This week is a big, scary test. After seeing the Big Ten's #2 rusher, Shonn Greene, torch our defense, the Big Ten's top back, Javon Ringer, must be giving Doeren, Levy, Casillas, and McFadden nightmares. And Hoyer isn't a world beating quarterback, but he's consistently good enough, and let's face it, he's better than Stanzi. So that's not good.
Conversely, since starting the season with a gimpy defense, we've got a new starting quarterback, a new starting tailback, a dinged up and re-shuffled offensive line, and we've lost our best offensive player for the season.
The good news is that Michigan State's defense isn't as good as Iowa's. On the other hand, it ain't bad. It held the same Iowa team that absolutely smoked us to a mere 13 points. It held a dangerous Northwestern to 20, and, ok, Ohio State smacked them around. But we're no Ohio State.
In the kicking game, the Badgers face the league leading punt returner, Jesse Johnson. Contrast him with Gilreath, who despite flashes of brilliance, is last in the league (#18) returning punts (#24 in kick off returns). The kickers are pretty similar, Welch and Swenson are both reliable -- if not world-beating -- kickers, and Nortman and Bates share a 41.9 yard punting average (middle of the conference pack).
After the depressing objective look, we can't even turn to intangibles for a little psychological boost. Sparty is +6 in turnover margin, against our -1. Bielema's Badgers are 4-6 on the road in the Big Ten and have never beaten a ranked Big Ten opponent in their house. Our last visit to East Lansing was one of the all-time low moments for the Badgers:
Let's face it, this game looks tough for us.
Is there any silver lining?
The last time the unranked Badgers played #21 MSU, we smacked 'em, 56-21 (2003). Also, we gain more yards and give up fewer yards per game (we're 4th in the Big Ten in both, they are 7th and 6th, respectively). Yeah . . . I'm reaching.
Keys to the game?
(1) Can the Badgers contain Javon Ringer?
(2) Can Hoyer force the Badgers to defend the pass?
(3) Can Chryst mix in enough effective passing plays (accurate pass followed by actual reception) to provide space for Clay and Brown to run?
(4) Can the Badgers win the turnover battle?
(5) Can the Badgers win in the kicking game?
Face it, by every objective and subjective measure, Michigan State should win this game. Every. One.
So? Ringer gets 175 yards on the ground, but Hoyer never gets going. Sherer is mediocre, but Graham makes some key grabs, and Clay and Brown (and a little Hill) combine for 160 yards.
I've just got a feeling.
A late turnover gives Wisconsin the lead, and Hoyer can't pull off the last-second victory.
Did it really take losing to Notre Dame for Washington to figure out Willingham wasn't coming back next year? Really? Remember when it wasn't shameful to lose to ND?
Pitt has lost to two teams: Bowling Green and Rutgers, and the hapless Scarlet Knights kicked their asses. What's that say about the Big East?
Kansas has lost to every good team they have played in the last two years (ok, save for last year's bowl game).
Texas Tech and Oklahoma State! Who knew!?!
Akron (4-4) won at Eastern Michigan.
Marshall (3-4) lost their third in a row, to UAB.
Fresno State (5-2) tough win over hapless Utah State
Michigan (2-6) lost to little brother; again, how are the Badgers one of those 2!?!
#13 Ohio State (7-2) tough loss to Penn State in Columbus
#3 Penn State (9-0) solid win on the road in Columbus
Iowa (5-3) took the week off to savor kicking our ass
#22 Michigan State (7-2) excersised some demons by beating big brother
Indiana (3-5) upset Northwestern; didn't see that coming
#20 Minnesota (7-1) believe that?!? Solid win over Purdue
Cal Poly (5-1) highly ranked FBS team, beat Southern Utah.
Anyway, Potrykus, at the Journal Sentinel gave him a shout yesterday in his Second Look column:
The debate among UW fans regarding UW's tailback rotation too often involves only junior P.J.
Hill and redshirt freshman John Clay.
Sophomore Zach Brown, who seems to do just about everything well, showed his value on UW's last scoring drive.
The Badgers faced third and 5 from their 25 on the third play of the drive. Sherer dropped back to pass and Illinois blitzed two linebackers, Martez Wilson and Brit Miller.
