Badgers handle Wofford, take training wheels off for MSU

Wofford Wisconsin Football

By Jake McCormick

And now it begins. After three non-conference home games that ended in expected fashion, the Wisconsin Badgers are poised to take on Michigan State in their fourth straight home game at Camp Randall. By the end of the Badgers’ 44-14 victory over Wofford (located in South Carolina by the way), the team was still struggling to find an identity. There were no shortages of playmakers on either side of the ball, however.

Tight end Lance Kendricks emerged as a threat in the passing game by leading the team in receptions (six) and yards (70), and added a touchdown. Receiver Nick Toon continued to impress with big catches downfield, and Scott Tolzien continues to grow into the starting quarterback position by completing 15-of-20 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. The running backs were another story, but I’ll get to that later.

Wofford Wisconsin FootballDefensive end O’Brien Schofield tallied another sack, middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean led the team in tackles with 15, and freshman Mike Taylor continued to improve as an outside linebacker by racking up nine tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss. Even the special teams came through big, with true freshmen Chris Borland blocking a punt and David Gilbert recovering it for a big second quarter touchdown. However, the team is not playing perfect football through four quarters and will need to improve before facing a desperate team in Michigan State.

“We seemed sluggish from the beginning, but not from defensive point of view,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Our objective is work together. We need 11 guys on the field focused on what they need to do on every snap.”

Saturday marks the start of the Big Ten season and Wisconsin will need to prove they can run the ball without fear of putting it on the ground. That was the first issue Bielema addressed in his post-game press conference.

“I know there’s an issue, we fumbled the ball, we cannot have that happen,” he said. “As head coach, I will take responsibility, will get that corrected and will move forward.
“There were a lot of positives, but some positives have to come through negative actions.”

With that, I’m going to utilize as many interviews as I can from after Saturday’s game and let the players and coach answer my weekly questions.

Can Wisconsin stop Wofford’s triple option, which is very similar to the offense run by Cal Poly in the 2008 season finale?

The defense’s response to the third different style of offense they’ve seen in three weeks was praised early on after the game by coach Bret Bielema. It was the third straight game where the defense had three or more takeaways.

“I liked how our defense came ready to play and knew what we needed to do to get a win,” Bielema said.

Later, Bielema expanded on his satisfaction, saying the defense is expected to compete against a different style of offense every week in Big Ten play.

It was a totally different offensive structure than they had played, but they zoned in on it,” he said. “In the Big Ten, you have to focus in on the style of play of your opponent every week.”

St. Jean said the team had Cal Poly dreamin’ in their minds when preparing for Wofford. He added that as strange as it sounded, the game was circled on the team’s calendar as a burden of proof.

“We took the Cal Poly game very personal,” St. Jean said. “We just (had) to make a statement and we needed to find ourselves as a defense.”

Wofford Wisconsin Football“Anytime you play an offense like that you need to be assignment sound, read keys, and make sure guys are in the right spots making plays,” safety Chris Maragos said. “We did that today and that’s why we had success.”

Which defensive line pass rush will we see: the one that pressured NIU all day or the cupcake baking they did against Fresno?

Wofford only attempted seven passes, including one interception, but the defense managed to record two sacks and six tackles for loss. The defensive line played well, but it was ultimately the linebackers that provided the highlights with a sack, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.

Freshman Mike Taylor is feeling more confident in what he’s doing.

“I think every week I’m getting a little better,” Taylor said. “We had two defensive penalties all game. That takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders.”

How will John Clay perform in his first career start?

Twelve carries for 70 yards isn’t bad. Three fumbles in 12 carries is. This is the biggest problem the Badgers faced all game, and is apparent that Clay and Zack Brown will be taking quite a few gut shots this week with their combined five fumbles on the game.

“In regards to way we played today, it wasn’t where we needed to be,” Bielema said. “Sometimes the best amount of pressure can come from their teammates.”

Tolzien said the team will definitely be emphasizing ball security leading up to the Michigan State game. He added that practice is essential to correcting the problem.

“Just practicing better, that’s where you make money during the week on the practice field,” he said. “In games, it’s going to come, we just have to keep at it.”

