On Wednesdays OTE does one of two things: a 4th-and-3 feature or a wild card left to the writer’s imagination. Given that 4th-and-3 (one play to get three yards or else) shares far too much in common with a two point conversion, I decided not writing an article called "Wisconsin Alumnus Engages in Self-Flagellation" to be in the interests of my health.
Instead, I will pick up the theme we began last week with Michigan State, where Ted Glover asked whether or not the Spartans are ready to make the leap to the conference’s upper echelon. Today we’ll continue that discussion, looking at the Wisconsin program and seeing if they're ready not only to take up permanent residence at the top of the conference, but also establish itself as a football power on an annual basis. And if they’re not, what do they have to do to get there?
Badger Football: An Historical Context
Before Barry notched the first of his three Rose Bowl victories, did anyone anywhere have any positive memories of Wisconsin football (with the notable exception of Kenosha native Allan Ameche’s Heisman)? After getting that first victory in Pasadena Bucky went into a slight slumber over the next four years, slumming it in the Hall of Fame Bowl and the Copper Bowl, while missing the post-season entirely in 1995. This was all of course a mere prelude to the great two-year period of 1998-1999 when Ron Dayne ascended to the top of the NCAA’s all-time rushing list, grabbed the school’s second Heisman trophy, and Wisconsin became the only Big Ten team ever to win consecutive Rose Bowls. It was at this point the Badgers seemed poised to join Michigan and Ohio State atop the conference as a perennial contender. Sportsline went so far as to pick Wisconsin as its pre-season favorite for the national title. But they didn’t make the jump. What happened?
This is why I laugh when Ohio State fans naively believe the NCAA will be any bit forgiving when the hammer comes down. Shoes. The Shoe Box is a store located in Black Earth, Wisconsin, about ten miles northwest of Madison. My late cousin, a former student at UW (1996-2001), told me he and his friends would drive out there to buy shoes. In fact, many people made the trip. Why? Because the store’s owners would almost always cut you a deal of some kind. Apparently a large number of Wisconsin football players likewise did their shopping in Black Earth. Instead of realizing that this was a family operation that relied on word-of-mouth advertising and customer loyalty to drive their business, the NCAA came in and declared "unadvertised discounts are improper benefits," and slapped the Badgers with multiple player suspensions ranging from one to three games per. Oh, one other thing: they announced the suspensions eight hours before the first game of the season. Meaning the coaches had about 45 minutes to decide who would serve their suspension that game and then implement the necessary changes to the game plan. That’s right: Peter Warrick was suspended two games by Florida State (not the NCAA) after being charged with misdemeanor theft. And Badger All-American Jamar Fletcher? Three games (from the NCAA overlords) for getting a few dollars off a pair of shoes.
This episode, as overblown as it may have been, points to larger problem, a little known secret that may result in the university revoking my degree: Barry was beginning to lose control of the program. A good coach keeps his ear to the ground and snuffs out these kinds of problems before the NCAA even has a chance to overreact. While the 2000 season was on life-support before it could even begin, the Badgers returned a boatload of talent in 2001 and 2002 that should have left them poised for more runs to the roses. In 2001 they missed the post-season completely (and also allowed Indiana to hang 63 in Camp Randall. Indiana! No amount of excuses can explain that away.) and then underachieved their way to an Alamo Bowl in 2002. A poor record in games decided by seven points or fewer (2-3 in 2001, 2-4 in 2002 with the two victories coming at home against Fresno State and Northern Illinois) marked this period, pointing to a lack of mental toughness and discipline. A rash of arrests in 2001 furthers the argument that Barry’s grip was slipping.
