Archive for November, 2011

Nittany Lions/Badgers Preview: Division On The Line
November 22, 2011

Even Sean Penn Is More Popular Than Penn State These Days.

You have to hand it to the Big Ten and its commissioner Jim Delaney. I think they know what they’re doing. Sort of.

OK, anyone over the age of five could question the logic of a conference with 12 teams continuing to call itself the “Big Ten.”

Likewise, anyone over the age of five could probably have come up with a better name for the conference’s two divisions, or at least names that didn’t immediately sound like titles of Pokémon series.

And, as Yahoo! Sports’s Dan Wetzel points out, for purposes of keeping a Big Ten team consistently in the hunt for a shot at a BCS title game, you could certainly question the recent moves of adding a strong program (Nebraska) and adding a title game that makes it far less likely for any Big Ten team to survive an entire season without a loss.

But for provincial Big Ten college football fans who choose to spend their Sundays following the NFL rather than breaking down tape from all 120 NCAA Division I FBS teams, the changes have worked out. And rather splendidly.

As suspected, the Cornhuskers have increased the competitiveness, visibility, and profitability of the conference’s football season. Even better, they’ve been an interesting wild card team all year, capable of beating conference powerhouses Michigan State and Penn State while losing to a mediocre (though improving) team like Northwestern.

But for the Big Ten fan, the best part of Nebraska joining the conference was the subsequent splitting of the now-12 teams into equal six-team divisions and the addition of the Big Ten Championship Game, which will have its inaugural contest on December 3 in Indianapolis.

While admittedly the title game may have negative national BCS implications for the conference, for the fan focused on the Big Ten, its existence makes the regular season much more interesting.

Now instead of leaving the conference champion to be determined by an arbitrary ranking that can make the voting process for American Idol seem extraordinarily scientific, the true champion of the conference will be determined – as it should be – on the field.

But even at 9-2, Wisconsin can’t start thinking about the Big Ten Championship Game just yet. They’ve got to first get past the 9-2 Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall this Saturday. The winner of the regular-season finale will win the Big Ten’s Leaders Division and, in what would be a revenge game for the Badgers, face Legends Division winner Michigan State (they wrapped up the division just last week) on December 3.

It’s a game that has a ton of plotlines. Here are just five of them:

1. Dashed Expectations. It seems almost unfathomable that a team as dominant as the Badgers have been this season might not play in the conference championship. After all, of the Badgers’ nine victories, eight have been complete blowouts, with only last week’s 28-17 victory over a gutsy and determined Illinois team ever in doubt. In comparison, Michigan State dropped two stinkers, a 31-13 loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 beatdown at the hands of Nebraska, while Penn State’s less prolific offense has squeaked out victories but very tight victories. No matter what happens Saturday, the Badgers are a lock for a high-profile bowl game, but after meeting and even surpassing the high expectations most people had of them going into this season, not playing in the Big Ten Championship Game would sting.

2. Ultimate Underdog. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Penn State football program. I know I don’t. But the fact is that the current players and the staff that remains behind – I think, I hope – have nothing to do with the sordid events that resulted in the ouster of head coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, and athletic director Tim Curley. Nevertheless, those in the football program are in the ultimate “us against the world” scenario. They know that everyone – including the NCAA, who don’t want the disgraced program soiling their inaugural Big Ten Championship Game – is rooting against them. But as they proved last week against Ohio State, they are not going to fulfill everyone’s wishes by quietly going away. Their determination, combined with the fact that they are a very good football team with the third-best defense in the country, cannot be taken lightly.

3. In The Trenches. Penn State has had trouble at quarterback all year. Using a two-quarterback scheme for much of the season, the team refused to commit to either Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden until mid-November. There’s a good reason for that waffling: Neither are very good. If Penn State is going to pose a serious challenge to the Badgers, they’re going to have to rely on backs Silas Redd and Stephfon Green, who combined for 163 yards and almost 7 yards per carry last week against Ohio State. Meanwhile, how much Wisconsin relies on Montee Ball for its offense is already well known. Who wins or loses this game is going to be determined largely on who has better success running the football.

4. He’s Got Legs. Penn State has struggled with mobile quarterbacks: Last week Ohio State’s Braxton Miller had 105 yards rushing, while three weeks ago Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase got loose for 89 yards on the ground at Happy Valley. Russell Wilson, who averages more yards per carry than either Miller or Scheelhause, could have a big rushing day.

