Haven't I seen this margin of victory somewhere before? I love days like this past Saturday, in which, even while I am cooped up in the law library stacks, I can smell the bratwurst and almost feel the vibrations from the roar of the crowd jumpin' around at Camp Randall. A beautiful late summer day in Madison unfortunately presaged a not-so beautiful game against Fresno State. Frankly, I knew this was going to a tough one. The Bulldogs played us hard last year when we were on the road, and I knew, even though the field of battle was reversed, that they weren't going to roll over. Boy, was I right.
I also seem to have been right about Wisconsin's scary inconsistency this season. This game really did not start out well. Fresno State jumped out to an early lead, scoring midway through the 1st quarter and early in the 2nd to make it 14-0. Wisconsin was just a mess in the early goings. Their run defense was just about the only bright spot, as they missed a ton of tackles (which gave the Bulldogs waaay too many yards after the catch), couldn't buy a pass rush, and couldn't defend their own QB against the rush from Fresno. A much needed switch to a more man-to-man form of coverage finally managed to take away the short screen passes and dinky drop-offs from the Bulldog offense, but somehow this ended up leaving the secondary vulnerable to deep passes, especially to Devon Wylie, who just gave the Badgers fits for the entire game. Despite the icky way things were going, Scott Tolzien's poise was impressive. Several times he managed to complete passes even as the pocket was collapsing around him, and he showed a decent ability to scramble a bit and give himself extra time when the O-line failed.
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The Badgers eventually got on the board after Zach Brown found a hole in the red zone and, even though the gave the points back almost immediately, a good kick return by David Gilreath set the Badgers up nicely for their 2nd TD of the game. This came on an end-around, to, you guessed it, Gilreath himself. It seemed that the breaking up of the run-run-run play calling, and allowing Tolzien to throw a few times on 1st and 2nd down, let the Badgers catch the Bulldogs D napping. This was perhaps best illustrated by the plays at the end of the 1st half. Wisconsin appeared to be running out the clock by running it up the middle, but then spontaneously let Tolzien air one out to a perfectly placed Isaac Anderson. This set up a 57 yard FG for Philip Welch. There is something ironic, of course, about a kicker who was 0-for-3 in the season up to that point, and had just missed a relatively easy kick before, being able to boot an almost absurdly long kick right down the middle of the uprights, but I'll happily take it.
After the half, my love for Scott Tolzien grows by leaps and bounds...
My impressions of Wisconsin's narrow week 1 victory...
The third quarter seemed to start off with more of the same. The run D was still working well, and the rest of the D must have had a fire lit under them in the locker room because Bucky surprisingly developed an effective pass rush and managed a sack and two interceptions. The offense, though, while clicking on some very pretty throws, stalled a bit in the run department and just couldn't seem to step up in the crucial moments. Watching Brown and Clay going nowhere again and again was difficult for me, to say the least. The Big 10 has historically been a running conference, and Wisconsin has been a running school. Yet, one need only look at the current state and the three top teams (PSU, OSU, Michigan) to see that a dynamic QB, who is a deep threat as well as accurate for short screen passes, is necessary for success. Do these other schools have great RBs? For the most part, yes. But you can't keep an opposing defense guessing if they know you're going to run on nearly every down and treat throwing the ball like the football equivalent of downing a marmite sandwich. I think Tolzien has the arm to be at least close to that kind of player for Wisconsin, if the coaching staff will let him.
Despite the two turnovers, there was mysteriously no scoring for either team in the entire 3rd quarter. It almost seemed to fly by, though, not much changed in the 4th until John Clay ripped off a 72 yard run to put the Badgers on top by three. Okay, you might say, "Hilary, doesn't this prove that running is a good thing?" Well, yes, but I maintain that Clay wouldn't have found the hole he did without Tolzien connecting on passes earlier in the half. Keeping the other team uncertain of what you're going to do is half the offensive battle, and balanced play calling accomplishes that.
Of course, that inconsistency monster I mentioned earlier reared its ugly head as regulation came to a close. The D managed to keep the Bulldogs out of the end zone, including a great stop on 3rd and 19, but they did ultimately give up the lead on a 41 yd FG by Kevin Goessling, the player who pretty much single-handedly lost the game for Fresno State last year. This allowed the Bulldogs to drag this thing into OT. Look, I give the Badgers a lot of credit for clawing their way back into the game. It's not easy to be down 21-7 and somehow reclaim the lead, but if Wisconsin wants to do well in conference play, they need to take advantage of their comebacks and put the proverbial cleet on their opponent's throat. In the immortal words of Mortal Kombat, "Finish him!"
The OTs were, in the weird way that all college OTs seem to be, both exciting and snore inducing. Back and forth we go, when we stop nobody knows. The game ultimately turned on a key end zone interception by the Wisconsin defense and a 22 yarder by Welch to win both the 2nd OT and the game. Guess he redeemed himself during this one, huh?
So, where does this leave us? Of course I am happy for the win, being 2-0 to start the season is nice. But, last year, Wisconsin rolled out to 3-0 and then dropped four straight conference matchups. We all know how that turned out. I want them to win as much as any Badger fan and I think they certainly have the talent to do it, but until they show me more consistency I will be very nervous going into any even remotely challenging game... But for now, all I have to say is...
On to week 3, on to Wofford, and ON WISCONSIN!