Wilson came up the middle and was picked up by center John Moffitt. Miller looped behind Wilson and came free between Moffitt and left guard Andy Kemp.
Brown, who was lined up slightly off Moffitt's right shoulder, saw Miller's path and slid to his left. Brown lunged at Miller and got enough of him to give Sherer time and a throwing lane to complete a 9-yard pass to tight end Garrett Graham for a first down.
Brown's smarts and his ability to block helped keep alive a drive that ended seven plays later with Sherer hitting David Gilreath for an 8-yard touchdown.
There's more to running back than carrying the ball, and Brown is the Badgers' best in the supporting role. He's also darned good with it (among other things, he reads his blocks):
through Illinois (carries, yards, average):
Hill, P.J.: 134, 613, 4.6
Clay, John: 90, 480, 5.3
Zach: 43, 239, 5.6
Also, remember true-frosh Brown in
2007, filling in for an injured PJ:
at Minnesota: 29 for 250, 8.9 ypc
vs. Michigan: 27 for 108, 4.0 ypc
at Ohio State: 20 for 63, 3.2 ypc (not great, but Clay and Hill nowhere to be found)
Edit: Potrykus isn't the only one. Another Badger blogger, over at Camp Lambeau, noticed another key play from Zach this weekend: http://camplambeau.blogspot.com/2008/10/wisconsin-v-illinois-one-moment.html
One of the most gifted athletes I can remember wearing the Cardinal and White. Came in a highly recruited defensive lineman and became a game-changing tight-end/H-back. Built to excel in Chryst's offense and should be a great player in the League.
Best of luck to you, Travis, in your rehab. Thanks for the memories.
(best I could do on the video)
Also, here: 2007 Capital One Bowl Highlights at :37, 2:05, and 3:09.
Gilreath, 48 yards the house.
That didn't win the game, but that one play changed everything. It gave the defense confidence. They started flying around just a bit more (and picked off two passes). It gave the crowd life. It gave the offense, most importantly Sherer, life. And it gave the Badgers a chance at saving the season. No, there will be no Capital One Bowl (nor better), but there is still some pride on the table, and that was the play the Badgers needed to fight for it.
I'm happy I was wrong about the result yesterday. Here's a follow-up on the keys of the game:
(1) Will Juice, et al., protect the ball? A resounding "no." His first pick, though he was on the move, was a terrible throw that sailed on him, ended an Illini drive, and led to the Badgers' first points. His second was underthrown into coverage allowing Wisconsin to build on its momentum after tying the game. And the third? It wasn't really his fault, but it ended Illinois' chance at a comeback.
(2) Will Wisconsin run effectively on first down? Not really. In the first quarter, yes, and sporadically throughout the rest of the game, but not enough to consistently give the Badgers a short field on 2nd and 3rd down.
(3) Will Sherer get Beckum and Graham the ball? Sort of. Beckum dropped two key passes (one really easy one) early and later left the game with an ankle injury. Graham was steady and made some key plays (including one that was negated by the Oglesby hold). But Sherer tried to force throws to his tight ends a couple of times.
(4) Will the Badgers' secondary limit Benn's YAC? A little. He had one big one and was trouble for Wisconsin all afternoon, but Juice's poor game helped out a lot.
(5) Will Gilreath shorten the field returning kicks? He did ok, but more importantly took the 3rd and 17 pass 52-yards for the tying score in the 3rd quarter. That was the play of the game.
Obviously I was happy with the outcome and the future is brighter already. That said, all is not right in Mad-town just yet. The Illini turnovers were the difference in the game, and our offense is still very shaky in passing situations. If Beckum is out again (I suspect he is), it won't help. I liked seeing Clay and Brown with the ball, and maybe, just maybe, the confidence the Badgers got from a solid win will carry over in the visit to East Lansing next week. They'll need it.
Given the trouble we had with Threat (!), Pryor, Clark, and Greene, it's tough for me to see how we stop Juice and Aurilius Benn, especially now that Illinois seems to have found a pair of decent running backs. Juice could stop himself (see Minnesota at Illinois), but so far our defense hasn't proven it's ability to get inside the opposition's head. Our front 7 has the talent and speed to keep up with Juice, but hasn't shown the skill -- and our D-line remains dangerously thin. Our secondary is a big liability against a playmaker like Benn. Illinois rips off yardage in big chunks as a matter of course, and I don't see any way we'll stop that.