5. Offense Less Offensive? Held to under 300 yards, the Badgers’ offense struggled mightily Saturday against Illinois, and may have lost the game had their defense not forced four turnovers, which consistently gave the Badgers’ offense a short field. (They scored on drives of 44, 39, 30, and 2 yards.) Illinois’ defense is solid, but Penn State’s is much better. Since they won’t be able to rely on their defense to get them four turnovers again, Wisconsin’s offense will have to do a better job sustaining drives and wearing out the Nittany Lion defense if they want to clinch their spot in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 20, Penn State 13.

Wisconsin/Illini Preview: Illinois To Continue Free Fallin’
November 18, 2011

I’m begrudgingly accepting that, even though the calendar says we’re still a week away from Thanksgiving, the holiday season is indeed here.

And yes, I realize that in coming to this conclusion that I’ve basically been brainwashed by the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, Sirius/XM (for already programming several channels of holiday music), Amazon.com (for getting a head start on their “Black Friday” deals), Punky Brewster, who is for whatever reason Target’s “Mommy Ambassador,” and even myself.

You see, when you start telling your children in August that you can’t buy them something because “Christmas is coming soon and you might get that from Santa,” by mid-November it does start to seem that the holidays are long overdue.

With only two weeks left in the regular season, the Wisconsin football Badgers should be in a festive holiday mood. After the heart-breaking losses in October to the Spartans and Buckeyes, the Badgers are now in control of the Big Ten’s “Leaders” division, thanks to back-to-back blowout wins over Purdue and Minnesota, Ohio State’s OT loss last week, and of course, the sad events at Penn State that have made any short-term on-field success with their football program, in light of everything that has happened, seem both highly unimportant and highly unlikely.

But before Wisconsin can travel to Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship (where it looks like they will have a chance to exact revenge on Michigan State), they’ve got two more games, starting with Saturday’s date in Champaign, where they will take on a reeling Illinois team that has lost four games in a row following a 6-0 start that had landed them in the Top 25.

Things keep getting worse for the Illini: Head coach Ron Zook made headlines this week for walking out of a press conference after a reporter asked Zook about rumors that he was about to be fired, one of their starting linebackers was shot in the hand at a campus party, and now the team has to face the Badgers, who won’t be too interested in helping Illinois feel better about themselves.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines for the game:

1. Will Illinois score? Against weaker opponents, Illinois looked like one of the better offenses in the Big Ten, scoring nearly 35 points a game in their opening six-game win streak. Since then, their offense has been about as intimidating as Duffy the Disney Bear, scoring a total of 42 points over the last four games and being shut out entirely in the first half for four weeks straight. The problems for Illinois during the losing streak seem to be all over the board (11 turnovers, an inconsistent rushing attack), but their main setback seems to be that teams have figured out how to contain wideout A.J. Jenkins. Jenkins, still the leading receiver in the Big Ten, has been held to no touchdowns and 80 yards per game over the last four weeks, well shy of his 113 yards-per-game average. It will be tough for Jenkins to get right against Wisconsin’s conference-leading pass defense.

2. Injury update. Quite a few of the Badgers starters are, as they say in sports, nicked up. If Wisconsin puts Illinois in a hole they can’t climb out of – which for the Illini could be as little as a 14-point deficit – look for head coach Bret Bielema to call for some subs. After suffering a shoulder injury against the Gophers, receiver Jared Abbrederis’s official status is questionable, but Bielema was a little more optimistic in his Thursday press conference. “I think he’ll be back there on punt return and offense. I don’t know if we’ll use him as a kick returner,” Bielema said. Other starters likely to play through injury include linebacker Mike Taylor, receiver Nick Toon, and safety Aaron Henry. Of course the biggest injury concern is with center Peter Konz, who is out for at least the next two games with a left ankle injury. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Groy will start in place of Konz. The Badgers hope to have Konz back by the Big Ten Championship game on December 3, if, of course, the Badgers qualify for that inaugural game.

3. Heisman watch back on? After Stanford’s loss last week in which presumed Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck threw two interceptions and lost a fumble, could Badgers QB Russell Wilson be back in the Heisman conversation? Wilson’s pass efficiency rating leads the country (a sick 201.6), he’s also second to none in yards per completion, and fifth in the nation in completion percentage. A big game against a pretty-good Illinois pass defense that’s allowing just 173 yards per game through the air wouldn’t hurt his chances.

Final Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Illinois 10.

Badgers/Gophers Preview: The Axe Factor
November 11, 2011

The Paul Bunyan Axe has spent more time in Wisconsin over the last eight years than Bernie Brewer.

It’s been a bad week.

