Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Football in the Groin

In one of my favorite Simpsons episodes of all time, Barney wins a film festival with his classic film "Football in the Groin." Needless to say, it was Homer's favorite.

Last night I did an interview with Aaron Rennie of CFB Weekly, a weekly podcast program featuring interviews with bloggers. It was fun, except for the fact that we were talking about a monumental Badger collapse in Ann Arbor rather than a win heading into the big Ohio State game. Aaron's term for it was a "Football in the Groin" game. Fitting.

Following Saturday's loss, there has been much questioning of whether this is the worst or most painful loss in recent Wisconsin football history. I think they are two different things. The worst losses come against teams you should clearly beat, or in which the performance was horrendous. Painful losses come in winnable games or in games of great importance.

Saturday's Michigan loss falls into both categories. Let's do a two-part discussion, starting with my list of the Most Painful Losses in Recent Wisconsin Football History (since Barry Alvarez's arrival).

1992, 27-25 at Northwestern. Jason Burns' fumble deprives us of a bowl bid.

1993, 28-21 at Minnesota. The only loss in an otherwise magical season.

1996, 34-30 against Northwestern. The Ron Dayne fumble game.

2000, 47-44 against Northwestern in double overtime. Thought we had made it through the Shoe Box suspensions with national and Big Ten title hopes intact, then this.

2001, 20-17 vs. Michigan. A punt hits Brett Bell, setting up the game-winning field goal.

2004, 30-7 at Iowa. Win and we're in the Rose Bowl, lose and we're in the Outback Bowl.

2005, 20-10 vs. Iowa. Barry's last home game is a loss. Our last home loss, and only home loss since 2003.

2008, 27-25 at Michigan. You saw it.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Chutes and Ladders

Several Michigan fans have begun making comments here taking me to task for my postgame ranting and raving, and in fairness, they aren't out of line. As much as I preach with Will (and soon Charlie) the importance of being a good loser, my demeanor in the aftermath of yesterday's game was similar to Will losing a game of Chutes & Ladders to his grandma after missing his afternoon nap.

(Speaking of chutes, looks like we fell nine spots in the polls, not as far as I thought we would, actually.)

Two follow-up points on that:

1. If you're a passionate fan of a team, especially if it's your home state alma mater, chances are at some point you've lost a heartbreaker and lashed out at the opposing team and its fans. If you haven't, God bless you, you're a better person than me. Or you were wise enough not to post your emotions on the Internet.

If you're a Michigan fan, tell me you haven't felt ill toward Michigan State or Ohio State or Notre Dame fans after losing a winnable game against them.

2. One comment alluded to my one-sided rivalry/obsession. He's right, that's a good characterization of it, even though it casts me in a negative light. Wisconsin-Michigan football should be a run-of-the-mill inferiority complex.

But it was personalized for me on New Year's Day 1998. Our team had been overpicked into the Outback Bowl and was getting waxed by Georgia. My brother and I were watching it at a restaurant in Ixtapa, Mexico, and was the Bulldogs dominated us, a pair of men dressed in Michigan apparel (waiting for the Rose Bowl later that day; they shared the national title that year) snickered and celebrated as Mike Bobo or whoever the hell Georgia's quarterback was played us like a JV team. Until that point, I had hoped Michigan would win the national title later that day -- you know, for conference pride. But those two pricks completely changed my view of Michigan fans, and I've met enough of them since then that have reinforced that view. Most Badger and Big Ten fans have.

Of course, I've also met many other perfectly wonderful people who pull for the Wolverines. I just forget their names when we line up against Michigan.

That said, let's address a point I think all three Michigan commenters made, that their team has superior conditioning and our team is fat. Pretty sure this plays on the rave reviews of Michigan's strength and conditioning coach Rich Rodriguez brought from West Virginia, who is reportedly much more innovative and demanding than Lloyd Carr's guy.

