Through Rose [Bowl] Colored Glasses: Northwestern

A pain in the ass. That's what Northwestern football has been to the Badgers. And maybe the rest of the Big Ten, too.

Before all you go out and write our roadie to Northwestern in as a victory, think again.

King Barry went 7-7 against Northwestern. Think about that. In 1992 the 'Cats denied Barry his first bowl game with a late November 27-25 win. In '95 Gary Barnett's squad DESTROYED us, 35-0. Are you freakin' kidding me!?! (they went to the Rose Bowl that year, we went 4-5-2). In '96 Ron Dayne fumbled away a 2nd and 2 with under a minute to play (for the record, we couldn't have simply run out the clock), and the 'Cats converted a touchdown for the improbable 34-30 win at Camp Randall. In 2000, the 'Cats survived a late 4th and 8 while down by a touchdown, then down 3 with under 10 seconds to play converted a 3rd down from about the 50 to get into field goal range, force overtime, and win 47-44 in the second OT, again at the Camp. In 2003, the sub-.500 Wildcats dealt Wisconsin a 16-7 loss. Then in 2005, in a game that ultimately may have prevented Barry's last team from a BCS Bowl (though in hindsight I'm happy with the win over Auburn), Northwestern exploded for 27 points in the 3rd quarter and hung on for a 51-48 win -- Wisconsin's first loss of the season.

Moreover, the 'Cats gave heavily favored Missouri all they could handle in last season's Alamo Bowl mostly due to a solid defense coached by former Badger coordinator Mike Hankwitz. Have I mentioned our road record under Bielema? In fact, this looks like our second or third toughest road game of the season (Minnesota is the other; I concede our road schedule doesn't look that tough). That said, the 'Cats will bring a whole new cast of skill players to their offense, so there is hope.

In preparation for all this, and admittedly still struggling to get my head around taking Northwestern seriously, I sent the world's best Northwestern football blog, Lake the Posts, an inquiry about what to expect next year, below is their response:

Shhh!! We're Not Just a Bunch of Nerds

(1) The stereotype is that Northwestern is good when its brainy quarterbacks have two to three years of starting experience. That description doesn't fit 2009. How much confidence do you have in this year's offense and the whole new set of skill players? What's the story on the o-line?

I spend way too much time trying to dispell the brainiac stereotype. This year's offense is exactly the inverse of last year at this time. A year ago we were loaded with veterans at every skill position and the very youthful O-line was the question mark. This year, the 0-line is the strength as nearly everyone returns, with essentially only Doug Bartels at G as the newbie. They're still relatively young, but tons of experience. Yes Sutton is gone. Yes Bacher is gone. Yes Peterman, Lane and Ward are gone. However, most forget that senior QB Mike Kafka actually started back in 2006 before getting injured and had key experience last year in relief when CJ was injured in the All he did in his first start last year was set the Big Ten rushing record for a QB with 217 yards. He is a true dual threat and his arm is underrated. Andrew Brewer headlines the quad of spread receivers that includes Sidney Stewart who got several reps last year, but sophomore Jeremy Ebert started as a frosh last year and will be, along with Brewer, Kafka's primary target. The giant question mark is at RB where heading into Camp Kenosha the three-man race is wide open.

(2) Best Northwestern defense ever? (ed. note: this was a reference I saw in some preview somewhere on the web.) If that works out for you, can we have our defensive coordinator back? No, really. Would if help if I said please? Seriously, tell me what I should know about the Northwestern defense. How are the injured lineman coming, and how is the depth behind them?

Best defense ever? Hmmm...not yet. That role still belongs to the 1995 Pat Fitzgerald-led team, but the expectations are this is the best "D" SINCE 1995. Thank you very much for letting go of Mr. Hankwitz - we could not believe how fortunate we were to get him, but not even the most optimistic purple faithful (me!) could've envisioned the 1-year turnaround. Both DEs Corey Wootton and Vince Browne are expected to be back and at full strength and word is Wootton has more than returned to his All Big Ten status, but until he gets back on the field and we see it there is a tad of anxiety. Our secondary may truly be the best I can ever remember and that includes 1995. Sherrick McManis and Jordan Mabin (Sporting News Freshman All-American) are back at CB and seniors Brendan Smith and Brad Phillips have so much chemistry at the safety slot that I expect most offenses to try and exploit the weakest link of a very strong unit - the LBs. Fitz has been able to really up the athleticism of our players and while their is definite room for growth at LB (they're young), they have talent. Most believe our "D" will keep us in just about every game. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, but we're thin at LB.

