True story. Last night, I'm spending the night in Indiana with friends. The stated purpose of the evening is to sit around a fire, drink, and just chill. It's a crisp fall night, the smell of smoke in the air, and I'm having a great time with excellent people, excellent chili, and excellent beer. What more could you want?
How about a Badgers upset of Ohio State? Yes, please!
So anyway, back to the story. We're out on the front porch. I, being the very huge Badger fan that I am, cannot resist checking ESPN on my phone. In the group we have good chunks of Big Ten fandom represented: Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin... maybe even an Iowa fan. On any ordinary Saturday, our separate interests might conflict. But on this Saturday evening, we all (except for the lone Buckeye fan and there sort of was one) had a common purpose. Joy in Ohio State losing. Football schadenfreude. So every fifteen minutes or so, I would check the score on my phone and give updates to the assembled crowd. Sometimes the updates would go like this,
"First and 10 at the Wisconsin 43, Terrelle Pryor pass incomplete." (minor cheer)
"Second and 10 at the Wisconsin 43, Terrelle Pryor pass incomplete." (minor cheer)
"Third and 10 at the Wisconsin 43, Terrelle Pryor pass incomplete." (laughter and cheer)
But the best updates were always the ones with the scores:
"With 2:53 left in the half... the score is: OSU, 3. Wisconisn, 21." (cheering and high fives all around)
The night would have been amazing without the football (plus I topped it off with a quite tasty bacon waffle this morning, rather ingeniously named by a friend as the "baffle" -- pronounce it like a true Midwesterner to get the full effect), but Wisconsin going out and taking care of business against a No. 1 OSU team just made it that much better.
Okay, so about the game itself...
Considering the end result, it was, of course, an excellent game. This is really the Wisconsin team that I, and most UW fans, have been waiting for. We knew heading into the season that Wisconsin had a decent shot at being in the top tier of the Big Ten, or going for the title, but injuries and lackluster play made it seem like a pipe dream. Then it the opening kickoff of the Ohio State game happened. Hoo boy.
I wrote an article on special teams performance in the Big Ten earlier this week. It had pretty charts. But the gist of it was, this year, as compared to last, has been unusually worse in special teams performance for the majority of Big Ten schools. Ohio State is no exception. In fact, they were, rather shockingly, one of the worst performers of the bunch in my examined period. One of the points I made in that piece was that special teams performance is critical because it can very significantly affect the outcome of games. I think that there is no clearer example this season than this game right here.
David Gilreath of Wisconsin started this game off with a bang with an opening kickoff return. It was of course some good running by Gilreath and some good blocking by the Wisky special teams, but the main reason it happened? A break down on coverage by OSU. This kick return did three things:
1. Gave Wisconsin a touchdown lead only 20 seconds into the game.
2. Demoralized the Buckeye offense
3. Fired up the Badger players and student section to ridiculous levels.
Of course the Badgers as a team and the students were amped for this game even without that return - any time you get to host the No. 1 team in the country at night on ESPN you better be excited - but that opener really, I think, uncorked things. Perhaps because of that deflation, the Buckeyes just did not seem to be able to get anything going on their first drive.
And then what happens?
Wisconsin makes it worse for OSU by putting another seven on the board. For perhaps the first time this season I was very impressed by the play calling of the Wisconsin coaching staff. Especially in this second drive and, really, the entirety of the first half. The coaches knew that the duo of John Clay and James White were their bread and butter, and they used that combination to devastating effect. Scott Tolzien threw just enough short passes and screens to keep the OSU defense honest and allow the run to develop. I'm not sure if the OSU D-Line was suffering a bout of nerves, or a lack of focus, but they were getting manhandled by the Wisconsin offensive line for the entirety of the first half of this football game.
It was good to see John Clay once again running with power and authority. It certainly looks like he is finally fully recovered from his ankle surgery. Unlike in the Michigan State game, there was no hint of gimpyness to his running this time around. He had 51 yards on the ground during Wisconsin's first offensive drive, and when all was said and done he became the first running back in the last 30 games to run for more than 100 yards against OSU. That's kind of ridiculous. Wisconsin needs him healthy and running like this if they are going to finish out this season.
