Northwestern vs. Wisconsin: Battle for Better Bowl Placement

Michigan Wisconsin Football

By Paul M. Banks and Jake McCormick

(PMB) #16 Wisconsin has had themselves a quietly, make that very quietly, productive season. 9-2, 5-2 and neither of their losses were very bad losses. Yet no one is singing their praises, what’s up with that? We know all about Scott Tolzien, John Clay and that Big Ten leading rushing attack, who/what else do we need to know about?

(JM) I was just paging through the new Sports Illustrated college basketball preview issue, and they ranked 65 teams with no mention of Bo Ryan’s Badgers, despite the fact that they always make it into the NCAA tournament and always overachieve. My point is that Wisconsin fans are used to getting completely shafted despite any typical/surprise successes. Part of that comes from having an extremely boring style of offense in nearly all sports, but if it gets the job done that’s good enough right?

And if my memory serves me correctly, Jim Tressel isn’t exactly lighting up scoreboards with his playcalling, yet Terrelle Pryor’s overratedness is covered more than any Badger underratedness. The only other thing you’d need to know about Wisconsin is that Bret Bielema should be Big Ten Coach of the Year because of his recruiting abilities; not his coaching, which is still very much a question mark in big games.

(PMB) Any special NFL level talent on Wisconsin other than Garrett Graham, the most boring and lifeless interview subject in the history of Big Ten football, and O’Brien Schofield. What about Nick Toon? Or are we talking about him just because his Dad is Al Toon, and his name is reminiscent of Nicktoons on Nickelodeon.

For NU, you might see Corey Wootton and Sherrick McMannis, maybe Adam Hahn playing on Sundays next fall. Their main attraction on the college level though is the Mike Kafka to Zeke Markshausen connection, which sounds a lot like a NFL Europe pitch and catch combo. And of course, many references here are truly….Kafakesque.

Northwestern Illinois Football(JM) Kafka is a pretty decent writer too; I remember reading and enjoying metamorphosis in my AP English class senior year in high school. Did I just make a classical literature reference? Graham is the only senior position player on the offensive side of the ball, but he won’t be missed nearly as much next year with the recent emergence of Lance Kendricks.

The Badgers have quietly become a consistent producer of good all-around tight ends, and Kendricks’ chemistry with Tolzien grows with each game. Toon is a legit, 6’4” receiver (and only a sophomore!) and will undoubtedly follow in the footsteps of Lee Evans, Chris Chambers, and his father on Sundays. The Badger offensive line always sends at least two guys to the NFL, and my top candidates are juniors John Moffitt and Gabe Carimi. Defensively, Jaevery McFadden will make it on a roster somewhere as a special teams player. Thankfully, most of the team is underclassmen, so there is some time before I have to worry about filling big shoes.

(PMB) This is the 93rd meeting between Wisconsin and Northwestern, and the first since ’06. The rivalry with Wisconsin is Northwestern’s oldest among Big Ten teams (dating to 1890). Only NU and Illinois have played more games (103) than NU and Wisconsin (92). And with David Kay in attendance this time, it’s an even bigger rivalry for The Sports Bank, as both TSB’s President and V.P. will be there. In the two teams last meeting at Ryan Field (2005), the Wildcats exploded for a school-record 674 yards of offense as they won a thrilling shootout, 51-48. Brett Basanez threw for 361 yards and Tyrell Sutton ran for 244. Expecting a barn-burner?

Michigan Wisconsin Football

(JM) I liked the way Pat Fitzgerald rallied his team together to beat Iowa two weeks ago, because the Hawkeyes have been squeaking by too many games and definitely deserved a loss at the hands of a non-elite Big Ten team. And to quote Boars and Bernstein, he definitely looks like a guy that goes to bed in full Wildcat pajamas. With that said, all of Northwestern’s Big Ten wins have been by seven points or less and their closest loss was by 10 points. I would expect the Wildcats to score anywhere between 17 and 24 points, but the Badgers have put up 30 or more in three straight games. I think the game will play out much like the Michigan game last week, where Northwestern stays in it for a couple quarters but Wisconsin pulls away early in the second half.

I don’t think Bielema will let this team coast through the end of the season, especially when they’re one win away from 10 on the year.