When we have the ball we should be able to run the ball. It sounds like Clay will get the majority of carries, with Brown getting some, too. I would switch those, but it still sounds better to me than Hill getting the carries. Sorry, PJ. Your efforts have been appreciated, but you're not in the top two backs on the team. We need big chunks of yardage on first down to prevent Chryst from immediately going to the passing game on second down. Our problem is neither Sherer nor Evridge has shown the skill to run Chryst's offense, the one that turns Beckum and Graham into stars. And I don't know what about Illinois's defense will give our receivers better hands. Against Illinois's defense, we'll score, but enough?
One area of hope is Illinois's trouble on kick coverage. Maybe Gilreath finally breaks one?
Bottom line is that we need Illinois to turn the ball over to have a chance. My take on this game is Illinois 38, Wisconsin 20.
Two more reasons I'm not feeling confident:
(Badgers escape, with Stocco under center!): http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/boxscore?gameId=263010275
But I sure hope I'm wrong.
Here are the keys to the game:
(1) Will Juice, et al., protect the ball?
(2) Will Wisconsin run effectively on first down?
(3) Will Sherer get Beckum and Graham the ball?
(4) Will the Badger secondary limit Benn's YAC?
(5) Will Gilreath shorten the field returning kicks?
It starts at the top. Bielema has to stop pointing fingers in public (he needs to point them in private) and man up. He has done a poor job this season. Period. It isn't about his assistant coaches, his captains, his seniors, his freshman, etc., it's about him. The media asks what went wrong on a specific play, learn to politic, bring it on yourself, Bret. That's what leaders do, and you're supposed to be the leader.
Dave Doeren, get up in the box. You're the defensive coordinator and from the field you can't see what's going on. Get up there, and get your alignments straight.
Paul Chryst, go with what we can do, not with what you'd like to be able to do. Evridge? Sherer? Doesn't matter. Neither is a true game-managing quarterback. We've got to pound the rock. No more passes on first down, at least not unless necessary. Turn the big kids loose and let them wear the bad guys down. Especially in the red zone. Maybe next year we'll have a quarterback capable of running your system correctly (see Stocco, John, 1 each). Right now we don't, but we do have two excellent backs (Brown and Clay, by the way) to carry the load, and a big, strong, athletic offensive line. Play to their strengths.
Players? Time to man-up. Levy and Casillas, you guys have been starters for three years. It's time to act like it. There's no excuse for confusion -- or missed tackles -- in the linebacker corps.
PJ, you've had a good run, but you still haven't learned how to read your blocks and if I want someone to just bowl the other guys over, I'm going with Clay. Zach Brown is the only back who consisently reads his blocks, he should start, with a healthy dose of Clay battering folks. Hill should be used to spell them.
Receivers? You guys are on D-1A schollies. Dropping passes is weak. Very weak.
What's this team missing? The walk-on. Luke Swan, Jim Leonhard, et al. There is a long and distinguished list of top contributers walking on out of a desire to wear red. The key? Desire.
You're playing for the University of Wisconsin, the flagship university of a blue-collar, hard-working state. It isn't hype, glitz, flash or drama. Wisconsin is about hard work, and taking pride in that work.
Don't give up. It's a cliche, but winners are those that get knocked down, but get back up. Things look bleak right now. The media, opponents, and even our fans are all down on the Badgers, the coaches, the players, even King Barry is getting a little heat. If the guys on this team come together and show some fight, that's enough. If they come out firing against the Illini. If they hit MSU right back in a battle for the trenches. If they fight to keep the Axe. As Lou Holtz (good God, am I reduced to quoting him?) said, you're going to get knocked down again in your life. It's going to matter a lot more than football. Someone you love will get sick. You'll lose a job, something . . . When that happens, you'll know what to do.
You'll gather yourself up and take it on, just like you did back in 2008 when the chips were down. It's not the last play that matters, it's the next one.
Crazy? Not so fast. Sure, Wisconsin is 0-3 in the Big Ten, lost to Michigan and got clobbered by Penn State. The team is crashing, the quarterback has been replaced, and the starting left tackle and right guard are injured. It's not as though the defense has been anything to crow about lately, giving up the entire 4th quarter to the Wolverines, the last drive to a true-freshman Buckeye, and the whole game to the Nittany Lions. So, yah, there's plenty of room for skepticism.