Wofford Wisconsin Football

This Badger team proved it could handle unusual circumstances off the field, but will there be a hangover effect against a lesser opponent?


Apparently not, and different weapons were showcased again this week, such as Kendricks, who has been waiting for a chance to do more than block.

“It was tough with the fumbles after working downfield,” Kendricks said. “I just snapped into it, my confidence grew. It felt good going out and catching balls like that.”

Kendricks was also quick to credit Tolzien for his ball placement.

“He has a lot of poise, does a great job delivering ball to everybody,” he said. (About his touchdown pass) “I tried to get open a bit, he threw it high where it should be and I was able to get it.”

Overall, Tolzien said he is ready for his first Big Ten start and feels the team is in a good position heading into this weekend.

“I feel pretty good, coach Chryst has us all prepared from top to bottom,” he said. “Then again, all the experience you get in games is valuable too, so three games has helped.”

In the second quarter, the Badgers scored 28 points, and committed zero penalties. Can the team find a way to harness that dominance over more than a quarter of play?

Or what are the chances of the exact opposite, where the defense implodes and gives up 28 points? Is that worse than the way they lost to State last year?

Coach Bielema laughed a little about students yelling “Tolzien for Heisman” heading down the locker room tunnel. Obviously that slogan is pretty farfetched, but what can Tolzien do in a high pressure game against a tough opponent?

Will I have Allan Evridge or John Stocco flashbacks? Are either of those good to have?

Can the Badgers protect the ball?

I really don’t need any further explanation. You all know how frustrating fumbles are.

During his post-game conference, Bielema remarked about the depth at the offensive line because of nicked up starters. Can he find a way to balance their playing time while keeping the line at full strength?

Either way, can the line fuse together to help the running game come together?

Badgers nearly throw up game in honor of team-wide swine flu outbreak

Philip Welch

By Jake McCormick

During my college graduation commencement in May, the UW-Eau Claire chancellor reminded the soon-to-be-unemployed with stars in their eyes that in light of the swine flu epidemic, a bottle of hand sanitizer and paper towels would be available before doing the Walk. Of the 4,000 or so students, only three took this glorious opportunity. I, on the other hand, figured that if I was going to get germ-free goop on my hands, I might as well coat them like a kid getting Slimed on Nickelodeon in the 90s and vicariously share some with the chancellor during our handshake.

I ultimately decided against this last hurrah of college, reasoning that it wouldn’t be worth the potential backlash to cover the chancellor’s hand in sticky, translucent goo. Plus I had already had a sexual innuendo moment with the guy during the ribbon cutting ceremony at our campus newspaper’s new office. As we stood with scissors in hand, he asked which part of the ribbon I wanted to cut, to which I responded, “You go on top.” I thought it was a nice way to go out.

Chris MaragosI’m sure you’re asking what this has to do with the Wisconsin Badgers’ 34-31 double-overtime victory over Fresno State last Saturday. Well, unlike my situation, the hand sanitizer played a part in saving the game for the Badgers, as did copious amounts of bile and daily vomiting. Roughly 40 players, including starting quarterback Scott Tolzien and starting cornerback Aaron Henry, experienced swine flu-like symptoms throughout the week leading up to the game. Senior safety Chris Maragos, who again played the hero with an interception in the end zone during Fresno State’s second overtime possession, said he basically holstered hand sanitizer anytime he touched a doorknob. Other players said the collective sickness was a bonding experience, and given the way the team rallied late against a fast Bulldog team, they came out of the epidemic stronger and more confident. I’ll probably be the only one to say this, ever, but thank god for swine flu.

The fact that a team such as Wisconsin, who is still trying to figure out how good they really are, can come out of a team-wide bout of a national influenza epidemic and survive their biggest test in double-overtime before the Big Ten season begins has to mean something good. But then again, this is Wisconsin we’re talking about, so we’ll just have to wait and see if the Badgers go Donnie Darko on their season.

