Archive for December, 2011

Top 10 2011 Wisconsin Sports Highlights (Part 2 of 2)
December 29, 2011

As my mentor Casey Kasem used to say (well, in addition to “you can’t come out of an untempo record with a death dedication”), let’s get back to the countdown:

5. Hilary Knight to Mallory Deluce, Wisconsin Badgers vs. Boston University Terriers, 2011 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four National Championship, March 20, 2011. Though the Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team entered the 2011 National Championship game riding a remarkable 26-game unbeaten streak, the team’s fourth championship in six seasons was anything but secure deep in the game’s third period. While the Badgers had outshot the Terriers by an overwhelming margin, Wisconsin enjoyed just a 2-1 lead with only 3:23 remaining in regulation. That’s when Deluce took a rebound from Knight and sent it soaring past Terrier goalie Kerrin Sperry to give the Badgers a more comfortable 3-1 advantage. Once Carolyne Provost iced the game with an empty-net goal to make the final score 4-1, the team was able to celebrate one of the most impressive if underappreciated Badger seasons in recent memory, as their 37 wins set a record for most wins in a single season in NCAA women’s hockey history.

4. B.J. Raji interception return for touchdown, Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, NFC Championship, January 23, 2011. After destroying the Atlanta Falcons 48-21 in the previous week’s NFC divisional round, the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship, only to find themselves muddied in a defensive battle with their most familiar foe. The Bears were DOA behind Jay Cutler and Todd Collins (the backup replacing Cutler after the starting QB had surprisingly left with a controversial knee injury), but Chicago was suddenly clicking behind third-string signal caller Caleb Hanie, who led the team on a 67-yard TD-scoring drive early in the fourth quarter that put the Bears within 14-7. That score stuck until defensive lineman Raji picked off the first of Hanie’s two interceptions and ran 18 yards with it to put the Packers up 21-7 with just 6 minutes to go. Though the Bears weren’t finished – Hanie threw a 35-yard TD pass to Earl Bennett just 80 seconds later – Raji’s TD proved to be the difference-maker and an all-time highlight in one of the most significant games in the history of the storied Packers/Bears rivalry.

3. Isaiah Lewis runs into punter Brad Nortman, Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan State Spartans, 2011 Big Ten Championship, December 3, 2011. The much-ballyhooed rematch of the regular-season meeting that ended Wisconsin’s national championship hopes was eerily similar to that October 22 shocker: Wisconsin got off to a fast start in both, the Spartans staged a furious rally in both second quarters, Michigan State’s offense once again had its way with Wisconsin’s normally stingy defense (to the tune of a whopping 471 yards), and Montee Ball scored another go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. But the ending this time was very different indeed: Though not quite as dramatic as Kirk Cousins’s Hail Mary to Keith Nichol, it was equally unexpected when, after getting a rare defensive stop and needing only a field goal to tie, Spartans kick returner Keshawn Martin returned a Brad Nortman punt all the way to the Badgers’ 3-yard-line with under two minutes to play. The problem for Michigan State was, safety Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Nortman, giving Wisconsin a new set of downs and allowing them to simply run out the clock and run on to their second straight Rose Bowl.

2. Nyjer Morgan singles home Carlos Gomez, Arizona Diamondbacks at Milwaukee Brewers, NLDS Game 5, October 7, 2011. After jumping out to a 2-0 series lead, many fans assumed that the Brewers’ first postseason series victory since 1982 was a done deal. But two losses in the desert during which Milwaukee’s starting pitching was absolutely shredded by the Diamondbacks made those same fans very nervous for the deciding Game 5 back at Miller Park. Luckily for the Brewers, they had Yovani Gallardo on the mound, and their ace responded with a shutdown 6-inning outing, allowing just a third-inning homer to Justin Upton. Unfortunately for the Brewers, Arizona’s Ian Kennedy was almost as good, giving up just two runs over the same six innings. But with the normally untouchable John Axford entering the game in the top of the ninth, those two runs seemed like enough for the Brewers to start their celebration. Shockingly, the Diamondbacks tagged Axford for three straight hits, tying the score, eventually sending the game to extra innings, and sending the Miller Park faithful to the bathrooms with upset stomachs. But in the bottom of the tenth, Carlos Gomez hit a one-out single off the unfortunately-named J.J. Putz. Gomez then stole second and then came home on a single by Nyjer Morgan to the wildest celebration Miller Park had ever seen.