Here's the thing: football is about individual match-ups. We all know the transitive property does not rule on the gridiron, and on Saturday we'll see a good example of that.
Why? Look at what these two teams do. Iowa is a running team. That's what they do. Stanzi is ok at quarterback, but not more than that. He's had one game over 200 yards passing, in the loss to Northwestern. More importantly, he's no threat to run the ball. None. That is what Wisconsin has struggled with: dual threat quarterbacks.
When playing a mobile quarterback, they have to leave their secondary out to dry to contain the spread running game. Losing Ike to the NFL and Henry to injury, Langford is the best they have at corner, and while decent, he's not great. Go back and look at the Penn State game. Look at that drive the Buckeyes put together. Look at Michigan's scoring drives (two of three; Threat's QB option run was the third). Spread attacks throwing the ball. Folks, that's not Iowa. Iowa runs a pretty straight-forward attack. They're going to run Shonn Greene at you until he's tired, then they're going to run Jewel Hampton at you.
Yes, they ran through Indiana like a hot knife through butter. As bad as Wisconsin looked last week, the Badgers aren't Indiana (2-4, with a blowout loss to Ball State). Newkirk, Chapman, Shaughnessy, Levy, and Casillas will stop the run.
Now, Wisconsin isn't going to get all crazy against Iowa, either. As much as Chryst would love to run a complex, NFL-style scheme, with a new quarterback under center, he's not going to. Clay and Hill (I'll say it again, it should be Brown and Clay) will carry the load against a solid Iowa front. Sherer will be called on to mix things up to Graham, Beckum, and the receivers, who may, or may not, catch what's thrown their way. But the Badgers will rely on the running game. What does Iowa look like against teams with a solid running game? 0-2 (21-20 vs. #23 Pitt, 16-13 vs. #21 MSU). And those two games are the model for this one: straight up battling in the trenches for rushing lanes.
Iowa lost to Michigan State because of turnovers. Plain and simple. Pittsburgh was a little more complicated, but going 4-17 on 3rd downs won't give you a lot of scoring opportunities (they were 4-16 vs. MSU), and missing a field goal in a 1-point game obviously didn't help. Now, both of these games were "winnable" for Iowa, but ifs, ands, and buts don't win games, points do. Ask Bielema about Michigan and Ohio State. Both were close games, but MSU wasn't really as close as the score indicates; MSU was protecting their lead from the middle of the 3rd quarter.
Now, if Wisconsin gets behind early, by more than a score, it will be interesting to see how they respond. A ten-point deficit early could do some real damage to an already shaky Badger psyche.
What does it all mean? Wisconsin's passing game is actually better than Pitt's, and not much worse than MSU's (Sherer probably isn't as good as Hoyer, but Chryst's schemes are better than MSU's with Graham and Beckum at full strength). Wisconsin's defense is up to defending the Hawkeye running game (though Greene will get his hundred, and Iowa will get on the scoreboard). And the Badger running game, like the Hawkeyes', will get its yards. Although Kinnick hasn't been good to Wisconsin over the years, in this case the opportunity to get away from Camp Randall and play with a chip on their shoulder in a hostile environment, rather than the luke warm reception they would get at home right now, is actually something of a benefit.
The Badgers are better than they looked last week. More importantly, they are playing a much different opponent. As I said, Wisconsin, 20-13.
A review of the review?
(1) Penn State's dangerous receivers vs. Wisconsin's secondary? Yikes. They ate us alive.
(2) Penn State's line vs. our front 7? Not bad, but not good either.
(3) Badgers' offense in the trenches? Not bad, really. But . . .
(4) Badger passing game? The starter was 2 for 11, 1 INT, 1 fumble inside our own 10. Ouch.
(5) Special teams: this (and QB play) was where a loss became a blowout.
Sure, they played a strong Ohio State close, but that wasn't the story among the Badger faithful. Nope. It was how the Badgers let another one get away. And let's be clear: we did. Just like the week before at Michigan.
So here comes Penn State. Always a stout defense. This year's spread offense is going gangbusters and has the Nits at 6-0 and #6 in the country. And this is the team that embarrassed the Badgers last year in Happy Valley, 38-7. UW is looking at an 0-3 start in league play. Ouch.