Even though I touched on our defense's fatigue, I disagree that our O-line's size, or P.J.'s size (he's smaller than ever, actually) contributed to poor conditioning that was our downfall. The offensive shortcomings, in a nutshell, were:

-Missing our two top receiving threats for most of the game
-Receivers dropping passes
-Quarterback throwing inaccurately, and at times taking strange-looking drops
-Subsequent Michigan defensive adjustment putting more tacklers in the box than we could block
-Curious offensive play-calling

The comment that our coaching staff didn't make adjustments as well as Michigan's was dead-on. So was the one that Michigan's five turnovers constituted a huge break for us -- one which we certainly didn't capitalized on enough, certainly not as much as they did on ours. And we were overrated. The offense played like this against Fresno, but I attributed that to conservative play calling in a tight game and what I thought was a good Fresno defense, the same one that gave up 54 points to Toledo.

This weekend has been an emotional roller coaster, thankfully ending on a high note with the Brewers clinching a playoff berth for the first time since I was 7. Part of me wishes I'd just not written anything after yesterday's game, the comments keep reminding me of what happened. But that's part of being a fan, dealing with the bad just as you'd enjoy the good. It's not like we haven't had tough losses before ... more on that tomorrow.

Good or bad, blogging is cathartic. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Best Wisconsin sports weekend ever!

Thank God for the wild card! And CC Sabathia ... What a feeling, comparable to winning that game in Tokyo in '93. Excuse me while I grab a Kleenex!

Sunday morning thoughts

Tell you what: having kids makes getting over a tough loss so much easier. As Saturday's game disintegrated around the Badgers, Charlie just kept right on smiling and cooing, and it's hard not to feel good when you see that. After writing my sour grapes blog post, I brought up Star Wars Episode II, which Will and I watched and which he thoroughly enjoyed.

Tell you what else: the stench of losing to a Michigan team that bad smell still lingers after a night of sleep.

-The Badgers' second half offense only showed signs of life once Travis Beckum entered the game. He looked fine moving around. So why wasn't he in before momentum had already swung completely in Michigan's favor? Sounds like he might have been ready to go earlier but didn't ask in until the game was slipping away, when he told Bielema he was 100% -- think you could have made that clear earlier? Beckum and Graham are the only two legit playmakers on offense right now, and without them, trying to score touchdowns is like a baseball team trying to score 10 runs with walks, sac bunts, and singles -- it takes a long time and is very hard to do.

-John Clay was responsible for our two best offensive plays of the day. So why did he have only three carries total? After the game Bielema told the radio guys that the game situation didn't allow him to get back in. What, Clay wasn't capable of contributing to three-and-outs like the rest of the guys were for most of the second half?

-Did we really hold a 36:04-23:56 edge in time of possession? Because it seemed like they had the ball the entire second half.

-Trying to decide who deserves more blame for the pick six that gave Michigan the lead, Evridge or Jefferson. Technically, Jefferson dropped it, but Evridge did seem to throw it too hard into a tight spot where Kyle was about to get drilled. Does it really matter?

-We wasted really good games by Jonathan Casillas (eight tackles, tackle for loss, interception) and the defensive line, namely O'Brien Schofield, Matt Shaughnessy and Mike Newkirk. They were around the ball making plays all days, just ran out of gas at the end.

Apparently the roughing the passer call that led to Michigan's second touchdown was on Shaughnessy. It reminds me of my eighth grade year at Cabrini, when we lost to Badger White. Late in the game we get a fourth down stop when the referee, Al Carrier, flags us for a late hit on the quarterback. "Who's it on?" we asked him. "You know who it's on," was his reply. Badger White ended up scoring on the drive and winning, and went on to a 5-0 season. We finished 0-5.

-Watching Michigan's spoiled, arrogant fans rejoice made me sick to my stomach. Does any other group of fans less deserve to experience success than them? (Ask me tomorrow if the Cubs knock the Brewers out of the playoffs.)

-To that end, Michael Phelps fit right in with all the other poseurs wearing maize and blue Saturday. He may be an Olympic hero and an amazing athlete, but wearing his hat backward and those sunglasses, he looked like a major league gomer Saturday.

