long one. Cause for concern: Hefty.

4. Badgers QB Russell Wilson Won’t Live Up To The Hype. With all of the love thrown North Carolina State transfer Wilson’s way, you would have thought that the Bucky’s performance at the QB position had been holding the Badgers back. Last I remembered, Scott Tolzien (21-5 as a starter) was pretty good. No, the Wilson signing was more a reaction to how bad the Badgers could possibly have been at quarterback with the likes of Jon Budmayr or Curt Phillips. Wilson isn’t just a minor upgrade from those guys, he’s like going from Rick Springfield to Bruce Springsteen. But maybe Human Touch/Lucky Town era Bruce Springsteen: Let’s let him play in a new conference with his new team a little before anointing him the greatest QB ever to wear red. Cause for concern: Moderate.

With apologies to the late Robert Stack, thanks for checking in on these Unsolved Mysteries. It’ll be fascinating to see how they get unraveled in the weeks and months ahead. At least more fascinating than any episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.