The compact disc is apparently on its way out. Regis Philbin (whose core audience is still lamenting the demise of 78 RPM records) is almost done with his talk show. Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus newspaper comic strip, died. Adam Sandler has a new movie out.

But overshadowing everything else happening over the past few days has been the unbelievably sad and disturbing reports that have been emanating from the place ironically known as Happy Valley.

Though the shine is clearly off this weekend’s marquee Big Ten matchup of Nebraska (7-2) at Penn State (8-1), Wisconsin sports fans can at least look forward to a glorious weekend of football.

That is, if you include Monday in your definition of “weekend,” as the 8-0 Packers take on the 2-6 Vikings on Monday Night Football. Now, there’s no doubt that the Vikings have been marginally better since dumping the awful Donovan McNabb, and there’s no doubt that the Packers pass defense has played less than stellar football recently.

But the Vikings are still at best – at best – a work in progress, and the Packers – well, maybe just Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, and Jordy Nelson, but that’s been good enough – have been awesome. It also stands to reason that the Packers’ defense, tired of hearing how their offense needs to score 40 points a game to cover their deficiencies, will step up and produce a shutdown game. Unlike the contest just three weeks ago, this one could get ugly.

But it might be closer than this weekend’s other football game between teams from Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Those people who had leaped off the Wisconsin bandwagon following those two heartbreaking road losses were proven a bit hasty in their judgment following last week’s 62-17 blowout of Purdue, a team that was itself just one week removed from upsetting then-No. 23 Illinois.

But has the stench around this Saturday’s opponent, the Golden Gophers, become less odious? After all, they surprised Iowa two weeks ago to win their first Big Ten game of the season and then played Michigan State surprisingly close last week before falling 31-24 at East Lansing.

Could the Gophers be on their way to brandishing Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time since 2003?

In a word, unlikely.

Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines to the game:

1. The Axe. It may seem to some as a silly tradition, but players and coaches on both sides take what symbolizes the most-played rivalry in Division I-A college football pretty seriously. Listen to center Peter Konz: “This is a big emotional game for all of us. I know they want the Axe bad because they haven’t had it for a few years. We’re not taking Minnesota lightly.” Likewise, here’s what Gophers coach Jerry Kill had to say about Saturday’s game: “I know it means a ton to our players and the state of Minnesota. It’s dang important to us.” Especially at TCF Bank Stadium (although certainly there will be the usual strong showing of Badger Nation present), the Badgers should expect to get the Gophers’ strongest effort of the season. But as Konz notes, Wisconsin won’t take anything for granted.

2. Russell Wilson Lite? Though he understandably hasn’t been as highly touted as Wisconsin’s senior QB, the Gophers’ junior quarterback Marqueis Gray has definitely been making strides as of late: Over the last two weeks, Gray has completed 62 percent of his passes and against Michigan State – one of the nation’s best defenses – he threw for three touchdowns. And like Wilson, Gray does it with his legs as well, only more so: Over the last three weeks, he’s rushed for 200 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner over Iowa. Wisconsin’s defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks this season – Ohio State’s Braxton Miller rushed for 99 yards two weeks ago and Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez piled up 61 yards on the ground (though it took him 20 carries to do so), so Wisconsin could have its hands full with Gray.

3. Ball Busting Records. Saturday could be a big game for junior running back Montee Ball, who is having the biggest breakthrough year this side of anyone not named Russell Wilson. With just one rushing touchdown, Ball will break the season school record of 24 touchdowns, a title he currently shares with Brian Calhoun. With three touchdowns (and he has three or more in four games this year), he will break the Big Ten record. Ball should excel against a porous Minnesota defense giving up nearly 200 yards a game on the ground this year.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 40, Minnesota 27.

Badgers/Boilermakers Preview: The Bucky Bounce Back
November 4, 2011

For Wisconsin sports fans, the month of October was filled with decisively more tricks than treats.

Sure, the Green Bay Packers continued to distance themselves from the rest of the NFL field with four straight victories against patsies both inside (St. Louis, Minnesota) and outside their conference (Denver).

The 7-0 Packers are playing so well that it is legitimately tough to figure out how they will lose to any of the teams left on their schedule. Chances are slim to none that they will go undefeated, but they’ll be favored in every one of their games going forward, with away games at the they-can’t-be-this-bad San Diego (this Sunday) and the inconsistent New York Giants (12/4) the most obvious traps.

