The college football gods seem to have it out for me. They would love nothing more than to fell me with a heart attack before bowl season even rolls around. I mean, okay, I know that all that beer and sausage isn't good for the organ in my chest (to say nothing of my liver), but do the Badgers really have to pile on too? I knew this game wasn't going to be a complete cakewalk (though I did have the spread at 14 - oops) - conference games never are. But, after seeing the Wisconsin secondary manhandle Blair White last week in the Sparty game, I thought that maybe they could do the same against the Minnesota duo of Adam Weber and Eric Decker. And, really, what is the Minnesota offense except for Eric Decker and 10 other supporting actors?
Well, it seems I got that one wrong too. Decker's line for the game:
140 yards receiving and 1 TD.
He had more than half the total receiving yards for the entire Gopher team. Ouch. It really should have been more too, except Decker uncharacteristically couldn't hang on to a few throws from Weber into tight coverage. It's almost funny, in a way. If any other receiver in college football fails to make those plays, the reaction is usually a shrug of the shoulders and a, "It's okay, it wasn't a good throw anyway," type of comment. But if Decker fails to make them? Well, after watching him make ridiculous catch after ridiculous catch, those types of grabs are almost expected and it's kind of a let down when he fails.
Despite the efforts of Decker and the Gopher offense (and their newest player, Zach Brown), however, Bucky managed to leave the Twin Cities the same way he entered - with Paul Bunyon's Axe still in the hands of its rightful owners.
This was largely due to the wonderful, absolutely marvelous play of Big Bad John Clay.
After the jump, I break down the game by unit.
Since my recap of last week's action by unit was followed by a Badger win, I decided to go with that format again this week. I'm not superstiious really, but if it works, why change it?
Graham previews the Michigan - MSU game and explains the upset in East Lansing in the Big 10 game of the week...
My coverage of Wisconsin's domination vs. Michigan State in week 4....
Almost all of the Wisconsin offense this week came from Mr. Clay. He wasn't too active in the first half, aside from his 2-yard TD run, but in the second half he really broke out. I don't know why, but the Gopher D just didn't seem to be able to adjust to him. The Wisconisn offense looked almsot typical with run play after run play called... though, unlike typical Wisconsin teams, most of these run-happy drives resulted in points on the board instead of punts. Clay shook tackles and bounced off of defensive linemen almost like a human pinball. It was great to see him execute the fundamentals so well. He kept the ball secure and managed to keep his legs churning for the entirety of his runs, resulting in quite a few extra yards that managed to secure at least three third down conversions. If he keeps playing like he has in the last few games, I expect to see his name show up in the December balloting.
Scott Tolzien had a decent game, throwing for 159 yards and 1 TD. Most of his receptions came on mid-range throws to Garret Graham and Nick Toon, but he also managed to sneak a few into the arms of Lance Kendricks and Isaac Anderson. He did have some poor decisions, though, which resulted in 1 INT and a few other near-INTs. I chalk this up to playing in a road environment for the first time this season. I sincerely hope that it was just a result of such first-time jitters and not an indication that he is only effective as a QB at Camp Randall. If Wisconsin wants to succeed in the rest of their conference play, they need him to play like he has in the first few home games.
Finally, a message for Zach Brown.
Dear Mr. Brown, PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND RIGHT IN THE UNIVERSE, LEARN HOW TO HOLD ON TO A FOOTBALL!
Brown had some decent runs in the first half but, for the third game in a row, fumbled the ball on a routine play. In this particular instance, it resulted in a nearly 90 yard TD return by Minnesota CB Marcus Sherels. It really could not have come at a worse time, as it let Minnesota back into a game that the Badgers were about to put away. Brown was just lucky that John Clay was able to bail him out with a touchdown on Wisconsin's next possession. I touched on this a little last week, but I'm going to bring it up again. If Wisconsin's run game is going to be effective, BOTH of the starting backs need to be able to hold on to the ball and make plays when called upon. The Badgers cannot be forced to rely solely upon John Clay (freshman Montee Ball is pretty much a non-entity right now) for the rest of this season and expect to have it go as well as it did today. I don't care if takes carrying a football everywhere including the john for a week, Zach Brown has got to get his shoddy play under control. If he doesn't, the trip to the 'Shoe next week will not be a pretty one.
After the stellar play by the D last week, my remarks about them in this recap are going to seem slight by comparison. The D was not nearly as solid as they were in the Michigan State game, but this is a young unit playing in an extremely hostile environment. I was glad to see that even though they were a bit more porous than usual, they made the critical stops when they had to. I'd like to single out the third quarter intercepion by Patrick Butrym, the fourth quarter sacks by Louis Nzegwu and Blake Sorenson and the subsequent fumble recovery by Chirs Borland as the defensive plays of the game. If the D can make plays like that for the entire game next week, the Badgers might, just might, have a chance against a slightly more anemic than usual Ohio State offense.
I didn't cover the ST last week, but I would like to touch on it now as it was really was the Jekyll and Hyde unit.
First off, holy moly is our kickoff return coverage bad. Here are the returns by Troy Stoudermire in chronological order:
Kickoff return for 41 yards
Kickoff return for 33 yards
Kickoff return for 26 yards
Kickoff return for 38 yards
Kickoff return for 10 yards (this one was not returned by Stoudermire)
Kickoff for a touchback
In sum, the only way that the Badgers were able to keep the Gophers from reeling off a 20+ yard return on a kickoff was when they either booted it into the end zone or when the ball was caught by the backup return man Jay Thomas. Yikes.
Stoudermire is one of the more dangerous return guys in the Big 10, but special teams cannot continue to spot our opponenets field position at midfield and expect the defense to come out and clean up their mess.
So, if the kickoff return coverage was Mr. Hyde, then who on the ST was Dr. Jekyll?
That honor would go to the punter, Brad Nortman, and the punt return team, with a special mention for Nick Toon. The few punts, aside from an early touchback, were good by and large, with one downed at the 13 and the other at the 5 yard line. Both of the Minnesota drives that followed those punts - one at the end of the first half, and the other at the conclusion of the game - were stopped without points going on the board, which just goes to show how important winning the battle of field position can be.
The special mention for Nick Toon is for his awareness and great handling of the last gasp onside kick attempt by the Gophers. Eric Decker had a hand on the ball, but Toon managed to corral it on the rebound. Had Toon not been there to grab it, I would likely be writing about a heartbreaker of a loss instead of a thrilling win.
From here, the Badgers continue the road festivities with a trip to the Horseshoe and an afternoon battle with Ohio State. I am hoping for, though not expecting, a victory. The realist in me says that such an occurrence is unlikely, but even if Bucky drops the upcoming game, the win against Minnesota will have positioned them very well in the conference. Until time runs out in the 4th, I will hold out my hope for an upset. I thus conclude my recap with:
On to the 'Shoe, On to 6-0, and ON WISCONSIN!!!