The 2003 season saw some order restored, but it ultimately summed up the frustration that is Wisconsin football. After snapping Ohio State’s 19-game win streak on an epic night at Camp Randall (personal aside: I’ve never in my life felt sports pull a community together the way that game did. The whole week leading up to the game there was this unexplainable buzz on campus; everyone could sense something big was coming. Practically every person you ran into that week was a little giddy. Then again it’s Madison- they may as well have just been drunk and/or high.), the Badgers summarily dropped their next three including three-point losses against Purdue and at Minnesota. Losing by a field goal? Brings us right back to that discussion on being mentally tough. The 2004 Badgers looked like they had righted the ship, riding a shut-down defense that didn’t let anyone move the ball against them and sent Purdue football back to the realm of the irrelevant (since the Orton fumble has anyone paid the Boilermakers any attention? No.). After thrashing Minnesota and placing their death grip on the Axe, the Badgers stopped playing football: consecutive bad losses at Michigan State and at Iowa dropped the Badgers out of title contention and into the Outback Bowl (a loss to Georgia).
Before the 2005 season began Barry announced it would be his last. That year might have been Barry’s tenure in a nutshell: Emotional, last minute victory against Michigan to open conference play, a victory over Minnesota, inexcusable losses to Northwestern and Iowa, and then an upset of Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. Always competitive, always a tough out, always on the cusp, but almost never over the top.
Bret Bielema signed on as Barry’s defensive coordinator in 2004 and took the helm in 2006. His inaugural season once again left us thinking: are we primed for the big time? With the exception of one slip up against Michigan (in a game that was far more competitive than its 27-13 final would indicate), the Badgers generally laid waste to the rest of the conference and won the only three games they played decided by a touchdown or less. The consensus: Wisconsin is back to playing tough, physically and mentally. With a shutdown defense composed largely of sophomores, domination is to be expected in 2007 and 2008.
Wow. Were we wrong. The 2007 season disappointed, beginning with the idiotic decision to open the season in all red uniforms and culminating in getting burned by Eric Ainge in the Outback Bowl. Cause for concern was more apparent than it initially seemed: for maybe the first time since Alvarez took over, the team completely capitulated in a blowout loss at Happy Valley, with only Deandre Levy playing like he gave a damn in the second half. The team had suffered its share of blowouts over the previous fifteen years, but there was always some defiance, some fight. Not that day. The bottom completely fell out in 2008: the Evridge pick six in Ann Arbor (for which I had a front row seat…), the collapse against Ohio State, zero resistance against either Penn State or Iowa, and needing not just overtime, not just heroics, but also a bevy of missed extra points against… Cal Poly! On Senior Day! The Badgers then humiliated themselves against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
While Alvarez had restored some of the program’s pride and stability for the period 2004-2006 (Barry left the program in great shape; the new guy screwed it up), Bielema’s second two years took us back to the dark days of 2001: no accountability, no responsibility, mentally checked out. Which is exactly why 2009 is so damned important. Players like O’Brien Schofield, Chris Maragos, and Gabe Carimi assumed leadership roles. There were the frustrating games: losing a winnable game against Iowa and allowing Northwestern to continue its Ryan Field winning streak. But instead of tanking after two tough losses like the 2008 team did, the Badgers responded to the Iowa loss with a thrashing of Purdue. John Clay and Chris Borland won post-season awards. And the Badgers returned to the Champs Sports Bowl to play against an ACC team from Florida. This time, though, they thoroughly dominated Miami everywhere but the scoreboard (the final score was 20-14; the Badger defense surrendered one late score and the offensive line pushed around Miami all game long). One thing stands out about on-field celebration: it was far more pronounced than it was after either of the Capital One Bowl triumphs. The reason? The team set out to restore the program’s pride. It did just that. Responsibility and toughness were also back.
From this perspective you can see how the 2010 was pointed towards Pasadena. After the slipup against Michigan State (where players reportedly vowed, as they were leaving the field, they would not let another team play that physically against them again), the team accepted responsibility and plowed forward. When people think back to the upset of Ohio State they remember the 21-0 lead and John Clay running roughshod into the Buckeye secondary. What should they remember? Wisconsin’s first drive in the fourth quarter. After watching the huge spread shrink to just three, the Badgers did not panic. They coolly converted their third downs and registered their first real gut-check drive of the season with James White scoring the touchdown that broke Ohio State’s back. A team so depleted its third-string running back was running routes as a slot receiver, Wisconsin repeated the feat a week later in Iowa City, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 58 seconds remaining. I do not believe I’ve seen a more mentally tough Badger squad than the 2010 version. Not only that: they were back to bullying teams the way they in 1998 and 1999, as evidenced by the second half in Ann Arbor.