Last week’s questions:

David GilreathHow long will Bielema try the Curt Phillips Experience?
Apparently not when games are close, as Phillips didn’t even smell the Camp Randall turf on Saturday. But Tolzien turned in another solid performance by going 17-28 for 225 yards and a touchdown. I think Bielema realizes that stability at that position will be a big factor throughout the Big Ten season, and as long as Tolzien is playing at a consistent level and still runs ice through his veins, the offense will continue to put points on the board.

How will the offense perform under Tolzien against a much faster and more experienced defense?
The Badger offense had no turnovers and racked up 413 yards in a much more balanced fashion than against Northern Illinois. Passing yards accounted for most of that number (225 to 188), but that will happen when a defense can’t stop anybody until the fourth quarter. They were a lot more even-handed against the Bulldogs, and limiting mistakes will always put your team in a position to win. However, going 5-13 on third down isn’t the best way to help a Badger defense that still had to rely on big plays to bail them out of long drives.

With an offensive line that averages 6’6” 324 lbs going against a defensive line that averages 6’3” 265 lbs, can Wisconsin finally ride the Boring Ball wagon to victory on the backs of Brown and/or Clay?
I wouldn’t say “Brown Clay” carried the team or the line dominated by any means, but Clay’s 72 yard run in the fourth quarter with 5:45 left was the play of the game until the Maragos interception. The overall running game needs to get better overall, and a lot of that starts with the return of junior center John Moffitt, who has been sidelined with a pectoral muscle injury. Two freshmen, Travis Frederick and Peter Konz, played well in his place, but Moffitt is clearly the best option at center. They need the line at full strength as soon as possible.

Can the special teams rebound, especially Lou Groza finalist Philip Welch?
The only Wisconsin highlights of the first half centered around special teams. Wide receiver David Gilreath pulled off kick returns of 35 and 38 yards, and Welch smoked a 57-yard field goal to end the half. That kick, as well as the game-winner in overtime, should be enough to help him regain some confidence and give Bielema a rare opportunity to score points regularly outside of the 30-yard line. Overall, it was a much needed improvement as a whole unit.

Given the Badgers inconsistencies and previous failures against option offenses, Wofford isn’t likely to lay down and take a beating. I really don’t know what to expect from them other than the triple option I run in NCAA Football 2010, so let’s hope they don’t need a Cal Poly-like blunder for a win.

Can Wisconsin stop Wofford’s triple option, which is very similar to the offense run by Cal Poly in the 2008 season finale?
If not, will I be able to consume enough alcohol to fathom a defeat at the hands of an FCS opponent the game before the Big Ten season starts?

Which defensive line pass rush will we see: the one that pressured NIU all day or the cupcake baking they did against Fresno?
Senior O’Brien Schofield had a career game against the Bulldogs, but he can’t be asked to do everything. Their success depends on sophomore JJ Watt’s recovery from the flu.

John ClayHow will John Clay perform in his first career start?
Will he pull a Nelson from The Simpsons and try to knock over every player on his way to the goal line by holding one of his teammates as a shield?

This Badger team proved it could handle unusual circumstances off the field, but will there be a hangover effect against a lesser opponent?
If there is, can they call the Minnesota Vikings and get whatever they put in Adrian Peterson’s IV drip?

Wisconsin Badger update: Questions have been answered…at least for this week

Here he comes...the Bieldozer!!!

Here he comes...the Bieldozer!!!

By Jake McCormick

Breathe a little easier, Badger fans. We won our NCAA-leading 12th straight season opener. We may have found a quarterback that can actually throw, a slew of underrated receivers with almost every skill set covered, and a defense that has already matched half of last year’s total for sacks and tackles for loss. A 28-20 victory over Northern Illinois isn’t exactly the same as beating Ohio State, but a lot of preseason questions were answered throughout the game. Here are just a few:

Scott TolzienHow will Scott Tolzien do in his debut?
“Who the hell is Scott Tolzien?” Well apparently he’s accurate, puts a little muscle behind his passes, and is confident enough to hit his receivers in stride for an 80-yard touchdown on the first offensive play of 2009. Tolzien’s teammates said he was in emotional purgatory with his nerves, and his 15-20, 257 yards and 1 TD were the end result. For a Badger quarterback, those are good numbers, and with the receivers he has he shouldn’t have any problems finding a good target to throw to on any down. Now we have to wait and see if he can limit his mistakes and throw up similar stats against a much better Fresno State team that is returning nine defensive starters from 2008.