But the Packers’ success in October was outweighed for many by the Brewers’ disappointing showing in the National League Championship Series (Shaun Marcum should probably not expect too many holiday cards from fans this year) and by the heartbreaking losses of the past two weeks by the Wisconsin Badgers’ previously-unstoppable football team.

It’s easy now to say that the hype on the Badgers was overdone, but it’s not as if they went out to Columbus or East Lansing and played like the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. The fact is that the Badgers are still a very good football team, and any worry about them slipping into some sort of freefall like they did in 2008 is ridiculous.

Having said that, though, the two crushing losses are a lot to bounce back from. But the smart money is on the Badgers doing just that.
In honor of the Badgers’ 15-spot drop in the AP rankings over the past two weeks, here are the 15 things to watch for on Saturday as Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) hosts Purdue (4-4, 2-2 Big Ten):

1. The Bounce Back. Simply put, now that any dreams of a national championship have been laid to rest with even a shot at the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game now unlikely, can the Badgers play with passion and focus?

2. Wakey-Wakey. The Badgers have gotten off to leads each of the past two weeks, only to go to sleep in the second and third quarters, getting outscored a total of 40-10 in that 30-minute span. That compares to a 72-14 advantage they enjoyed in those two quarters in their first two conference games. They need to have Purdue put away by halftime to ease the fears of the home fans.

3. Special Teams. A year after Brad Nortman’s stunning fake punt secured an upset win at Iowa, the Badgers’ special teams are suddenly anything but. After two game-changing blocked punts and a blocked field goal in the last two weeks, the Badgers need to limit their mistakes in the kicking game.

4. Protect The Quarterback. The Badgers gave up five sacks in the first six games. They then gave up five sacks in just the last two weeks. Not terrible, but pass protection needs to be improved.

5. Where’s The Two-Headed Monster? There’s no doubt that Montee Ball has been the Badgers’ most impressive runner this season, but when Wisconsin was playing its best football earlier in the season, the carries between Ball and James White were typically more evenly split. Last week against Ohio State, Ball had 17 rushes while White had only 5. White needs to be utilized more.

6. Secondary Woes? Obviously the Badgers’ secondary is under scrutiny after the late-game developments of the past two weeks. But outside of a big game by Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins (22-31, 290 yards), the Badgers’ pass defense has been solid, giving up the second-fewest yards per game in the Big Ten through the air, a remarkable feat considering how far behind most teams have been against Wisconsin. In short, too soon to panic over Bucky’s pass defense.

7. A Chance For Redemption. Look for the Badgers’ pass defense to be tested on Saturday, as Purdue’s rushing attack has gone cold as of late, bottoming out with a poor 89 yards total last week against Michigan.

8. Then Again . . . Wisconsin’s rush defense didn’t look so stellar last week, allowing 268 yards on the ground and a healthy 4.6 per carry. The Badgers are now ranked 53rd in the country in rush defense.

9. Go Big Or Go Home. It’s an understatement to say that Wisconsin has been burned by the big play over the last two weeks. They’d like to flip the switch on that, but until last week’s loss to Michigan, Purdue had been the best in the Big Ten at not allowing plays of 20 or more yards. Michigan alone totaled seven such big plays.

10. I Wish I Was Homeward Bound. The Badgers are certainly glad to be back in Madison, where they’ve won 14 straight and scored on average more than 50 points a game this season. Of course most of those games were against the likes of South Dakota and UNLV, but they also looked just as dominant against Nebraska, who have won three straight since getting embarrassed at Camp Randall.

11. The Long And Longer Road. Purdue on the other hand hasn’t won a game on the road this year, losing to Rice in Houston in September. That victory for the Owls was their first against a BCS opponent in ten years. Suffice it to say the Boilermakers struggle outside of West Lafayette.

12. Russell’s Ready To Bust Out. Purdue faced the closest QB the Big Ten has to Russell Wilson last week in Michigan’s Denard Robinson. That matchup didn’t work out so well for Purdue, as Robinson completed 64 percent of his passes and ran for 63 yards and a score. Problem for Purdue is that Wilson’s better. And after the last two weeks, he’s probably angry.

13. Mistakes A-Plenty. Purdue’s been one of the least-disciplined teams in the Big Ten, being on the receiving end of the second-most penalties in the league at 63. Think they’ll have a few false starts against a rowdy Camp Randall crowd?

14. Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem And Never As Good As They Seem. Any suggestion that Wisconsin is now on par with a team like Purdue because of their suddenly similar records is bollocks. Wisconsin is the better team here and they will prove it on Saturday.

15. Final Prediction: Wisconsin 48, Purdue 24.