Archive for October, 2011

Badgers/Spartans Preview: Beating The East Lansing Blues
October 21, 2011

Let the games begin.

And no, that’s not a reference to Sunday’s Packers/Vikings tilt, another likely blowout Packers victory that on the surface has about as much potential drama and intrigue as a typical episode of Calliou.

[Speaking of the Vikings, there’s an interesting factoid that Sunday’s game, featuring rookie QB Christian Ponder making his starting debut, is the fourth Packers/Vikings matchup in just the last eleven seasons in which the Vikings have trotted out a quarterback making his first start for the team.

The roster moves make sense: If the Vikings were to win (as they almost did with Spergon Wynn in 2001), they could crow all the more that they beat the vaunted Packers with a rookie QB. If they were to lose – as they have with the three previous rookies – they can say, “Big deal. We had a quarterback playing his first game! Of course we were going to lose!” Anyway, Packers by three touchdowns at least.]

And sadly, it’s also not a reference to the Brewers, who nevertheless had a tremendous season before being knocked out of the postseason last Sunday by the hated St. Louis Cardinals. But we’re going to be positive here and not point any fingers for the Brew Crew getting so viciously tapped. (Shaun Marcum and Rickie Weeks, you can thank us later.)

Nope, this is about the No. 4-ranked Wisconsin football Badgers, who are about to play their first real road game of the season Saturday night against the No. 15-ranked Spartans of Michigan State.

It’s should be noted that, while the Badgers have had an easy schedule up to now, they have passed one challenge with flying colors, smothering the Nebraska Cornhuskers 48-17 three weeks ago.

But that was at home. Not in East Lansing.

Ah, East Lansing. What is it about a trip to the home of the Spartans that tends to foul a Badgers season the way that Shaun Marcum’s trips to the mound tend to foul a Brewers postseason? (Oops, did we say no pointing fingers?)

Just last season, the Spartans handed the visiting Badgers their only regular season loss. Three years ago, the Badgers completely unraveled at Spartan Stadium as MSU handed them their fifth loss in six games. And in 2004, the No. 4-ranked Badgers (sound familiar?) came home humbled after getting pounded by Michigan State to the tune of 49-14.

In fact, you’d have to go back all the way to 2002 – you know, back when a guy named Brian Dunkleman co-hosted American Idol – to find the last time the Badgers defeated the Spartans in East Lansing.

But this year is different, right? The Badgers are playing even better now than they were last year during their run to the Rose Bowl, right?

Well, you ain’t wrong. Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines of the game:

1. Unstoppable force versus immovable object. It’s the age-old question: Nu Shooz or T’Pau? Oops, rather: What wins games: offense or defense? The Spartans are second in the county in total defense, having shut down Ohio State and, more impressively, the previously high-flying Michigan Wolverines. Meanwhile, the Badgers are first in scoring offense.

Thing is, the Badgers defense is pretty good, too, actually allowing fewer points per game than the Spartans (9.7 to 10.8), and playing about three shutdown quarters against a very good Nebraska offense. And the Spartans, despite their impressive work against Michigan QB Denard Robinson, have not faced a multifaceted offense as complete as the Badgers possess. In this case at least, the force seems more unstoppable than the object seems immovable.

2. Sparring Spartans Shorthanded. One of the reasons the Spartans may be less immovable Saturday night is because the Big Ten has suspended Michigan State defensive end William Gholston for a week due to rampant stupidity. Well, the conference doesn’t phrase it that way, instead citing Gholston’s decision to punch a Wolverine player during last week’s game.

Gholston, although apparently not very bright, is a bright spot on the Spartans’ defense, notching 20 tackles so far this season with seven tackles for a loss. The Badgers didn’t need the help, but they will likely take advantage of it.

3. Can Spartans Keep Up? In their only loss of the season, a 31-13 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame, the Spartans got behind early and were forced to play catch-up all afternoon; as a result, MSU gained only a paltry 29 yards rushing and senior QB Kirk Cousins put up a whopping 53 pass attempts, more than twice the 24 throws he has averaged per game the rest of the season.

In short, the Spartans don’t have a high-flying offense. If the Badgers can get out to an early lead, not only can they take the crowd out of the game, but they will force MSU into a style of football they don’t want to play. Conversely, Wisconsin’s offense seems built for pretty much any style.