-They might be young, but Michigan's offense doesn't even look promising. As stated earlier, Threet is terrible. None of the backs looked even average, not even McGuffie. The receivers might have been getting open, but who knows, given Threet's throws were usually nowhere near them. Our defensive line lived on the other side of their offensive line in the first half.

-We blew a chance to make a big move up in the polls, with USC, Georgia, and Florida losing. You can argue they're irrelevant, but I maintain they're a weekly reminder to the nation of who's who in college football, and we won't be part of that top 10 next week. Pollsters have to be just licking their chops, waiting to drop us, like when we fell from #5 to #19 after losing by five at Illinois last year.

-If the Packers and Brewers lose today, this could be the all-time worst weekend in Wisconsin sports history.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

UW-Michigan thoughts ... are you kidding me?

You know what? I'm not sure that we will ever win a game in Ann Arbor, ever again.

Because that is a really bad Michigan team we just handed the game to. Maybe the worst in a generation, while we allegedly had a top 10 team. What a pathetic performance.

This one's on the Badger offense, no doubt. Dropped passes. Poor quarterback play. Questionable play calling. Blatant execution errors.

This one stings, a lot. Like sitting on a bee in your swimsuit. My guess is that this is karma's way of paying me back for gloating about every Michigan loss to such an extent. Hell, I even had the Badger shirt I was going to buy for Uncle John all picked out, and was looking for his address. Premature.

-Before getting into the segment of this post where I blame our guys, let me touch on this one first: did anyone see the roughing the passer penalty that kept the drive that led to Michigan's second touchdown alive? All I know is Steven Threet, who is just a terrible quarterback, threw a good pass that a Michigan receiver predictably dropped, and 20 seconds later there's a flag on the field and the drive is still alive. No one really talks about it. Michigan scores, Allan Evridge coughs up a pick six, and the rest is history. I would really like to know if that roughing the passer call was legit or not.

-Regardless, it should never have come down to a call, that one or the illegal man downfield call on the two-point conversion, which seems to have been a good call, with Travis Beckum lining up incorrectly. This is the sort of thing that always seems to go Michigan's way ..

How many drops did the receivers have today? Lance Kendricks had at least three, and the wideouts had three or four.

-Then, after playing reasonably well but getting burned by his receivers, Evridge went scattershot. Inaccurate throws. Holding onto the ball too long. Not securing the ball under pressure. I was not ready to call quarterback play an Achilles' Heel for this team, but it is, big time. He did make a couple really nice passes on the last drive, a big first down pass to Kendricks (great catch) and the touchdown pass to David Gilreath (another great catch).

-Even before Evridge went sour, we should have put them away. Time after time we failed to capitalize on good field position that Michigan handed us. It should have been 22-0 or 26-0 before Michigan got its pathetic offense in gear.

-How many third-and-ones did we fail to convert? The one that really sticks in my craw is the option left where Evridge made a terrible pitch to P.J. Hill and we lost five yards on the play. Can you remember any time when we've run the option successfully on third-and-one? Or at any down and distance, for that matter? Me neither. So STOP RUNNING THE OPTION ON THIRD-AND-ONE, PAUL! (That's been building in my for about 90 minutes.)

-All that poor offense in the second half fatigued our defense. No way Michigan scores those last two touchdowns against a fresh defense, not after the way we dominated the first half.

-I just can't get over how bad Michigan is ... so what does that say about us? Here I am talking for the last two weeks about what it takes for this UW team to be great. How about winning when the opposing quarterback goes 12-for-32 for 97 yards? Or when the other team turns the ball over five times in a half? What a lost opportunity.

Best case, I suppose, is this season turns into 1998 or 1999, where Michigan is our only Big Ten loss. That's sort of hard to picture right now, though.

At least the Brewers ... oh, right, they laid a big egg today too.