Credit also needs to be given to the Badger defense. Terrelle Pryor was having a lot of trouble on his passes in the first half - but this wasn't just due to him making poor throws, which he did do from time to time. The Wisconsin coverage on Ohio State's receivers was fantastic. Perhaps the only flaw in the first half defense of Wisconsin was their inability to contain Pryor when he scrambled, but this really isn't that much of an issue given that Pryor's size makes it very hard to contain him no matter what team tries to do it. But despite that, Wisconsin's tight defense was what allowed them to take an 18 point lead into the half. That goal line stand in the second quarter was amazing. Keeping OSU to a field goal when they have the ball on the four? That's unheard of.
Of the players on the defense, I don't think I can say enough about J.J. Watt. Man, that guy is a force. He had at least three absolutely huge sacks in the game that really were difference makers on defense for the Badgers. I sincerely hope that when he ends up playing on Sunday he plays for a team that I cheer for, so that I can continue to watch him.
Of course, as fantastic as the first half was for this team, there must be some attention paid to the second half.
Wisconsin came out in the second half and looked exactly like... Wisconsin. This has been a theme during the Brett Bielema tenure. The inability to make adjustments or to respond to the adjustments made on the other side of the ball. Jim Tressel and the OSU staff switched it up just enough that the Badgers seemed to be caught off guard. All of a sudden, OSU's previously lackluster run game was gashing the Badgers' D-Line and this opened up routes for Terrelle Pryor. Combine that with some circus catchers by the Buckeye receivers and in a matter of two drives OSU is suddenly back in this.
I was watching the little gameday screen on my phone when the Buckeyes were down in the Wisconsin redzone looking to score their second touchdown of the night. It was a bit nerve wracking. And of course... OF COURSE the inevitable two point conversion was good. Why wouldn't it be? This is Wisconsin after all. They do this. I admit that around this point I briefly stopped updating my friends on the game. Visions of 2008 danced in my head. All I wanted to say was something along the lines of, "Do not want! Do not want!"
Given that, I cannot tell you how important the drive that Scott Tolzien and the Badgers put together in response was. That drive perhaps made this game. I'm sure that nearly every fan in Camp Randall, after OSU had pulled to within three, was thinking the exact same thing that I was, "Uh oh. Here we go again. Of course OSU will find a way to pull it out... they're the No. 1 team in the country after all..." But no.
This is perhaps also the best illustration of just how much Scott Tolzien matters to this team. Sure, the Badgers are, as they have always been, a run first team. But to have a quarterback who you can trust to go out there and make throws changes everything. Wisconsin marched right back down the field using quick throws to the outside and a few well timed bursts by James White. Without a decent QB under center, the Buckeyes would have been able to close ranks and stop Wisconsin from putting the game out of reach. And you know that the coaching staff also has confidence in him because of the insanity of the play called by Paul Chryst in the very next Wisconsin drive. A 30 yard play action pass? Ridiculous! But it worked because Tolzien is able to make the throws that he needs to make accurately and on time. He will be sorely missed next year.
A moment on James White. I love this kid. He's a freshman and yet he goes out there and plays like he's been playing the college game for years now. He has an explosiveness to his cut backs that I haven't seen in a Wisconsin rusher in a long time. Don't get me wrong, John Clay is amazing. But James White will also be something special some day. We saw this on the Badgers' fourth touchdown of the night. White, from about twelve yards out, finds a hole, shakes two tackles, and just turns the speed on. With that burst ability, there was simply nothing OSU could do once he got past the first defender.
I am just so happy for this win. This is a win that Brett Bielema and this team desperately needed. And it is worth mentioning, that as I write this, the AP poll has just been released. Wisconsin is now ranked No. 10 in the country, ahead of No. 11 Ohio State. After Alabama, they are the second highest ranked one loss team in the country. Way to impress Badgers.
Of course, next week scares me a little bit. Wisconsin has to go on the road to Kinnick, to an Iowa team that will be looking to catch the Badgers on a let down. The Hawkeyes know that with OSU's loss, these next two weeks will come close to determining their Big Ten fate. Take down Wisconsin and then Sparty, and all of a sudden they're back in the conversation for the title. The Badgers have to be very careful. A BCS bowl game is within reach, but it won't happen if they drop next Saturday in Kinnick.
Still. Enough apprehension. More celebration. Until next time,