(PMB) Yes, Fitzgerald certainly is Coachy McCoachington when it comes to his general intensity. Currently the Champs Sports, Alamo and Insight bowls are the leading candidates for the Wildcats’ holiday destination. I’d prefer the Champs Sports Bowl because

a.) it used to be called the Continental Tires Bowl, and this new name is just such an upgrade, I guess.

b.) they did the Alamo Bowl last year and that didn’t work out too well.

c.) they haven’t won a bowl since 1949 (and in this city this is only a modest drought, as big long sports dry spells are to Chicago what clips of people getting physically damaged are to Comedy Central’s Tosh.O) and I just see the match-up in Orlando being magical.

Because it’s where Disney is based, and when you wish upon a star, you finally might win a bowl game.

So where will Wisconsin go bowling? You guys seem to get a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida every year, so much so that they don’t even sell the Bowl packages anymore. It’s all old hat to the fanbase. Like Amy Winehouse and crack, heroin, and cocaine, it’s all routine now. Would even be excited about playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers home? What are some other options?

kafka_metomor

(JM) Florida LOVES Wisconsin bowl appearances because we travel really well and literally empty the kegs at local bars. These are stories I hear from family members that have made trips down for Sunshine State bowls. I wouldn’t have been happy with anything other than a January bowl this year, because I consider Wisconsin one of the top programs in the Big Ten and hate settling for a dot com, before Christmas bowl. It’s also good for recruiting. By the default of having the four ranked Big Ten teams at 10, 13, 14, and 16, Wisconsin seems destined for the bloomin’ onion bowl, aka the Outback Bowl. Unless Penn State or Iowa lose this weekend to the clearly inferior Michigan State or Minnesota, respectively, that is the only New Year’s Day bowl left for Wisconsin. They will be in the Capital One bowl if the Nittany Lions or Hawkeyes lose, but I wouldn’t bet on it against two extremely underachieving teams. Mediocrity and inconsistency is the name of the Big Ten game, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I get a Christmas present early.

Northwestern Iowa Football

(PMB) Predictions and final thoughts?? I’m going to say Wisconsin 37-24, and I have a feeling around mid 3rd the Sconnies will put this one away. Fitz’s teams are just plain better on the road. Mostly because many sections of Ryan Field are emptier than Sarah Palin’s head on most Saturdays, so there’s not really much of a home-field advantage going on. And I expect Saturday’s crowd to have more red than a Che Guevara pep rally.

(JM) Haha…honestly, I wrote the game turnout response a couple paragraphs above, so it looks like we’re in the same boat here. It’ll be close enough early to trigger flashbacks of unexpected losses to Northwestern, but at the end of the day I think Wisconsin will pull away with a final score around what you predicted. It’ll be interesting to see where the Wildcats are in a few years, because they seem to be improving each year as a program. I would have no problem with the return of the Darnell Autry teams of yesteryear.

(PMB) I second that. Good luck, and may the best team win Saturday.

Wisconsin beat Wisconsin against Ohio State, can’t do the same vs. Iowa

ohiostate2

By Jake McCormick

In their 31-13 loss at Ohio State, the Wisconsin Badgers led the stat line 22-8 in first downs, 368 to 184 in total yards, and 42:47 to 17:13 in time of possession. But quarterback Scott Tolzien threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and the special teams gave up a 96-yard kick return for another that iced the game for the Buckeyes. I won’t completely blame the inexperienced quarterback, as the offensive line must’ve watched too many Packer games before giving up six sacks after only allowing two all year.

Take away those Plaxico Burress mistakes, and what do you have? A 13-10 Badger lead in a game where they clearly outplayed a supposedly superior team. Then again, the team that takes advantage of, instead of committing, turnovers rightfully should win.

ohiostate1But is it any surprise then that the Badgers are two and a half point favorites playing at home against the No. 11 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes, who have won 11 straight at Camp Randall? The loss at Ohio State was a horse pill to swallow, but it was necessary for this team to understand that when they are operating at their highest points, the only thing they have to fear is digging their own graves. The Badgers lost to a Buckeye team that has a high likelihood of losing at least one more game in the Big Ten season, and now will face a team in Iowa that is third nationally in takeaways.

The one big confidence boost the Badger defense can continue to build into the Iowa game is their ability to pressure a quarterback. The team has 16 sacks on the year, and defensive ends O’Brien Schofield and JJ Watt play like the Mighty Duck Bash Brothers. Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Terrell Pryor looked as uncomfortable as a lone 7-year-old boy in a class of 22 girls. Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi has been inconsistent this year, and if the Badgers can get to him early they will be able to replicate their clock dominance.