(3) I want to take Northwestern seriously, and I know I should; the Badgers are only one game above .500 against the Cats in the Alvarez era (ed. note: 8-7, with the '06 win under Bielema), including an embarrassing loss in 1995, and heartbreakers in '96, '00, and '05. So what's the problem, what's holding me (and lots of other folks back) from taking Northwestern seriously?
I use one stat to try and underscore this conception - three Big Ten titles since 1995 only Michigan and Ohio State have more. During that same timeframe, NU is 5-5 vs the Badgers since 1995. See, much like Wisconsin which would like to forget a nice chunk of its history in the 80s, it is all about referencing the starting point of being good again. Wisconsin uses 1993 as the "since..." starting point. We use 1995. (Ed. note: I don't mean to nitpick, but since 1993, Wisconsin is 4th in the Big Ten in in-conference winning percentage behind Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State; since 1995, Northwestern is 7th.) We actually relish the fact most STILL don't take NU seriously. We still suffer from the small alumni base and private school in a pro sports town fan base that painfully makes our attendance and media attention incomparable to a state school in a college town. A couple more years of Fitz winning and I think we'll have changed perception at least among those under 30. Old perceptions die hard.

(4) What's the biggest misconception about Northwestern football?
That we had one good year in 1995. NU has been to six bowls since 1995 (96 Rose, 97 Citrus, '00 Alamo, '03 Motor City, '05 Sun, '08 Alamo) yet the "average" fan doesn't even remember we won back-to-back in 1995 and 1996, let alone the bowl games this decade. NU has had only 3 seasons this decade with less than 6 wins. The passion around NU football is building it is just frustratingly slow after the fall-off post Barnett.

(5) Really, purple!?!
Yup. Proud of it.

(6) What campus legend, little known fact, or other random piece of information should everyone know about Northwestern?
There are plenty. Many don't know about defending "The Rock" which is a fixture in main campus. Nearly every night of the year a different campus group camps out to paint the rock for its organization for group of friends. You claim it at daylight and must retain a foot in the base throughout the day to keep the rights. The first Final Four was hosted on the Evanston campus but we don't like to go there since we've NEVER made the NCAA Tournament.

Through Rose [Bowl] Colored Glasses: Minnesota

For the second installment reaching out to hear what our opponents currently think about their squad, I go to another big roadie, a new beginning for the oldest rivalry. On October 3rd, the Badgers will play the Gophers for the 119th time, in Minnesota's new home, TCF Bank Stadium. The excitement for Minnesota is palpable. After years sadly borrowing the Metrodome, the University has sold out the first [outdoor!] season in its own place.

Although the Badgers have gone 8-2 in the series in the last decade, the last two have been unnecessarily dicey, and given our road record the last two years, there is reason for hope in the Twin Cities and concern back in Mad-town. Minnesota returns a bunch of starters whereas the Badgers have another quarterback controversy, a re-tooled offensive line, and a slew of new faces on defense.

In anticipation of what could be one of the biggest games in Minnesota in a decade or more (Game Day, anyone?), I sent the good people at the Daily Gopher a few questions. Those questions and their answers are below:

Doubling Down in the Twin Cities

(1) Defense has been the Gophers achilles heel for the last few seasons. What has Brewster done to cure the problem? What will the fix look like in 2009? - The 2007 defense was one of the worst ever to set foot on a Big Ten field. 2008 was markedly better, although still finished in the bottom third of the conference. But the improvement cannot be ignored, the details are below but the 2008 defense improved by giving up just shy of 12 fewer points per game and 135 fewer yards. The fix? Well we return 8 starters and finally some of the athleticism that was recruited in Brewsters highly acclaimed 2008 class will be seeing the field. So the fix will come from a year of experience and a year of maturation. Nobody expects this defense to rank in the top 3 of the conference and they will not duplicate their 31 turnover performance, but they will be capable of stopping teams on 3rd down and making the opposing offenses work for their points. Much of what ailed this defense last year was just one or two big plays at critical times. Up 7 at Wisconsin in the 4th qtr and has the Badgers at 2nd and 19 on their own 28. 17-yard pass to Toon (with a NEAR sack) plus a 15-yard penalty followed by a 39-yard pass to Anderson takes the Badgers to the 1 and it was all downhill from there. That was 71 yards given to the Badgers on two plays, that is where the improvement needs to happen.