1. Clay Matthews strips Rashard Mendenhall, Green Bay Packers vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLV, February 6, 2011. Aaron Rodgers was a much-deserved MVP in his first (but probably not last) Super Bowl appearance, throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns. But he wasn’t even on the field for what proved to be the turning point of the game. Though the Packers were up 21-17, the momentum was firmly on the Steelers side after Pittsburgh had scored 14 unanswered points and held the explosive Packers scoreless for the entire third quarter. At the start of the final quarter, the Steelers had the ball on the Packers’ 33-yard-line and were looking to take their first lead. But in a play that entirely reversed the course of the game, Clay Matthews jarred the ball out of Rashard Mendenhall’s hands, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Desmond Bishop. The rejuvenated Packers went on a quick 55-play drive capped by a Rodgers-to-Jennings touchdown that ultimately proved the game winner, giving the Packers their first championship in fourteen years and putting, for once and for all, the specter of the departed Brett Favre behind them. The entire world now seemed to be Mr. Rodgers’s Neighborhood.

That’s it. Here’s hoping 2012 has as many great sports highlights to choose from. Happy New Year.

Top 10 2011 Wisconsin Sports Highlights (Part 1 of 2)
December 21, 2011

No doubt, a lot of lousy events happened in 2011. Steve Carell did not win a much-deserved Emmy for his final season of The Office. “Boston Rob” Mariano came back yet again on Survivor (and, unlike Carell, won). Rick Springfield got arrested for drunk driving, in the process further justifying my teenage decision to purge my collection of his albums (beside the fact that they, you know, sucked). The Oprah Winfrey Network turned down my idea for a show where I turn fashion trash into fashion treasure with my Bedazzler.

But 2011 was no doubt a great year for Wisconsin sports. The Green Bay Packers didn’t lose a game until the 51st weekend of the year. The Milwaukee Brewers won their first playoff series since the days when Men at Work and Dexys Midnight Runners ruled the pop charts. The Wisconsin football Badgers began the year by playing in one Rose Bowl and ended the year preparing to play in another. The Wisconsin women’s ice hockey team won its fourth NCAA championship in five years, finishing the season on an incredible 27-game unbeaten streak.

It’s tough to reduce such a memorable year to just 10 highlights, but that’s why I’m here. Well that, and to wrap presents. Badly. (But seriously, putting a shiny bow on any gift, no matter how shoddily wrapped, forgives any variety of wrapping mishaps. My tip to you this holiday season.)

Let’s get started:

10. Russell Wilson 36-yard TD pass to Jared Abbrederis, Nebraska at Wisconsin, October 1, 2011. Going into their first conference game, the Badgers football team looked unstoppable, having beaten their first four opponents by a combined total of 194-34. But because of the weakness of their non-conference schedule and because Nebraska had started their first season as a member of the Big Ten equally hot, there were concerns. Those concerns seemed to be well-founded for most of the first half, as the Huskers and Badgers battled in a close 14-13 game, with a missed PAT being the sole difference. But following the first of three Taylor Martinez interceptions, Russell Wilson found Jared Abbrederis, who made a beautiful diving catch in the end zone, for the 36-yard go-ahead score. Wisconsin went on to win 48-17, silencing any doubts (at least for the time being) that they were the best in the Big Ten.

9. Jordan Taylor blocks Jacob Pullen shot, Kansas State vs. Wisconsin, March 19, 2011. In the battle of point guards, Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen outplayed the Badgers’ Jordan Taylor all night in this third-round game in the southeast regional of the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Pullen put in 38 points on 13-of-22 shooting while Taylor scored only 12 on a miserable 2-for-16 night. But Taylor was huge in the final minutes, earning a steal, two important free throws, and finally a crucial block on a 3-point attempt by (who else?) Pullen to seal the Badgers’ victory. Taylor would follow up this strong finish with an impressive 22-point effort in the Sweet Sixteen, but unfortunately it would not be enough, as the Badgers would be eliminated with a 61-54 loss to Butler.

