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Everyone at ESPN (except Barry Melrose, Scott Van Pelt and John Anderson) Sucks and Other Things I Learned Watching UNLV-Wisconsin

The democratization of access represents, in my opinion, blogging’s greatest contribution. The Internet serves as the great equalizer. A keyboard and a modem provide one a stage. The result? Intelligent people, not constrained by the professional dictums of boredom preached in the ivory tower of a prestigious university’s school of journalism, have a platform. We have, therefore, more voices, more discussion. I can safely state I have learned more about other B1G teams on this site (from both articles and comments) than I could ever hope to from any pre-season magazine or newspaper. And the reason is, through these new forums the number of voices multiplies. And, being a good American, I have always been under the impression that quantity leads to tougher competition. And the greater the contest for space in a market, the higher the quality at the top. Because cream rises.

 Unless you’re ESPN.

 I once gave ESPN credit for hiring an ombudsman whose criticisms they published online. The problem, though, is the World Wide Leader exhibited the hubris and privilege of an SEC coach offering what is likely a non-existent scholarship to a kid from a disadvantaged background. In other words, ESPN changed little to nothing. This feigned introspection was on full display Thursday night when ESPN trotted out two of its resident bumbling morons, Jesse Palmer and Craig James. Socialized in an environment where I was led to believe God himself wore cardinal and white on Saturdays, I’ve always held a special place in the darkest part of my heart for Craig James. What with that whole "worst team" nonsense (alternatively, you may substitute your own joke about Mexico and SMU).

 We’ll give James a pass for mentioning Montee Ball’s weight loss approximately seventeen times in the first ten minutes of the first quarter. We’ll also overlook his constant assertion that speed is an antidote to the Wisconsin rushing attack and perpetuating the myth that the conference housed in the Upper Midwest is little more than a collection of methodical behemoths. Instead, we’ll harangue both him and Palmer for their constant critiques of the Wisconsin defense.

 One hopes that former players who now draw paychecks as analysts would know a thing or two about the game. That’s not the case. In the first half UNLV mounted three drives that actually went somewhere, one netting points, the other two missed field goals. To the untrained eye UNLV was running roughshod over the prohibitive Big Ten favorite. Beginning with their second offensive drive commencing with 7:55 left in the first quarter, the Rebels (the football team is the Rebels while the basketball team is called the Runnin’ Rebels; why?) unleashed their onslaught: run for 10, run for 9, two passes for 17, and another run for 19 before stalling and missing a field goal. The trend continued heading into the second quarter, with quarterback Caleb Herring toying with the #11 team in the land. Craig James was awestruck; Jesse Palmer declared that UNLV was manhandling (!) Wisconsin at the point of attack. Adam Rittenberg picked up on the story, hinting that the questionable Wisconsin rush defense would be a problem this season.

 Was the Badger defense that bad?

 No. Not even close. The football savants managed missing the obvious. UNLV’s first offensive possession went like this: gain of one, gain of three, incomplete pass, punt. On the first defensive series of both the first and second halves, the Badgers showed two things new co-coordinator promised, that being press coverage and pressure. Antonio Fenelus played up at the line. The secondary was, for the most part, within ten yards of the line, all the while rotating coverage. Linebacker Kevin Claxton was turned loose, preventing UNLV from getting outside. On the two series where UW actually showed some of the pressures and personnel looks we’ve been expecting, UNLV managed whopping offensive totals of -2 yards and a sack allowed.

 So under what circumstances did the vanishing juggernaut suddenly appear? When Wisconsin went vanilla. Which the Badgers did the moment they were up two touchdowns. With UNLV clearly incapable of keeping pace on the scoreboard, Chris Ash pulled back, opting instead to keep his pressure schemes and coverage packages off tape. Wisconsin played practically the entire game, save the series described above, in a soft base nickel. Four down linemen. Two linebackers shaded on either side of the center. And five defensive backs, the closest ones about ten yards off the ball. No Badger was blown off the ball, as they instead maintained their lane discipline. This of course left the outside unprotected. Hence the "great speed to the outside that kills every single Big Ten team." Guarding against the big play (which the starters did not yield), Wisconsin conceded the edge. And made UNLV look like a world beater.