Charting Change 2007 to 2008
Pts Allowed 36.7/24.8 (-11.9)
Rush Yds Allowed 229.3/143.3 (-86)
Pass Yds Allowed 289.3/240.3 (-49)
Total Yds Allowed 518.7/383.6 (-135.1)
Turnovers generated 14/31 (+17)
Opponent 3rd Down % 44.3/34.6 (-9.7%)

(2) Can Adam Weber be the man under center? Who will step up to take the pressure off of Eric Decker on offense? - I believe that Weber is the most underrated QB in the Big Ten. From his freshman season to his sophomore season he improved by 5% in completion and reduced his INTs by 11 on the year. All of this while he was sacked 31 times last year, had a terrible running game and was missing Decker for the last few games of the year. He is the man under center, a good leader on the team and I have complete confidence in him as the starter this year and next. As for who will step up to help him in the passing game? Well once again I'm going to the "plus one more year" theory and the JUCO help on the way. Last year we had a few talented receivers who were true freshmen. It was right around the Badger game that guys like Xavier Brandon and Brandon Green started to step up their play. Xavier is now gone, but Brandon Green and DaJon McKnight are expected to take big steps forward and help Decker out as other options in the receing game. The other guy worth mentioning is Hayo Carpenter who is a JUCO transfer that has Gopher Nation kind of excited. He has the tools to step in and be a threat immediately but that is often hard to gauge so time will tell.

(3) The last decade has been good for the Badgers, narrowing the gap in this series by 8 games, including two Gopher losses that must have been very painful (the blocked punt - Barry's last Axe game - and last season's meltdown). Is Wisconsin in the Gophers' collective head, or should we look at the hockey series over the same time and shut the hell up? How will the new stadium change things (keeping in mind my most painful loss as a Badger fan anywhere, anytime was in the Metrodome in 1993)? Oh the blocked punt game is painful for Gopher fans, but I don't know that it has any affect on the current roster and coaching staff. I was at the post game press conference for last year's game and I think if anything the 2008 loss will serve as pretty good motivation. This rivalry is heating up with the mutual dislike between the head coaches and with Minnesota improving their overall talent, so I don't think the new stadium changes anything but this is the best game on the home schedule for 2009 without a doubt.

(4) The days of Maroney and Barbour likely left with Glen Mason, but is there a feature back in Minnesota's stable? No is the easy answer. Duane Bennett was to be the feature back last year but blew out his knee when Ralph Spry was unable to block his man on a screen. Jay Thomas has also been through a series of injuries but the senior will be in the mix in 2009. DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Solomon got their shots as true freshmen last year and performed admirably. Hasan Lipscomb is the hot four-star incoming recruit and Kevin Whaley redshirted last year after getting shot in the leg before arriving on campus also will be in the mix. All have a shot at carrying the load with Eskridge and Bennett likely getting the first crack at the bulk of the carries. This was a major area of weakness the last couple seasons. Weber led the team in rushing in 2007 and was second in 2008. Improving the running game was a major focus in the offseason so we'll have to see if this team can get it done on the ground.

(5) Recruiting in Minnesota is heating up, but it seems like Wisconsin and others (like Notre Dame) are still doing well there; can Brewster end the poaching? Things are slowly changing with regards to the best from Minnesota staying in Minnesota. In the 2008 class Brewster lost the top two players to Notre Dame and Ohio State and kept just one of the top 5 kids from the state. But the 2009 class was a different story. The number one ranked player in the state did end up at Clemson but the 2 through 8 players ended up as Golden Gophers. The only player Wisconsin "poached" was Casey Dehn, a two-star lineman who's only offers were from Wisconsin and Minnesota. What is becoming interesting is the slow reversal of the recruiting battles. So far in the early 2010 recruiting battles the Gophers have received verbals from two of the top three or four in-state kids already and have put the pressure on a number of Wisconsin kids early. Tom Parrish will be a top 5 or 6 player out of Wisconsin who has verballed to Minnesota. And Konrad Zagzebski gave the Gophers an early verbal before changing his mind once the Badgers were forced to offer. I'm not suggesting we will have our pick of Badger State kids, but Brewster is putting Beilema on his heals just a little bit which never happened in the past. Enjoy David Gilreath while you can, because you'll have to start finding guys like him elsewhere in the future!