On the other hand, Wisconsin played Ohio State very close last week under the lights at Camp Randall. This team doesn't suck. So what's it going to be?
When Penn State's offense takes the field, the Badgers will see another first-year starter dual threat quarterback running the spread. Darryl Clark isn't the freak of nature that Pryor is, but nor is he a true freshman. In addition to being a good decision maker, he's got nine TD passes to only 1 INT; he's efficient. Joining him in the backfield, Evan Royster is having a solid year, averaging an astonishing 7.8 yards per carry. It's not rocket science: the Penn State offensive line is seasoned and solid. They make their presence felt. The Badger front 7, though solid and quick, will have their hands full, and better get their calls in on time. Newkirk, Shaughnessy, Chapman, Levy and Casillas will all have to have career days to contain the Penn State running game.
In addition, Deon Butler and Derrick Williams are both dangerous receivers who stretch the field and can make a big play anytime they touch the ball. Unlike last week's servicable receivers, these receivers are very dangerous. Although Allen Langford has been playing better than ever at corner, likely the Badgers best chance in the backfield is to get very physical with Williams and Butler, with Jay Valai leading the hit parade. As two sidelined Buckeyes will tell you, Valai packs a punch for a little guy. But is it enough?
When the Badgers have the ball, the battle royale will be in the trenches. Penn State doesn't like to use its linebackers on blitzes -- because they don't have to. Their front four are beastly. Of course, they are going against the best part of the Badger offense, the line, who are athletic, experienced; probably the best Badger line in at least four years. John Clay is working his way into more carries, which bodes well for the Badgers running attack, as he's proven to be the biggest threat carrying the ball. The Penn State linebackers are always good, but lack the star power they usually have. The Badgers should be able to establish the run, but won't get more than 150-175 yards on the ground.
Fundamentally, the Badgers have to pass better to have a chance. It will help to have our best "traditional" tight-end, Garrett Graham, back in the lineup for the first time since breaking his foot against Fresno State. He's a real asset in Chryst's offense which relies heavily on tight ends (and H-backs, a la Travis Beckum). But Beckum and Graham can't carry the passing game by themselves. Gilreath, Moore, Jefferson, and Toon need to catch the balls that find them, and Evridge needs to get them there. These are recurring problems, and it's hard to believe they will be cured this week against a talented Nit defense, with Scirrotto roaming back there to defend passes and land big hits.
Special teams are more or less a draw. Gilreath is a dangerous returner who could spell trouble for the Penn State kick0ff coverage, which has been subpar. On the other hand, Williams has gone the distance on two kickoffs for Penn State. Both teams have good punters, but Penn State's Kevin Kelly has been excellent kicking, whereas Welch has been good, but not great, on field goals for Wisconsin.
Although Penn State is unbeaten and #6 in the polls, I'm not entirely convinced they are the juggernaut they are made out to be. They had an excellent win over Illinois, but it wasn't a blowout and Illinois's defense isn't much to write home about. They only scored 20 against Purdue, and folks, Purdue's defense has nothing on the Badgers. In truth, this is the first solid defense Penn State will face. The Badgers are a little better under the lights at Camp Randall, and these teams are both Jekyll and Hyde at home versus on the road. The Badgers are much better at home, and the Nits are much worse on the road. So, the Badgers have a chance.
In a hard fought game, the Badger D will keep Penn State in better check than anyone has so far, and a couple of turnovers will keep Wisconsin in it. It won't be enough. Miscues on offense will continue to haunt what could have been a great Wisconsin team, and Penn State's playmaking wide receivers will be the difference. 27-17, Penn State.
Akron (3-3) with a nail biter over Kent State.
Marshall (3-3) got crushed by Cincinnati (who beat Akron by 3).
Fresno State (3-2) same old Bulldogs, lost to a bad Hawaii team the weak after beating UCLA.
Michigan (2-3) smoked by Illinois's play makers.
Penn State (6-0) beat Purdue easily, but didn't score much (20).
Iowa (3-3) turnovers cost them the upset over Michigan State.
Illinois (3-2) smoked Michigan.
Michigan State (5-1) escaped Iowa's upset bid.
Indiana (2-3) offense was ugly, save for one big play, in loss to Goofs.