8. Tramon Williams intercepts Michael Vick, Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles, January 9, 2011. Many NFL fans assumed the Packers were living on borrowed time when they traveled to Philadelphia for this NFC Wild Card game against the NFC East champion Eagles. After all, the sixth-seeded Packers had basically been in playoff mode for the previous two weeks, they were seemingly outmanned by the cooling-but-still-hot Michael Vick and company, and, oh, Aaron Rodgers had never won a postseason game. Rodgers did just fine, throwing for 180 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. But it looked as if the Eagles would advance when, down 21-16 and driving, Michael Vick found Tramon Williams in the end zone with just 33 seconds left. Only problem for Michael Vick: Williams plays for Green Bay. The Eagles were eliminated, while the Packers’ season continued. More on that later.

7. Ryan Braun seals the NL Central for the Brewers, Florida at Milwaukee, September 23, 2011. Though Braun’s image has been tarnished recently, his 3-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning was probably the most celebrated play during the Brewers’ 2011 regular season. And why not? Sure, the Brewers had a five-game lead on division rival St. Louis with only a week left to play, but the Cardinals never seemed vanquished until Braun hit the eventual game-winner. (Well, and the Cubs beat the Cardinals, a game that finished about 20 minutes after the Brewers game.) Unfortunately, the Cardinals hot streak continued, the Braves completed their collapse, and well, you know how it eventually ended. But forget Disney World, Braun and the Brewers made Miller Park the Happiest Place on Earth back on September 23.

6. Jordan Taylor leads Badgers in furious comeback win, Ohio State at Wisconsin, February 12, 2011. Things were looking bleak for Bucky. Not for the season – Wisconsin (19-5, 9-3 conference) was ranked No. 14 in the country and was assured a 13th straight trip to the NCAA tournament – but certainly in this game. Unbeaten Ohio State was having their way with the Badgers, beating Bucky by 47-32 with 13:21 left in the second half. But led by Taylor (who scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half), Wisconsin went on two stunning runs – a 15-0 run and then a 10-0 run – to win the game 71-67, which kept their home winning streak alive at 17 games and stopped Ohio State’s overall winning streak at 24. Better yet, Wisconsin’s upset of No. 1 Ohio State was the perfect complement to its victory over Ohio State’s football program the previous October, when the football Buckeyes were also ranked No. 1.

Next week: We countdown 2011’s top five Wisconsin sports highlights. Happy holidays.

Who Can Beat The Packers?
December 15, 2011

The weekend of December 10 & 11 wasn’t a great one for Wisconsin sports fans.

Oh sure, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team churned out a predictable if uninspiring win against the UNLV Stallin’ Rebels Saturday afternoon, but the sporting news was otherwise mostly bad: The Wisconsin men’s hockey team failed to win a game in its weekend series against the Bulldogs of Minnesota-Duluth. The women’s basketball team dropped its second in a row. Montee Ball finished a distant fourth in the Heisman Trophy vote.

Oh, and Ryan Braun tested positive for the dreaded “performance-enhancing drug,” which means he will probably be suspended for the first 50 games of the 2012 season. (If you had to set the over/under on Brewers wins for those first 50 games without Braun and the departing Prince Fielder, where would you put the number? 20? 15?)

The news on Braun was indeed the saddest of all: Even in the unlikely event that Braun, as he believes, can somehow negate the positive test or prove that it was unmistakably fraudulent, the perception of the heretofore extraordinarily popular NL MVP will simply never be the same.

Even Sunday’s blowout Packers victory over the Raiders was somewhat sullied by the injury that wide receiver Greg Jennings suffered to his knee that will likely cause him to miss the remainder of the regular season.   

After winning 19 straight regular-season and postseason games, Packers victories have become about as surprising as David Letterman’s nightly Top 10 Lists: You know they’re coming, but you just don’t know how compelling they’ll be.

At this point, what’s interesting about the Packers streak is not who they’re beating up on, but who could potentially spoil the stretch. After all, no NFL team has ever won more than 21 games in a row (2003-2004 Patriots), so even if the Packers break that streak – and they certainly look like they will, with the shambolic Chiefs, Bears, and Lions coming up – they’re of course bound to lose at some point. And, let’s face it, they’ve certainly looked vulnerable at times in recent victories over San Diego, Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants, three teams that could all end up out of the playoff picture.  