(6) Which is more important this year, beating Iowa or beating Wisconsin? This year? Wisconsin, without a doubt. I don't think the general fan base is expecting to beat Iowa this year (although being competitive should be expected this time). Wisconsin however, is viewed as beatable. We were right there till the end in Madison a year ago, the Badgers return just 11 total starters from a 7-6 team, the Gophers return a lot of their young talent and the game is at home as the first Big Ten game in the new stadium. This game will be a benchmark game for Minnesota. If we want to gain some level of Big Ten respectability you have to beat a team like Wisconsin at home. The Badgers are not a weak team by any stretch but they also are not at the Ohio State/Penn State level this year. I'm also not saying the Gophers are a superior team but Wisconsin is beatable this year and, like I said, if you want to gain some respectability you need to win home games like this.

Through Rose [Bowl] Colored Glasses: Ohio State

As I was writing my post-spring preview, complete with unrealistic game-by-game predictions, I thought about all the football fans out there right now impatiently waiting for the season to begin (especially now that baseball is the ONLY show in town) and hoping and believing that this year is their year. I decided to ask all of our opponents some questions about what to expect from their teams this year.

If we're really talking about Rose Bowl colored glasses, it only makes sense to start with the returning Big Ten champ, and unquestioned leader of the conference this decade, the Ohio State University.* The Badgers travel to Columbus on October 10. In the Tressel era, we're 2-1 in Columbus (0-1 in the Bielema era), and in the last decade we're 4-4 versus the Buckeyes (0-2 in the Bielema era). There's little doubt that the Buckeyes are the early favorite for yet another Big Ten title, so this is, as always, a big game for the Badgers (and hopefully for the Buckeyes).

Anyway, below is what our friend Vico, at a great Buckeye blog, Our Honor Defend, had to say about our visit to the 2009 Buckeyes (I've gotta agree: we should definitely bring the band!). You can see my effort to address his questions about Wisconsin at their blog.

without further ado . . .
Meet the Buckeyes

The Wisconsin Badgers come off as something of a non-conference opponent in the eyes of Buckeye fans. They were cycled off the Big Ten docket for all too important seasons in 2005 and 2006. As Tressel forged his own legacy independent of John Cooper, the Badgers were only a name in the Big Ten standings. Perhaps some of the unfamiliarity with the Badgers of late comes from the early dominance of the Badgers over Tressel. Tressel started off 1-3 against Alvarez, with a crushing blow delivered in 2003. Even with recent gains against Bielema, the Badgers are the only team over whom Tressel does not possess a winning record.

In 2009, the Badgers return to Columbus, where they even have a winning record against Tressel. Below, I take an early glimpse at this matchup, introducing Badgers fans to the Buckeyes we expect you will see in 2009.

Terrelle Pryor will be in his second year as a Buckeye. In most Buckeye fans view, he will be measurably better than he was as a true freshman. Mind you, Terrelle Pryor -- unlike Tim Tebow -- was not an early enrollee. He did not have extra time to work under the current coaching staff, only getting a condensed playbook from the coaching staff to look over in his Jeannette hometown while he prepared to enroll at Ohio State. He was also greatly distracted with high school basketball.

With an all-Big Ten grayshirt senior quarterback (Todd Boeckman) returning to the helm in 2008, Pryor was expected to be used in gimmick situations. A potent offense to be led by Boeckman was supposed to be made more dynamic by the introduction of Terrelle Pryor on gadget plays that ultimately required Pryor to be able to do only a few things as a true freshman. Consequently, the theme during the summer of 2008 was to not overload the freshman with the intricacies of the playbook. He was to be brought in principally as a run-first quarterback and an athlete that most defenses would not look forward to seeing. It was therefore disconcerting to all involved that Pryor had to be subbed in for Boeckman after the USC debacle. With an offensive line degenerating in front of our very eyes (more on that later), a quarterback that's able to scramble -- read: run for his life -- was necessary if the offense was to score any points. As a result, his deficiencies in the passing game were glaring.