 James and Palmer couldn’t help themselves. James sang a soliloquy lamenting J.J. Watt’s departure to the NFL and the fact Wisconsin no longer had a pass rush. Even though, quite literally two seconds earlier, Louis Nzegwu had just recorded a quarterback hit. Even though on almost every obvious passing situation Wisconsin generated pressure with its front four. In a moment of clarity in the fourth quarter, Palmer threatened to introduce some of the sage wisdom for which he and James are paid: he noted Wisconsin was playing a passive scheme with the hope Mike Riley would have fewer looks to prepare for. He then went right back to trashing the defense, pointing out the starting defense was still on the field (I counted Chris Borland and Fenelus at the time, but saw no other starter.) and being gashed by the mighty Rebel Assault. Even though he just explained they were intentionally playing soft.

That’s right. It took the combined football intellect of a former professional running back and a former professional quarterback almost four full quarters to read a defense. And then immediately forget what they saw. And it then took the World Wide Leader another few minutes to perpetuate the myth on its website.

 Thanks, ESPN.

 (And, as Adam Hoge later reported, UNLV ran an offensive scheme Wisconsin was unprepared for- hence the soft coverages. Did you hear the omniscient ESPN team mention this once? Nope.)

 Other Things I Didn’t Like

My defense of the defense aside, there were problems. Chris Borland, who missed most of last season, predictably looked rusty. A playmaker at OLB, the coaching staff moved him inside, bumping Mike Taylor outside. As rusty as Borland may have been, Taylor looked uncomfortable. On UNLV’s second drive he failed to keep containment. While much of UNLV’s success on the outside was the result of Wisconsin’s soft defense, both Borland and Taylor did a poor job of getting outside and bottling the play up. When faced with a more traditional power play with pulling linemen (making it far easier to read and react), both were strong at the point of attack and held UNLV backs in check.

 Tackling in general was lackluster. Some of this stemmed from the passive scheme, allowing runners to get momentum before getting to the next level. Much of it was technique. Claxton, Nzegwu, Jordan Kohout, and David Gilbert all had moments where they got too high and tried to make arm tackles.

 Special teams? A missed extra point is the worst way to ingratiate yourself to a fan base. Could Kyle French make Badger fans pine for the guy whose missed field goal was the difference in the Rose Bowl? Two kickoff returns over thirty yards are worrisome, especially in light of special teams breakdowns hurting Wisconsin in its two losses last season, and nearly costing the team the Arizona State game.

 Russell Mania!

It’s just UNLV, an overmatched non-AQ playing on the road. That’s all one need remember to temper nascent Russell Mania. Still, Russell Wilson looks like he might just live up to some of the loftier expectations dumped on his shoulders. With an offensive line laden with talent and experience and Montee Ball and James White riding in the backfield, forecasting a strong running game was not farfetched. Three plays, though, give reason to think the 2011 Badger offense might be better than the 2010 iteration.


1)      Russell Wilson 39 yard pass to Nick Toon on the Badgers’ third offensive drive. Two things stand out. Firstly, Toon made a strong play on the ball. If 2011 Nick Toon is anything like the 2009 version, I pity opposing defensive coordinators. Secondly, the vertical passing game was a concern coming in. While UNLV’s secondary is only a fraction of what Nebraska can throw out, seeing a deep ball puts a partisan’s mind at ease.

2)      Russell Wilson 63 yard pass to Montee Ball. Since Brian Calhoun in 2005, Wisconsin has lacked a true receiving threat out of the backfield. Part of it is conceptual; with a rushing attack so brutal, passes to the tight end and the play action pass have defined Bucky’s aerial game. With Wilson’s ability to move around in the pocket, keep plays alive, and force the defense to get deep, short passes to two of the better open-field running backs makes this offense near indefensible (at this point I see hyperbole and remind myself it’s just UNLV…)

3)      Russell Wilson 46 yard rush for a touchdown. I knew Wilson could run the ball. But wow. It wasn’t the touchdown. It wasn’t the vision in the open field. It was the acceleration. I’ve been reading "a dimension Wisconsin has never had" for a month or so now, and all I could think about was how quickly people had forgotten Mike Samuel and Brooks Bollinger. Those guys were talented and they were winners. They could not hope to match the pure athleticism Wilson displayed on that burst. Every single third-and-eight Wisconsin will face this year just became far less daunting.

 Next week: Wisconsin gets a tougher test against Oregon State while Craig James terrorizes Michigan fans.