Given the recent series between these teams, it seems dangerous to pick against Michigan State at home.

But the Badgers need to give people a reason to pick against them, and so far, they haven’t.

Prediction: Wisconsin 28, Michigan State 13.

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Wisconsin/Indiana Preview: Where’s The Mercy Rule?
October 14, 2011

David Letterman is one great Hoosier. One more than Wisconsin fans will see at Saturday's Homecoming game vs. Indiana.

This weekend at Camp Randall. Indiana at Wisconsin. It’s a little early for Halloween, but go ahead and insert a blood-curdling scream here. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a yawn.

After participating in one of the most-hyped regular-season college football games in recent memory, the Wisconsin Badgers football team is this weekend set to play in a game that has less excitement swirling around it than a Color Me Badd reunion tour.

Let’s briefly look at the resumes: Wisconsin is ranked No. 4 in the nation and has won its first five games by a combined score of 242-51.

Indiana has dropped five of its first six games, losing to the likes of Ball State, Virginia, and North Texas.

Wisconsin is leading the Big Ten in scoring, averaging more than 48 points a game. Indiana is averaging less than half that, or about 23 points a game.

Wisconsin is leading the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just over 10 points a game. Indiana is allowing over 27 points per contest.

Bret Bielema has never lost to the Indiana Hoosiers, beating them by an average of 33 points a game over the last five seasons, including a jaw-dropping 83-20 beatdown in 2010.

While there is no guarantee in sports, there is about as much chance that the Indiana Hoosiers will come into Camp Randall Stadium and beat the Wisconsin Badgers as there is that Kim Kardashian will one day win an Oscar.

So, without any real drama to explore, here are the top 10 questions surrounding Saturday’s Homecoming game:

1. Can the Badgers top 100 points? Hey, that’s only 25 points a quarter.

2. How much can a still-fresh-in-the-minds-of-many 63-point drubbing be used to motivate a bad team? And how overconfident and complacent can the team that dished out that drubbing be? If the Hoosiers lose by fewer than the 40 points the Badgers are favored by, is it a moral victory? (OK, that’s three questions . . .)

3. Who will play quarterback for Indiana? Head coach Kevin Wilson has started three different signal-callers already this season and was seen last week outside of the Covance in Evansville trying to recruit healthy, non-smoking men willing to commit to a six-week “research study.”

4. Considering the Hoosiers have given up 727 rushing yards in the last three weeks alone, should the Badgers bother to throw the ball at all, effectively killing the clock from the opening snap?

5. How quickly will Bret Bielema pull his starters? (I’d put the over/under at midway through the third quarter.)

6. Should the NCAA pass a resolution requiring each Wisconsin player to play the entire game with his legs inside of a gunny sack?

7. Should the NCAA require each Wisconsin player to carry an egg on a spoon in his mouth for the entire game, giving Indiana the benefit of a 10-yard penalty every time an egg hits the turf?

8. Is the week that will likely feature the most tremendously lopsided home game of the season really the best time for the university to urge students to cease the “obsenity-laced cheers” (you know the ones)? Without any probable compelling action on the field, what else are the students going to do?

9. Is Lee Corso picking Indiana?

10. Will Bucky Badger, fearing a repeat of last year’s blowout score that forced him to complete a staggering 573 push-ups, call in sick?

Prediction: Wisconsin 60, Indiana 17.

Quarterbacks Talking Smack
October 6, 2011

This just in: NFL quarterbacks are an egotistical lot.

I mean, they almost have to be. Billion-dollar businesses depend on them. They are largely responsible for the livelihood of numerous coaches and players and their families. They are heroes of many when they succeed and targets of unrelenting venom and hatred when they fail.

But no matter how their job performance, they are sickeningly wealthy and have sickeningly easy access to practically any woman they choose.
No wonder they think a lot of themselves.

And no wonder most of them can’t shut up, even after retirement.

Many feed the vanity beast by becoming a TV analyst or color commentator, where even the worst, like NFL Network’s Joe Theismann (he joined the network after getting the ax from ESPN’s Monday Night Football), is paid to talk endlessly about whatever he wants to.

But sometimes, even Theismann is interesting. Or, scary enough, right.