Hope springs eternal that this will be corrected in a big way by time the Badgers, and even the Midshipmen, come to town. It almost has to improve by default. This is the longest that Pryor has had to work under a QB-oriented head coach, and he's already professing marked improvements in decision-making and ability to read coverages. Pryor's work ethic alone suggests a rapid improvement from his freshman form is inevitable, and remember: he was one of the Big Ten's most efficient quarterbacks as a true freshman. Elsewhere, Pryor has admitted that knowledge he's acquired in the past few months on how to read opposing defenses has probably been the area he's improved the most. In the same breath, he admitted an embarrassment that he wasn't able to see this as a true freshman. Still, in spite of the gains we expect in the passing department, making Terrelle Pryor throw will be the way most teams will probably approach beating the Buckeye offense. It's no secret that Ohio State relies on a run-first mentality to shorten down and distance.

Busting up the offensive line (more on that later) forces Pryor to throw in improbable situations for most QBs. At this point, Pryor's mechanics -- including an irregular delivery and a bad habit of relying on his upper body to power passes in the pocket (especially under pressure) -- will show.

Where Buckeye fans are not too thrilled about the prospect of Terrelle Pryor finding himself in third and long situations, they are thrilled about the prospect of a backfield that consists of Pryor and the post-Beanie back Dan "Boom" Herron. Herron's story resembles that of former Buckeye quarterback Joe Germaine. He was buried on the depth chart when he got to Columbus, but worked so hard and improved so much during his redshirt year that the coaching staff could not keep him off the field. Going from 4th string tailback to a productive, 2nd string tailback behind Beanie in 2008 is no small feat considering that a senior (Maurice Wells) and a highly-touted sophomore (Brandon Saine) started the summer ahead of him on the depth chart. His stiffarms won't be as lethal, and he won't be able to gain the big yards after contact that Beanie did. However, don't assume Ohio State's rushing attack will necessarily suffer for Beanie's absence, especially with Pryor in the backfield with him. I think Buckeye fans want to see Pryor lead the way more than they do Boom Herron, but Boom is going to get serious yards in 2009.

And now, as promised: the feature attraction. I argue that Ohio State's offensive line is the most important reason why the Buckeyes have suffered of late on the national stage. They returned their entire starting unit from 2007 and got WORSE in 2008. They were slow to pull and trap on running plays and cannot pick up the perimeter heat on the pass rush (see: USC, Purdue, Texas, and especially Penn State in 2008 alone). They could not even get a push on the line against the likes of Ohio University, Purdue and Northwestern. In the first two games, Ohio State's offensive line was the most important reason why the Buckeyes were trailing in the 4th quarter against the hapless Bobcats and why they could not score an offensive touchdown against Purdue. The Buckeyes routed Northwestern, but no part of that was attributable to stellar line play. In fact, Pryor and Beanie succeeded in pounding Northwestern in spite of the offensive line. The Buckeyes were at 3rd and 10 or longer repeatedly during that game, only to have Pryor pull a rabbit out of his hat to keep the offense going.

The natives are getting restless in Columbus, but we're hopeful that a new set of higher ceiling prospects can do the trick. Ohio State recruiting on the offensive line has been unfortunately awful for the years that mattered most. They recruited 50 percent less linemen overall than the past 5 national champions from the years 2003-2007 and over 60 percent less 4-5 stars during that time as well. This year's line should see some improvements, we hope. Michael Brewster and Mike Adams are both 5-star offensive linemen that are likely to start in 2009. Justin Boren was an all-Big Ten linemen for Michigan before infamously transferring to Ohio State. He will likely be the left guard in 2009. The right side of the line seems a little shaky because it involves position changes for two starters from 2008's unit. Bryant Browning -- the right tackle from 2008 who was more liability than lineman -- will be moving to right guard it seems. This should be an improvement from his position in 2008, as it became apparent against USC and Penn State that opposing defense identified him as the weakest link on the line and identified him as a man playing out of position. Jim Cordle, the starting center from 2008 who was moved to guard after an injury to another lineman, will again be moving: this time to right tackle. He has speed to spare on the line, so there's some optimism he'll be up to the task in 2009.