How will Zack Brown and John Clay be utilized?
They received almost an identical number of carries, with Brown getting 15 and Clay grabbing the rock 14 times. They are definitely a good compliment to each other, with Brown flashing a bit more speed and Clay trying to bulldoze defenders. However, neither player stood out against a less than stellar defense, but some of that can be attributed to the lack of a full strength offensive line. I don’t put much weight into Clay’s touchdowns either, because they came in stereotypical Badger fashion: a long drive complete with a few good passing plays, then the running game takes over inside the 10 yard line. The running game’s success will come with time, but one of these players needs to stand out as a frontline starter if Wisconsin is going to notch any quality wins in the Big Ten Conference.

Will anyone step up as a defensive playmaker other thJaevery McFaddenan the obvious seniors?
Yes, and I would like to introduce Badger Nation to sophomore defensive end JJ Watt and freshman linebacker Mike Taylor. Both players lit a match under the defense by putting pressure on the Northern Illinois quarterback and coming up with some big stops behind the line of scrimmage. Wisconsin was so abysmal at making tackles for loss last year that I swear Bielema had them playing that kid game where the backfield is lava and if you go past the line of scrimmage you “die.” These two didn’t get that memo, and along with seniors Jaevery McFadden, O’Brien Schofield, and Chris Maragos, the defense gained some confidence in its abilities to stop teams late in the fourth quarter and create impact plays.

Can the defense perform at a high level until the clock reads triple zeros?
This is a question going into the Fresno State game as well, because Wisconsin held a 28-6 lead going into the fourth quarter and allowed NIU to reduce the deficit to eight before Maragos batted down a fourth down pass to solidify the win for Wisconsin. After the game, almost all the Badger defensive starters said they came into the huddle on that series, looked at each other, and just knew they would make the stop. That’s the kind of confidence that was lacking last year, and should be something to build off of heading into a game where their opponent returns eight offensive starters.

Questions for Wisconsin vs. Fresno State:

How long will Bielema try the Curt Phillips Experience?
In 2000, Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez decided to substitute a redshirt freshman at quarterback against Ohio State trailing by 20, reasoning that he had been getting his feet wet for a few weeks and the team really had nothing to lose by doing so. The end result was a 42-20 Badger win, and the rest is history. The quarterback’s name was Brooks Bollinger. I’m not saying Phillips will make that dramatic of a debut, but it will be interesting to see how beneficial this “platoon” will be to his development and if Tolzien gets hurt or starts playing like Allan Evridge.

John ClayHow will the offense perform under Tolzien against a much faster and more experienced defense?
Fresno State’s defense is quick and aggressive, which should allow Tolzien to get some good downfield looks from his receivers. Fresno State is a good team and will give the Badger playmakers their best test before Big Ten season rolls around.

With an offensive line that averages 6’6” 324 lbs going against a defensive line that averages 6’3” 265 lbs, can Wisconsin finally ride the Boring Ball wagon to victory on the backs of Brown and/or Clay?
If I’m sleeping through the game and they’re winning, you’ll know right away why.

Can the special teams rebound, especially Lou Groza finalist Philip Welch?
An NIU-recovered onside kick led to a Huskie score. Two Philip Welch field goals missed their mark, granted one was from beyond 50 yards. The return game didn’t show any flashes of Nick Davis, Jim Leonhard, or Brandon Williams. Special teams are often overlooked, but the Badgers need to improve this aspect the most if they want to win tight games. Welch should return to 2008 form quickly, but the return game needs to do some work of its own.

Fresno State is a good team and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The key to the game may not even be within the 60-minute time frame; a recent report said as many as 25 Badger players may have swine flu symptoms. The program has been hush about it, but Bielema didn’t let his players talk to the media yesterday after practice. Time will tell what is really going to happen, but if that many players are kept out (and possibly more), the implications nationally are a lot bigger than just one Wisconsin game.

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