Minnesota (5-1) the turnaround is working, but now comes the hard part.
Cal Poly (3-1) smoked South Dakota; these guys are decent.
Now, back to the season, with seven games remaining. Where do we go from here. First step, panic!
Well, no, not really. The loss to Michigan was distressing, especially after seeing how Illinois scorched them, but it is what it is. Take that game away, and no one is going to be too upset about losing a nail biter, by three, to Ohio State. That's not to say all is well, but dwelling on two losses isn't going to help. What will help?
(1) Quarterback play needs to improve. Bielema implicitly threatened Evridge's job this week. He'll start against Penn State, but the leash is sounding short. And it should be. His receivers aren't helping him, but look, a 5th year senior should be able to throw a screen pass accurately, and Chryst's offense depends on that.
(2) Who's the guy at running back? Clay looks like a beast-in-training, but he isn't there yet. There's more to playing running back than carrying the mail, and Clay just isn't the guy. But Brown could be. Hill doesn't seem patient enough to find the right holes, Brown is. And it's not like he's a midget out there. I'd start him, but hey, I'm not on the practice field every day.
(3) Receivers: you guys are Division 1 scholarship winners at a big-time college football program, you should be able to catch the ball. Use extra stickum.
(4) Defense. Well, to be honest, they really aren't bad. There's no shame in giving up 20 to Ohio State, and as ugly as it looked at times, they only gave up 21 to Michigan while the offense was leaving them out there to dry. And 10 against a Fresno State team that is averaging 37 in its other four games. So? Missed tackles remain a problem that needs addressing, especially with another dangerous spread team coming this week, and Illinois not too far ahead in the future.
(5) Coaching. Especially on defense, the calls are coming in late. Against Ohio State on the final drive wasn't the first time. There shouldn't be anything too difficult to figure out by the time the 4th quarter of a game rolls around. On offense, Chryst needs to keep the pedal down when playing with a lead.
What does it all mean? Ok, so expectations have been lowered for this season (again). But the season isn't over. There isn't a game on the schedule that the Badgers can't win, though Penn State will be very tough. Regardless of what happens this weekend (and the beating the Nits put on the Badgers last year should be ample motivation to fire the Badgers back up after two devastating losses), the Badgers still have a lot to play for.
So, bring on the fightin' JoPas and lets see what the Badgers can do.
(While an optimist by nature, I'm not an idiot; I'm seeing 8-4, with losses to Penn State and Illinois or MSU, probably Illinois.)
Vandy over Auburn: at least Wisconsin lost to Ohio State . . .
Speaking of which: first place in the SEC East? Vanderbilt.
Northwestern is 5-0. And they still haven't played anyone.
Missouri is 5-0. And they have no competition in the Big XII North . . . but the South? Yikes.
The Mountain West: Utah, BYU and TCU can play, but don't tell me Wyoming, UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, Air Force, and Colorado State make up a BCS level conference.
USC over Oregon: seriously, was there any good reason for not cutting away from that game to show the last 5 minutes of Ohio State at Wisconsin? I didn't think so.
Apparently not. After more trouble at Michigan, the Band is suspended until further notice.
This is the first time in 40 years the Badgers will take the field at Camp Randall without the band. 40 years.
When the Badgers have the ball, oh, will it be nice to have Graham and Beckum back in there. Beckum fundamentally changes how the defense defends, and Graham just has the knack to find the open space. I'd like to believe in Jefferson, et al., to come down with a few more catches, but I'll believe it when I see it. The offensive line should get a little better push against the Buckeye front than they did at Michigan, and the running won't be easy, but it will be there. And no more option, please. I don't care if, "it was there." Just run the damn ball.
In a field position game, Nortman will help, as will Gilreath, but Trapasso and Small are equal to the task. Special teams are a draw.
Coming home to the Camp is a huge boost (contrast that with following up the loss to Illinois with a road trip to Penn State last season) and the Badgers should be amped. The crowd will be "juiced," and that should be good for a little lift. Pryor is a tough kid, though; don't expect too many mistakes from him just because we've got a loud stadium.
A win brings the series even to .500 since I was a freshman so many moons ago (5-6-1 today), although Wisconsin hasn't been favored a single time over that stretch. Not once.
20-17 . . .
I have faith.