This is why the Rose Bowl was so deflating. Leave aside Dave Doeren’s foolish defensive formations that allowed TCU (and Michigan State and Iowa) to convert multiple third-and-longs, Paul Chryst eschewing the run against an undersized front that was gassed midway through the second quarter (if I told you Wisconsin would control the ball for over thirty six minutes and average five yards per carry, what would you have guessed was the result?), or even the ridiculous pass interference call that saved the Horned Frogs’ third touchdown drive. Wisconsin left nine points on the field because of execution: Nick Toon’s drop on the opening drive, Philip Welch’s missed field goal in the second quarter, and Tolzien’s pass not being high enough. Those mental mistakes, which had largely disappeared throughout the 2010 season, cost the Badgers nine points in a game they lost by two.
Heading into 2011: Would the real Bielema please stand up?
If we put the Rose Bowl to one side and evaluate Bielema’s tenure to this point, we see a young coach who’s learned from his mistakes and now realizes what it takes to be successful. I feel he paid his dues in 2009, learning how to keep a team focused and motivated on a weekly basis. He repeated the deed in 2010. If this is the real Bielema, one that demands responsibility of his players and instills toughness in them, then Wisconsin is probably ready to rise.
But what’s so special about Wisconsin this time around? Didn’t they win back-to-back Rose Bowls and fail to make the jump? What makes us think the Badgers won’t go back into a 2000-2001 tailspin? Several things. Firstly, there’s no Shoe Scandal II on the horizon (I pray not). There is little to no likelihood of the team essentially forfeiting a season because of the NCAA’s overzealousness in prosecuting minor offenses to the fullest extent possibly while ignoring the SEC’s habitual over-recruiting. Secondly, as I went to great pains to point out above, the evidence at hand shows that Bielema has a tighter grip on the program than did Alvarez when things started to unravel. Third, Wisconsin now has a higher national profile than it did a decade earlier. Much of this is the result of Alvarez laying the groundwork he did.
Consider: while Barry was in charge the team focused its recruiting efforts on a) Wisconsin, b) Minnesota, c) Chicagoland, and would make occasional forays into the greater Pennsylvania area, St. Louis, and Ohio. Several things have changed in the last decade. Firstly, the quality of Wisconsin high school football has improved greatly meaning the Badgers’ home base is stronger than ever. The Badgers still mine Ohio, the East Coast, and Minnesota, but they’ve cast their net far wider than before. Recently they have made forays into SEC country (primarily Florida, but also Georgia), Texas, they have done better in Ohio, and are now building networks in California (that have already netted one recruiting coup). Oh, and Russell Wilson picked Madison because in his estimation it was the place that would best allow him to showcase his talents for the NFL.
The fourth reason Wisconsin is in a better position today is conference flux. With the coming of a conference championship game you no longer need to go 7-1 or 8-0 in conference to win the league. Alternatively, going 7-1 or 8-0 no longer guarantees you a trip to Pasadena. You need only win your division. Normally this would not mean too much but for the fact that Wisconsin’s main competition will be Ohio State. Wisconsin historically plays Ohio State tough. And now Ohio State is in a bit of a lurch. The Badgers find themselves in a position to really put their stamp on the division, and through that, the conference.
With Bielema growing into a very good coach, the Wisconsin brand garnering more luster, increased recruiting ability, and its main competition hamstrung for the short-term, the Badgers are plenty ready to stake their claim as a perennial conference power. Now Bielema just needs to win a BCS game…
MONDAY | Wisconsin Cocktail Party Preview
WEDNESDAY | 4th & 3
THURSDAY | OTE Potluck
FRIDAY | Keeping the Enemy Close - Rival Blogger Interview