The consensus from Buckeye fans seems to be that the 2009 line, with so many new faces and unproven players, will actually be better than the 2008 line full of returning starters. The recent hire of Keith Uecker bodes well for further development as well. Run blocking should improve considerably. Justin Boren, a veritable road grader, will be a much welcomed leader on the line. However, pass protection remains a little hazy, and the inability for Mike Adams to assert himself as "the guy" to protect Pryor's blindside at left tackle lends itself to more nervous thoughts.

I'm not sure if you know this, but James Laurinaitis' father used to be a professional wrestler. If you did know, you will no longer have to be reminded of it since he and running mate Marcus Freeman have matriculated to the NFL. Looking ahead to 2009 following the Fiesta Bowl, I assumed that Ohio State would have a stable corp of 3 linebackers entering 2009. After watching the Spring Game, it's not quite clear what's going on. I would've expected Etienne Sabino, a highly touted true sophomore from Pryor's recruiting class, to have established himself as the middle linebacker. If anything, Tyler Moeller -- a sparsely used 5th year senior -- has emerged as a player in that unit to remember. If pressed for an immediate comparison, I'd liken Moeller's presence in the linebacker corp as equivalent to Brit Miller for the Illini in 2008. Yes, it's a preliminary association, but both have that unsung, unathletic appeal to them, and always find themselves close to the ball regardless.

A discussion over at my blog on the issue, here, puts a different spin on it. The Buckeyes are not lacking for options at linebacker for 2009. The wealth they have at the position may allow the defensive coaches to effectively "plug and play" contingent on the opposing offense, and not really lose a step for it. Against conventional, pro-style offenses like the one the Badgers will bring with them, the Buckeyes will "go big" and feature linebackers like Ross Homan, Austin Spitler and Tyler Moeller. Homan was the weakside linebacker in 2008. Against, smaller, faster spread offenses, the Buckeyes can sub in Etienne Sabino and Brian Rolle, matching speed with speed. If leadership at the position may be absent (at least immediately) because of the wealth of options and absence of mainstay Laurinaitis, the Buckeyes have the advantage of being flexible.

With so many new faces in 2009, and a veritable youth movement going on in the football program in general, there is no shortage of possible players to recommend Badger fans to write down for future reference. If Ohio State is to repeat as Big Ten champion again, several players need to step up. Justin Boren and Michael Brewster will have to lead the way on the line. Boren has the experience and Brewster is an unofficial leader of his 2008 class, members of which will feature prominently in the 2009 offense. DeVier Posey, a close confidante of Terrelle Pryor through the recruiting process and himself another 2008 signee, will have to be on the same page with Terrelle. Similarly, slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, arguably Pryor's favorite target in 2008, will have to prove himself durable during the season since his backup, Lamaar Thomas (another 2008 signee), doesn't seem to have made the transition from tailback to college wideout just yet. Maybe the biggest factor will be the defensive line. The defensive line will unquestionably be the strength of the defense in 2009, and Thaddeus Gibson has dedicated himself to destroy everything moving in 2009.

The performance of the defensive line in 2009 becomes even more important considering the uncertainty at linebacker and the admission of most Buckeye fans that the secondary will be our achilles heel in 2009. In the secondary, Ohio State returns its two safeties, but loses both corners. Chimdi Chekwa seems to be a lock to secure one of the spots vacated by Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington, but his iffy performance in the Spring Game does not inspire confidence. Beyond Chekwa, there are even more question marks. RS freshman Travis Howard, Devon Torrence and Andre Amos are in the discussion for the other spot. However, both Howard and Amos have noticeable injury histories and Torrence has devoted a lot of time playing minor league baseball. Beyond those three lay even more freshmen and worst case scenarios.

Another pursuit at a national title is always nice, but the performance of these players is necessary to securing a January bowl game. Of those players, keep Thaddeus Gibson in mind. Buckeye fans think his offseason improvements should result in 1st Team All-Big Ten honors.