Once again, the key matchup for the Badgers will be their offense against a very good Iowa defense. The offense needs to show it can do more than play between the 20s against a talented team that allows only 15.8 ppg if the Badgers want to stay in the running for the Big Ten title. The bottom line is that John Clay will get his 20+ carries as long as Tolzien doesn’t do his best Dustin Sherer impression. I find it strange I found a way to use “best” and “Dustin Sherer” in the same sentence.

Here are four important questions for Wisconsin heading into their second straight top 15 matchup:

Can Scott Tolzien bounce back and limit mistakes against an Iowa defense that ranks at the top of the Big Ten in almost every statistical category, including interceptions?

The Badger pass rush has twice as many sacks as Iowa (8 to 16). Considering both quarterbacks will need to play at a reasonably high, mistake free level to win, who will win the battle up front on both sides of the ball?ohiostate

Wisconsin hasn’t had the best kick coverage so far and it culminated in Ray Smalls’ 96-yarder that all but killed any chance of a Badger comeback. Even though Hawkeye leading return man Paul Chaney Jr. is out for the season, Iowa’s special teams have been strong all year. How big of a role will special teams play in Saturday’s game?

Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi has 10 touchdowns, but has thrown eight interceptions. Can the Badgers continue to force turnovers while limiting their own?

Badgers impressive in Big Ten opener, now to focus on keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe

Michigan St  Wisconsin Football

By Jake McCormick

I’ve seen so many horror/thriller movies that I’ve gotten into a mindset where the main character could be sitting in a living room writing a thesis paper on the Chi Square and I would fully expect a 2×4 to come flying through the window and make acquaintance with said character’s temple. Hell, I had that feeling the other night watching Milk for the first time. That’s how bad it’s gotten.

But we’ve all had a few moments where no matter what good you see, you are automatically assuming it is a mirage or outlier. If you’re a Wisconsin Badger fan, this is about as common as TNT playing a Tom Selleck movie or TBS running a 48-hour Tyler Perry marathon. But after a dominant win against Michigan State, where Scott Tolzien’s performance netted him Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors and the defense held the normally high-powered Spartan offense to 17 points over 55 minutes, the Badgers look as ready as ever for the Big Ten season.

In the second quarter against Wofford, 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?

The Badgers scored in every quarter, ended each half with 14 points, and only committed one penalty for five yards each quarter. Statistically, the Badgers look like the most consistent offensive team in the Big Ten, ranking second in points, total yards, yards per game, rushing yards per game, and third down conversions. Minnesota’s defense has a fairly strong pass rush, but is in the middle of the pack in overall ability. The battle up front will be key to a Badger victory.

Michigan St  Wisconsin FootballCoach 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?

Does Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week answer that question? Tolzien continues to improve each week and spread the wealth in a way that would make FOX News pundits foam at the mouth. He is arguably the best quarterback in the Big Ten right now, leading the league in QB rating (161.7) and yards per attempt (8.8), and is second in completion percentage (66.7). Let’s also give the offensive line some credit, as they have given up a league leading two sacks for -13 yards. Tolzien will face his first road test against Minnesota, who have only recorded two interceptions on the year and sit right in the middle of the Big Ten against the pass statistically.

Can the Badger running backs protect the ball and prevent turnovers?

John Clay has taken a first step into a larger world. He registered his first 30 carry game of his career, protected the ball all game, and pounded out 143 yards against a fairly good run defense. Greg Jones was barely a factor, and the Badger rushing attack will again face a good group of linebackers in Minnesota, all three of which rank in the top six for tackles in the conference.

Michigan St Wisconsin FootballI’ve altered the last question to focus on the defensive side of the ball: The defense leads the Big Ten in turnover margin and has at least three in each game this year. Is playmaking able to make up for giving up yardage?

Wisconsin’s defense is seventh in points against (23.8) and is similarly ranked in yards given up. But they are second in interceptions and tied for first in fumbles. Likewise, the Badgers are ranked third in tackles for loss and fifth in sacks. Michigan State tallied over 400 yards of offense, but yards don’t win games; points do.

Questions for this week’s matchup with another buck-toothed rodent:

How will the Badgers respond to their first big ten road game, especially in a new stadium that adds more hype to an already strong rivalry?

The Badgers held star Spartan receiver Blair White to one catch for nine yards. How will they deal with Minnesota stud Eric Decker, who is the focal point of the gopher offense?

Wisconsin has multiple weapons in its passing offense, and it seems like a different player leads the team in receiving each week. Can the Badgers utilize their offensive diversity to neutralize a good Gopher linebacking corps?

