I want a brat. Maybe a spotted cow too, now that I think about it. This recap was unfortunately delayed by the mountain of legal reading I found myself under this weekend. I say unfortunately for two reasons. First, because I don't particularly enjoy my civ pro work - really, rule 12(b)(6) can go pluck a duck for all I care. And, second, because this was a big game for Wisconsin, which definitely deserved an immediate recap.
I don't think there is any doubt this week that the Iowa / Penn State game was the most significant in the conference, but, I think I would nominate the Wisconsin / Michigan State game as the runner-up. I suppose if Michigan had actually lost to Indiana, that would have been a big deal too, but, they didn't, so the point is rather moot. In this game, though, we really saw just how far both teams are from their pre-season expectations.
I have to say, when I was looking at the Badgers' schedule in the pre-season, I wasn't exactly looking forward to the opening week of the conference. Much like the 2008 season, I saw three very tough games with one easier opponent to start the conference play. Then, it was OSU, Penn State, and Iowa, with a completely beatable Michigan team (though, every Badger fan knows how that one went.) This year, it was OSU, Iowa, and Sparty first up with a beatable Minnesota team sandwiched in between. It seemed as though the Badgers were doomed for a clone of the 2008 season - race out to 3-0 against non-con opponents and then get dragged down when they actually got to the meat of their schedule.
My fears of this happening only intensified after the six fumbles the Badgers had in the course of their Wofford win, and I really thought that after Saturday I'd be singing along to the classic Foundations song... To wit:
Why do you build me up (Build me up)
Buttercup baby just to
let me down (Let me down)
And mess me around...
Instead, I find myself in an entirely different sort of mood this week. Yes, loyal readers, I'm a believer!
After the jump, I dispense with the 1960s song references and talk about why what I saw in the MSU game makes me think Wisconsin could take the Big 10 by surprise this season...
The SB Nation Big 10 bloggers give a boost to the Badgers in our Post Week 4 Power Poll...
My coverage of Wisconsin's nail-biting win against Fresno State...
I have to say, this game was a real pleasure to watch as a Wisconsin fan. Beyond some early jitters on the Badgers first possession, the team really played as a complete unit, firing on all cylinders, for perhaps the first time this year. Because the game flowed so well from start to finish, I'm going to break down my commentary to the two different sides of the ball.
I'll start with the defense, as I was really impressed by their play in this game. Going into the season, I had been a bit concerned that the Wisconsin D was largely comprised of sophomores and freshman. It's not necessarily true that a young team will play poorly, but having a team dominated by younger players does act as sort of a wild card. In this game, the Badger D looked like they had been playing together for years. They combined as a unit to put a great deal of pressure on Kirk Cousins - forcing him to make quite a few harried, poor decisions. As they were doing this, they also managed to hold the line against the running attempts that Sparty tried to turn to. Their run defense wasn't the most consistent in the game, but they got the job done and made the stops when they needed to, in particular several third down situations which kept State out of the end zone.
Also, the secondary did a fantastic job of essentially removing Blair White as a threat. It was great to see the coaching staff recognize White's talent and game-changing play ability and really work to make sure he didn't burn the Badgers for deep catches.
There are a few players on the defense who made plays that I think are worthy of special recognition:
Mike Taylor, freshman LB, who intercepted Kirk Cousins at midfield and successfully halted MSU, after they had managed to march 22 yards in only a little under two minutes.
Chris Borland, freshman LB, for his recovery of Sparty's late-game on-side kick attempt.
Finally, Chris Maragos, senior CB, for his not one... but TWO INTs on the day. One came in the second off a bad throw by backup State QB Keith Nichol, and the other in the 4th quarter in the end zone to keep Michigan State from cutting down the Badger lead.
Among this excellent play, there are really only two issues I have, and they are minor at best. After the half, the defense came out and initially looked a bit sluggish, but they recovered their footing quickly enough, and managed to hold State to just a field goal after they recovered Zach Brown's fumble (more on that later) in Wisconsin territory. The only other quibble is with the final two and a half minutes of this game. The Badgers had been up by 21 when the D let State back into the game. I don't really have much to complain about regarding State's first TD of the fourth quarter... Wisconsin had managed to stop State enough times in the game previously that seeing State score when they were supposed to wasn't too upsetting. Buuut... that last Hail Mary pass that led to MSU's final TD of the game? Yeah, I didn't like that one too much. Granted, by then, MSU was out of time-outs and probably wasn't a huge threat, but, still, I hope that was just a tiny late-game mental lapse and not something suggestive of a larger problem.
On the offensive side of the ball, Wisconsin looked excellent as well. John Clay was like some sort of unstoppable force of nature. He may not be the speediest RB, but it sure is pretty to watch him bounce off tackles and bulldoze defensive lineman. His play this weekend really did make up for his turnovers against Wofford, and showed that he really is the type of player who recognizes his poor play and works hard to correct it.
Zach Brown on the other hand.... well, I have to say that in general, I think he's played well this year. I did not like watching him fumble a simple hand off in the backfield today, though. Wisconsin's two-RB system is a good one. It might be nice, of course, to have a feature back and a decent second, but having two good primary guys (especially with different skill sets) is useful for keeping the opposing defenses guessing. That being said, the only way for this system to actually work is for BOTH of the RBs to be consistent and sure handed with the football. The opposing defenses won't be kept guessing if they think Bielema can't trust one of his backs to not have butterfingers.
As for Scott Tolzien... well, the more I see this kid play, the more I love him. So much for that notion of him as a career backup. He has really come out of the gate this season and commanded the field in a way that I did not expect at all. He made some great deep throws to Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson, as well as quite a few quick, short plays to the TEs Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks. He may not be Darryl Clark or Tate Forcier, but he is the type of QB that can go out there and make the plays necessary to open holes for Bucky's running game and still remain a threat himself. Wisconsin hasn't had this type of quarterback play since at least 2005/2006.
So, where do we go from here? I think that if the young defense can put together more games like this one, and John Clay / Scott Tolzien can continue their solid offensive play, the Badgers will be a serious threat in the conference this year. I'm not dreaming of a trip to Pasadena by any means, but I don't think a good bowl game is at all out of the question if they keep this up.
This weekend, at Minnesota, I foresee a win. The game against Northwestern not withstanding, the Gophers don't really have much of a running game. They do have Eric Decker, but, if Wisconsin can contain Weber and Decker like they contained Cousins and White... the Badgers should be rolling out of the Twin Cities with Paul Bunyan's axe still securely in tow.
So, until next time,
On to week 5, On to The Bank, and ON WISCONSIN!!