As previously mentioned, the Badgers are the only team against whom Tressel does not have a winning record. Tied 3-3 in the Tressel era, I think many Buckeye fans are expecting this to be the year where Ohio State has a winning record against all Big Ten teams in the Tressel era. Bielema's performance of late does not inspire the sense of fear and trembling that Buckeye fans had thinking of Barry Alvarez coming to town. Bielema had a fantastic inaugural season in 2006, where his 12-1 Badgers seemed like they were on the verge of being worldbeaters. After that, things seemed to get ugly for Buckeyes watching the Badgers from afar. Weak scheduling, bizarre results against the likes of Cal Poly and an offense more conventional and uninspiring than our own seemed to characterize Wisconsin. I'm expecting 2009 to be more of the same for the Badgers. They'll benefit from a light schedule (for the most part) and having some important foes at home, but will seem to have as many new faces on defense as the Buckeyes will have. Both have that same problem, but I give the advantage to the Buckeyes for bringing in higher-caliber recruits than Wisconsin has. A dynamic quarterback like Pryor should give fits for the Badgers in front a raucous home crowd sympathetic to the Buckeyes. Long story short: I don't expect the Badgers to have the horses to hang in for a full race with the Buckeyes.

Naturally, I don't want to be proven wrong.

If you're a Badger fan, I wouldn't walk in with a bravado that you could've easily strolled into Columbus with in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Alvarez undeniably had Tressel's number. Still, there are important question marks at important spots on the Buckeye team that allows for restrained optimism. Enjoy the game and your time in Columbus if you make the trip, and please bring the band with you. It's just not Wisconsin football without the band.

* As a rule I don't refer to OSU as tOSU or the Ohio State University, but I figured since OHD threw me a bone here, I'd throw them one back. Thanks, Vico!

2009 Badger Football Post-Spring Preview

We’ve got them where we want them: thinking we’ll be average.

I'm not saying we'll have a great team, but I think we'll have a pretty darned solid record and a nice bowl game to show for it.

Let’s just get it out of the way: starting quarterback Dustin Sherer (sr.). No, he’s not Brooks Bollinger, but it is what it is. Here’s the upside: he was good enough to beat Michigan State (even though we didn’t), Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Cal Poly (though our defense did what they could to surrender that one, too). Iowa wasn’t his fault (and it was his first collegiate start). He’s going to be even better this year. Great? No, but solid. That’s what we need, not some red-shirt freshman with a wobbly arm. And especially not with the other weapons on our offense.

If Sherer is decent, this offense could be spectacular. Clay (so.) and Brown (jr.) are a solid 1-2 combo. Clay will get more carries, but probably not that many more (I’m guessing 60/40) -- Brown is the better all-around back because of his blocking and hands in the passing game). Playing in a two-tight end set, with potential All-American Graham (sr.) and Kendricks (jr.), or Turner (jr.) (playing a hybrid fullback role from the TE spot), we’re going to see versatility Chryst hasn’t had to work with in a couple of years. Add to that Isaac Anderson (jr.) and Nick Toon (so.) starting at receiver, with David Gilreath (jr.) and Kyle Jefferson (jr.) adding depth and a solid 3-WR set. That’s a pretty stacked set of skill players by Badger standards.

With the departure of three starters and everything on offense relying on them, it’s reasonable to question how good the line will be? Pretty good. Carimi (jr.) is the leader, at left tackle, with a very capable and athletic Moffitt (jr.) at center. At right tackle Josh Oglesby (so.) needs to get and stay mean, but brings a load to move the right side of the line. Converted tackle Bscherer (jr.) and game-tested Nagy (jr.) will do well at the guard spots. Oglesby, Bsherer, and Nagy are all “new” starters, but all have significant playing experience as back-ups and starting several games in place of injured guys ahead of them. This line may not be all world, but it will be solid. The biggest area of concern is depth at guard. The Badgers just don’t have a stable of guards. One of the lesser problems to have, but one that an injury or two could really exacerbate.

In short, look for a capable and balanced Badger offense. Sherer won’t be asked to sling the ball all over the place, but he will throw more than the Badgers did last season, and with the skill the Badgers have around him, the Cardinal and White should be prolific.

That’s the good news.

With all the talk about who the starting quarterback should be, the defensive front seven hasn’t gotten the attention critics should give it. One starter returns to his position from last season. One.