So who could the end the Packers streak? And could it be ended in this year’s postseason? Here’s five (well, six) teams that could potentially spoil the fun in Titletown:

  1. New Orleans Saints. Sure, the Packers have beaten the Saints already this year, way back on September 8, but it was hardly a blowout, with New Orleans’s Mark Ingram getting stuffed on the 1-yard-line after Drew Brees led the Saints on a 79-yard drive with barely over a minute to go in the game. In many ways, the Saints are a mirror image of the Packers: The passing game is fantastic while the defense is suspect. But the Saints have a better all-purpose player in Darren Sproles, and tight end Jimmy Graham and Brees have found a connection that Aaron Rodgers and Packers TE Jermichael Finley have largely lost. Seems like a foregone conclusion that these two teams will meet in the NFC Championship Game, where I would favor the Packers by 7 points.
  2. San Francisco 49ers. Until dropping two of their last three, the 49ers were perhaps the best story in the NFL this year – a former storied franchise returning to prominence after nearly a decade of misery. Even with a likely loss to Pittsburgh Monday night, San Francisco is still probably going to finish the season with an impressive 12-4 record. And the team is doing their damage with defense, allowing a league-low 14 points per game and a league-low 70.5 rushing yards each week. The bad news for the 49ers is that their pass defense is just average, while the Packers pass offense is anything but. More bad news for the 49ers is that their offense has become stagnant: It would be easy to see Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson having their way with Alex Smith and the 49ers offensive line. In the event that the Packers and 49ers meet in the conference championship, San Francisco’s defense could keep things close, but I’d still favor the Packers by 9 points.
  3. Baltimore Ravens / Pittsburgh Steelers. After embarrassing losses to the likes of Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Seattle, Baltimore has emerged as the most dangerous team in the AFC, improving on offense while maintaining an impressive intensity on defense without leader Ray Lewis, who is scheduled to return this week. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is dealing with a surprisingly-average rushing attack and an offensive line that has been so porous that it is finally putting the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in serious jeopardy. That Super Bowl rematch fans and prognosticators have been talking about? I don’t see it. If Baltimore meets the Packers in Indianapolis, I would give the Packers just a 3 point edge. In the unlikely chance that Pittsburgh wins the AFC Championship, the Packers will beat them in the Super Bowl by ten.
  4. Denver Broncos. You laugh, but as long as Tim Tebow continues to breathe air on God’s green Earth, the Broncos have a fighting chance. And I’m only half-joking. If Tebow and the Broncos complete a season-turnaround for the ages, I’m guessing they take the Super Bowl to overtime, where the Packers win on a field goal.
  5. New England Patriots. If there’s such a thing as a quiet 10-3 team, the New England Patriots are it. There’s still a lot to like about the dynastic Pats, but it’s all on the offensive side of the football, where studs Brady, Gronkowski, and Welker reign supreme. Unfortunately for them, their defense is the absolute worst in the league, which is saying something for anyone who has seen any Minnesota Vikings games this year. Even bad teams like the Colts (with Dan Orlovsky!) and the Washington Redskins (with Rex Grossman!) can pile on the yards and points playing the Pats. A Super Bowl showdown with Brady and Rodgers might be NBC’s first choice, but I don’t see the Patriots getting any closer than ten points, and to even get that close, they might have to put up 50. By the end of the third quarter.

 

Big Ten Championship Game: A Deserving Sequel
December 2, 2011

All sequels are not created equal.

For every The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back or Aliens, there are a hundred forgotten follow-ups. Anyone care to remember dreck like Mannequin 2: On the Move, Hardbodies 2, or Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles?

Many times failed sequels are spawned from original films that weren’t that memorable the first time around, causing some to wonder, “Who asked for more of this?”

Not so with Saturday’s Wisconsin/Michigan State second go-round.

Ever since Michigan State pulled off the win over the Badgers on October 22 with a last-second Hail Mary pass, Wisconsin and their fans have been eager for another crack at Sparty.

After all, not only did the Kirk Cousins-to Keith Nichol heave cost Wisconsin the game, it cost the Badgers a chance at an undefeated season and a possible shot at the BCS National Championship Game, two goals that, especially after back-to-back whippings of Nebraska and Indiana, seemed at the time to be very much in reach.