This week he opened up about the Minnesota Vikings and Donovan McNabb, I guess presumably because they both played for the Redskins, albeit only one successfully. (Hint: The successful Washington QB wasn’t McNabb.)

“I think Donovan McNabb is a great person,” Theismann said. “But he can’t throw the football accurately. His mechanics are horrible.”

While rightly pointing out that the offensive line is partly to blame, Theismann’s words ring true to anyone who’s watched any Viking football this year. McNabb, though hampered by a pedestrian group of receivers and a coaching staff that seem intent on not letting Adrian Peterson break a sweat, has stunk.

Theismann assumes that Christian Ponder will get the starting nod soon, not because the rookie can bring victories, but because Vikings management need to know whether they can stick with him in 2012 or try to draft Andrew Luck should the Stanford quarterback enter next year’s NFL draft.

It’s hard times in Minnesota: The Gophers just got beat 58-0 in their Big Ten opener, the Twins fell off the cliff in losing 99 games in 2011, and the Vikings don’t in any way resemble the team that just two years ago went to the NFC Championship Game.

Of course Green Bay fans would like to blame the Vikings’ current struggles on their successful wooing of ex-Packer Brett Favre, who led them to that almost-championship season in 2009-2010.

Had Favre not been available, the argument goes, perhaps the Vikings would have invested in a young quarterback that could have by now been paying large dividends. It’s an argument that is easy to accept, especially this year, as the Panthers and Bengals are reaping the benefits of the immediate success that rookies Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are having.

Of course, knowing the Vikings, they might still be playing Tavaris Jackson.

It could also be argued that the Vikings front office wrongly assumed that since the Favre pickup went so well (at least for one year), that the pickup of McNabb had an equal chance of success. This is boneheaded logic, of course, not only because the talent level around McNabb is not as good as it was around Favre two years ago, but also because a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb is nowhere near as talented as a 39-year-old Brett Favre.

Favre proved in 2009 that he could still play. He proved in 2010 that even he could not play forever.
He’s proving in 2011 that he can still be a pain in the butt.

This week he told an Atlanta radio station that he was not surprised that Aaron Rodgers won a Super Bowl in only his third year as a starter, but rather that “the biggest surprise to me would be that he didn’t do it sooner.”

Huh?

You could argue that in his rambling way, Favre meant to compliment Rodgers, implying that his successor was so good that he was championship-worthy from the moment he was named the starter.

But come on. This is Favre. He wasn’t being complimentary.

Favre went on to say that Rodgers “fell into a good situation” and that the “talent around him is even better than when I was there.”

Meaning, exactly, “What took you so long, boy?”

The story reminded me of a brief conversation I had with my father-in-law last Sunday as we watched Aaron Rodgers completely destroy the Denver Broncos defense, just as Rodgers destroys almost all defenses he faces.

“He’s better than Favre ever was,” my father-in-law said.

Although I reluctantly agree with Favre that Rodgers has a better all-around team than Favre probably ever did, I couldn’t immediately disagree with my father-in-law.

But oddly enough I still can’t say I like Rodgers as much as I liked Favre. What made Favre so fascinating, and of course, so fascinatingly frustrating for Packers fans, was his fallibility. You never knew when Favre was going to make that errant pass or that costly mistake.

For better or worse (and yes, many times it was worse), Favre was high drama. On the field and off.

For better or worse (and yes, it’s hard to argue for the worse side of that equation), there’s no drama with Rodgers: He’s a machine. He even says all the right things.

Rodgers could have made fun of Favre’s inability to win a championship with the 2009-2010 Minnesota Vikings team, of which Favre said, “Physically, and from a talent level, this is the best team I’ve ever been on.”

But no. He simply said, “It takes 53 guys to win a championship and we had the right recipe last year and we’re trying to do the same thing this season.”

Besides carrying himself impressively and handling the media expertly, Rodgers is, most importantly, the best quarterback playing in the NFL right now. He’s so good he seems to be redefining what a quarterback can do.

Favre, like Theismann, comes from more of the old school of NFL quarterbacks.

Which means, in part, that he doesn’t know when to shut up.

On the field, Favre usually acted first and thought about it second.

Off the field and in retirement, Favre usually speaks first and thinks about it second.

To the delight of his players, coaches, and surely his fans, Rodgers isn’t like that at all.

But sometimes – sometimes – I miss that.