Who knows what the defense will look like this season? Maybe a change of blood will mean the end of late-game struggles? (See, e.g., Florida State ‘09, Minnesota ’08, MSU ’08, OSU ’08, Michigan ’08, Fresno State ’08, Minnesota ’07, Michigan ’07, OSU ’07, and MSU ’07.) That’s the hope. In the mean time, who’s doing what for the new front 7? Schofield (sr.) is the [only] returning starter (DE) and got better and better as last year wore on. While no star, he’s good enough. At the other end, Watt (so.) turned heads throughout his mandatory (transfer) red-shirt year and continued doing so throughout the spring. There’s reason to be excited about him. Backing them up are two guys who show lots of promise in the passing game, but are pretty light to defend the run, Nzegwu (so., 245 lbs.), and Kelly (fr., 240 lbs.). The middle is a source of real concern. Dan Moore (sr.) is a solid player, but is a more natural end converted to tackle. Stehle (sr.) has yet to establish himself as a real presence inside, even with playing time last year. Backing them up are Butrym (so.) who has potential, but is young and not big (280 lbs.), and Cascone (sr.). In passing downs we may see Watt move inside with Nzegwu or Kelly taking his spot on the end.

Moving to the linebackers, talk about a lack of depth. McFadden (sr.) is a returning starter, but moves back outside (his more natural position). Culmer St. Jean (jr.) finally takes the middle position he’s been groomed for over the last two years. And Sorensen (jr.) is the other outside linebacker. McFadden and St. Jean should be fine, maybe even pretty good. Sorensen hasn’t shown up much, despite plenty of playing time and experience. And the two-deep? Freshman and sophomores with no real experience. All the guys on the list have gotten some favorable comments from their peers and coaches, but favorable comments don’t read offenses, shed blocks, and make tackles.

So, real questions up front for the Badgers. If I were an opponent, I’d game plan running the ball right at us. The good news on defense is the secondary.

Aaron Henry (so.) is back at one corner, and looks like his knee has finally healed up. He will get the opposition’s better receiver. Brinkley (jr.) and Devin Smith (so.) both look decent at the other corner (Brinkley will probably start), with Fenelus (so.) not far behind. At safety, after toying with a left/right idea (which held for the linebackers), the coaching staff is back with a strong/free set. Given the personnel, that makes sense. Valai (jr.) is purely a strong safety and Maragos (sr.) and Carter (sr.) are free-types and pretty good (Carter should press Maragos for the starting spot). Pleasant (sr.) could go either way, but has spent most of his career in Madison at strong safety, and is a pretty good option backing up Valai (or pressing him to start). These guys won’t all be pros (maybe a couple will), but they make up a solid Big Ten secondary.

In the kicking game, Welch (so., PK) and Nortman (so., punter) will continue to be fine. The Badgers need more out of Gilreath in the return game, and need to continue to improve their coverage.

In summary, expect the Badgers to play high scoring games this season. Despite all the talk about the quarterback situation, the offense should be very good, but don’t be surprised to see the defense give up long, sustained drives against teams running the ball up the gut.

And as for a game-by-game prediction?
Northern Illinois: Win
Fresno State: Win (but closer than it should be unless we can focus entirely on stopping the run)
Wofford: Win (augh)
Michigan State: Win (because it’s at home; expect a close fight)
@ Minnesota: Loss (they return almost everybody, we’ve struggled with them for two years, and it’s a huge home game for them in their new place)
@ Ohio State: Loss (close, but Pryor will do what he has to against our defense)
Iowa: Win (screw them!)
Purdue: Win (they just aren’t very good)
@ Indiana: Win (still Indiana football)
Michigan: Win (but close, they will be much improved and their option will hurt our defense)
@ Northwestern: Win (another close one; their defense is better than ours, but our offense will prevail)
@ Hawaii: Win (not the same since their coaching change)

That’s an unreasonably optimistic 10-2, with a terrible out-of-conference schedule, and optimistic picks against Michigan State, Iowa, and Northwestern. With as weak a Big Ten slate as we have this season (no Penn State or Illinois, still rebuidling Michigan, MSU with a new quarterback and running back, Iowa has a new running back, and Northwestern has a new quarterback), 10-2 just isn't that impressive. Worse than 8-4 would be a disaster of a season.