So on Saturday, thanks to the conference’s realignment, Wisconsin gets the rare chance to avenge a same-season loss by beating the Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.

The team and their fans are thrilled to have the opportunity.

But should they be?

After all, it’s not as if Wisconsin has had tremendous success against Michigan State in recent seasons. Since taking over as head coach, Bret Bielema is just 2-3 against Mark Dantonio’s Spartans. Only Bielema’s record against Ohio State (1-4) is worse (note that the Buckeyes and Spartans account for no fewer than seven of Bielema’s 18 career losses).

More to the point, October’s loss was hardly all about that final play. Michigan State’s defense owned Wisconsin for much of the first half, and it was a near-miraculous comeback engineered by Russell Wilson that brought the Badgers back from a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to tie that game at 31-31 with about a minute and a half to play.

In short, exacting revenge on the Spartans will not be easy for Bucky.

But can they do it? Here are some things to consider before answering that question.

1. Head Games: Regardless of which team has the better athletes or which team is better coached, there can be no doubt that Michigan State has the mental edge in this game. Mark Dantonio will undoubtedly stress to his players that for much of their first meeting, his team was solidly in control and there’s no reason they can’t do it again.

2. Man At The Top: Russell Wilson, who leads the entire country with a quarterback rating of 192.9, has been outplayed at the position in a game exactly once this year. Guess which game. In October, Cousins rocked the Badger secondary for 290 yards and three touchdowns, while Wilson threw for two touchdowns and rushed for one but also threw two costly picks. If Cousins, who’s had a very nice year (21 touchdowns while completing 64 percent of his passes) can outplay Wilson again, the Spartans can win again.

3.Punch-Drunk Love: You can’t credit Spartans defensive end William Gholston with keeping the Badgers’ offense in relative check during their first meeting in October: He was suspended during that game for throwing a punch in the previous week’s game against Michigan. Gholston, who has 59 tackles on the year, including 11 tackles for loss, could be a difference-maker Saturday, especially if he can slow down Montee Ball.

4. Ballroom Dancing: But even a slowed-down Montee Ball is still crazy good. Case in point: Ball (18 rushes) and James White (11 rushes) split carries an inordinate amount last time these teams met due to Ball taking himself out of the game for a time with a mild injury. But even with those limited carries, Ball still had 139 total yards and two trips to the end zone. Assuming Ball plays the entire game Saturday, he will give the Spartans loads of trouble.

5. Not-So-Special Teams: In October, the Spartans blocked a short field goal attempt and later scored a touchdown when they fell on a blocked punt in the end zone. The Badgers’ special teams and kick coverage units have been underwhelming all season, but never were their mistakes as costly as during the Spartans loss. They’ll be better than that Saturday night.

6. Eastbound And Third Down: The Spartans were 8-for-16 on third-down conversions last time. The Badgers defense will have to force a worse percentage than that to win Saturday.

7. Happy Days For Cunningham: Spartans wide receiver B.J. Cunningham has had his way with most secondaries this year, and his treatment of Wisconsin’s was no different – he torched the Badgers for 102 yards on just 6 catches. At nearly 17 yards a catch, Cunningham is the Spartans’ big-play receiver. The Badgers backfield will have to keep Cunningham in front of them.

8. Under Pressure: ESPN Stats points out that Kirk Cousins was a perfect 9-for-9 when facing three or fewer pass rushes in the teams’ earlier meeting. Look for Wisconsin to send more pressure Cousins’s way.

9. Please, No Wagering: Despite the recent history of these two teams, despite the rankings, and despite the most recent outcome the last time these two teams played –all of which favor Michigan State – the Badgers are favored by 9.5 points. As if the Spartans needed more motivation.

10. And In The End . . . Looking back to their last meeting, it’s hard to imagine Russell Wilson makes as many mistakes as he did then. It’s hard to imagine Kirk Cousins plays as well as he did then. It’s hard to imagine that the Spartans can block two of the Badgers’ kicks again. Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine Montee Ball having a better game. It’s easy to imagine the Badgers’ defense playing more aggressively and not allowing Cousins to get into a rhythm. But it’s also not hard to argue that Dantonio just has Bielema’s number. I expect another close game, but this time one that favors Wisconsin.

Final prediction: Wisconsin 24, Michigan State 21.