Was the 30 carries, 143 yards against the Spartans a breakout or fluke for John Clay? Can he continue that in a rivalry road game?

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.

Badger depth chart finalized…for now

Here's your new Wisconsin starting quarterback, Scott Tolzien!!

Here's your new Wisconsin starting quarterback, Scott Tolzien!!

By Jake McCormick

Who the hell is Scott Tolzien?

I’m sure more than a few Badger fans are asking that right now, considering the junior has just been named the starter for the season opener against Northern Illinois. Someone had to win the battle for the starting quarterback position, and Tolzien has apparently stood out to the Wisconsin coaching staff. Bret Bielema released his starting lineup Thursday, and there were some interesting choices at other positions as well.

Tolzien is closer to John Stocco and Jim Sorgi in make-up than Brooks Bollinger and Mike Samuel. He is a pocket quarterback, possesses the most knowledge about the Badger playbook (run-run-pass is so hard, isn’t it?), has the best arm, and won’t make the mistakes of a freshman.

I don’t see the decision to start Tolzien as a bad move for the Badgers, as it allows freshman Curt Phillips time to develop into a better passer and Tolzien has another year of eligibility left. A more overlooked positive to this choice is the potential for a platoon ala Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. OK, they obviously won’t make that sort of impact, but a combination of the strong-armed Tolzien and fleet footed Phillips could throw a much-needed wrinkle into a normally boring offense.

Zack BrownBielema also has named junior Zack Brown as the starting running back over highly-touted sophomore John Clay. This is the most interesting choice by far. Clay is the only Badger that is recognized nationally as a soon-to-be stud, but there are a few reasons Brown might be a better choice at this juncture. He probably understands the offense much more than Clay, and it’s possible Clay’s ankle problem has returned from the grave. Clay will see his fair share of carries in an offense that led the Big Ten in rushing yards a year ago. Personally I think Clay should be starting, but it’s not like the starters are set in stone for the entire season.

At the wide receiver position, sophomore Nick Toon and junior Isaac Anderson give Tolzien big targets with good hands. Putting Gilreath in the slot position will keep teams guessing when he goes in motion, and that’s a necessity with an inexperienced quarterback.

The defensive tackle positions have been a big question mark, and there’s only so many Rudy’s that can play at a given time. But senior Jeff Stehle has made enough of an impact in training camp to convincingly win one of the starting spots. If he can be a leader with O’Brien Schofield on the line, the defense might surprise some people.

If you read the Badger defensive preview I wrote about two weeks ago, I mentioned that the Badger linebackers were very deep and there might be some surprises. Sure enough, Blake Sorenson has been pushed out of the strong side and into a competition for the middle spot with Culmer St. Jean. The guy that beat him out? Freshman Mike Taylor, who missed a lot of camp with a neck injury suffered in high school, still managed to lock down the strong side.

Niles Brinkley led the 2008 Badgers in interceptions, but pulled an Al Harris and got beat deep a lot. He has lost his starting job to sophomore Devin Smith, who has played at a consistent level throughout training camp. I’ll sacrifice interceptions for fewer points against any day.

The Badgers aren’t expected to make a run at the Big Ten title, but this year will be interesting enough, not Garrett Grahamincluding the possibility of a 2010 coaching search if they fall flat. My guess would be Barry Alvarez would pull a Dick Cheney by conducting a “search,” deciding no one is good enough, and re-appointing himself to the position.
Besides that, this team is extremely young and will basically be learning on the fly. There are only seven seniors in the first and second team offense and defense combined, with two on offense and five on defense. Likewise, there are 12 first or second year players on offense and 14 on defense. So if Wisconsin starts losing, we can use the excuse that the team is for the most part still learning the college game. Yay!

Season prediction: 8-4 (4-4 in the Big Ten)
The Badgers have to go 3-0 against NIU, Fresno State, and Wofford if they are expecting to even be competitive when Michigan State comes to Madison. That’s just the start of a tough stretch of travel to Minnesota, where they will play in a real football stadium for the first time since Tainted Love was a hit (I’ll save you’re wikipedia search and tell you it was 1981), and against No. 6-ranked Ohio State. No. 22-ranked Iowa comes to town the next week to continue the tough run. After that, the rest of the schedule looks like a cakewalk, although Wisconsin always finds a way to make tough games really close and “easy” games really bad. To quote Philip Seymour Hoffman quoting a Zen master in Charlie Wilson’s War: “We’ll see.”