UW-Michigan halftime thoughts

Boy, I sure am good at these keys to the game, eh? Get Beckum involved early, then Graham? Good call. We can't count on them turning the ball over a lot? Uh-huh.

At least I got the run off-tackle thing kind of right.

This is a strange feeling, being up 19-0 at halftime in Ann Arbor and feeling like it should be about 28-0.

-Good first half for the kickers. Philip Welch rebounded nicely from missing his opening bunny with four good-looking field goals. And we know he can make a 50-plus yarder. And Brad Nortman has punted well, too.

-Run the ball every play in the second half. I'm serious. Without Beckum and Graham in there, Kyle Jefferson is the only primary receiver with dependable hands. Lance Kendricks, Nick Toon, and David Gilreath have all dropped decent passes thus far, with varying degrees of costliness. Allan Evridge has been serviceable, but few of the passing plays have looked smooth. Credit Michigan's defense for making things uncomfortable.

-The UW coaching staff did a nice job hiding the injuries to Beckum and Graham, didn't they? I didn't even know Garrett got hurt at Fresno.

-Of Michigan's five turnovers, none could definitively be placed in the "forced" category. There's good hits and good pressure/coverage, but it's not like we're hitting the ball with our helmets and blanketing receivers.

-One of my favorite non-turnover plays from Michigan in the first half was early on when Wolverine tackle Steve Schilling tackled Sam McGuffie, his teammate, for a loss. Classic.

-Coming into the game, 44% of Michigan's offensive plays have gone for zero or negative yards. That's insane.

-Love the fake punt, can't believe Michigan bit on it. I mean, were we really going to punt on fourth-and-1 from the 34?

-Hey WAC -- that's how instant replay is used properly! I thought Mickey Turner's fumble recovery may have occurred with his foot out of bounds, but it seems the camera angle thankfully didn't capture that part of his body.

-On one third-and-1 call we ran a terrible-looking play action pass. Run the ball behind our enormous line! Like the play call that Johnny Clay took down the the 5 -- that's a great call, well executed. Clay really seemed to slow down at the end of that long run, and his touchdown run; I'd have to imagine in a year or two he won't get caught on runs like that.

-Best quote of the half, from the usually clueless Paul McGuire, about the Big House crowd: "There never is much noise in here anyway, but there is no noise now."

Hold onto the ball, stay with the run, do roughly the same thing defensively, and this one should turn out all right for us.

Friday, September 26, 2008

UW-Michigan preview

Remember where you were the last time Wisconsin beat Michigan in Ann Arbor? I do.

It was the fall of 1994, my freshman year. Our highly-touted defending Rose Bowl champs had just tied Purdue and lost to lowly Minnesota at Camp Randall, and morale for the football team in Sullivan Hall was low. We didn't even watch the game -- it was on ESPN, and the dorms didn't have cable at the time.

So what do you make of a win like that? The win over Michigan in '93 was so dramatic -- kept us in the Rose Bowl after the horrible loss at Minnesota, then the student section stampede fiasco afterward -- yet this one was greeted with almost a shoulder shrug. We still didn't have much of a chance to win the conference, and given the team's inconsistency, who knew what was next? A 24-3 loss to Ohio State, that's what. All in all, a mediocre season.

Our struggles in Ann Arbor since then (and for a long time preceding then) are well-documented. But if we win there tomorrow, it will be greeted with more than a shoulder shrug.

We should win this one. We're more experienced, and probably more talented. Our coaching staff is more established. We've already gone into an intimidating road venue and won.

It ain't going to be easy. Michigan's got a good defense, although they haven't played any prolific offenses yet. Also, turnovers did them in against Notre Dame, and we can't count on that happening again. Here are my keys to the game:

-Run off tackle. Michigan has two above-average defensive tackles in Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson, and while I have confidence in Andy Kemp, John Moffitt, and Kraig Urbik, I'd rather take my chances running at Tim Jamison and Brandon Graham. That puts the onus on Gabe Carimi, Eric Vanden Heuvel, and Mickey Turner.

-Travis Beckum should have a big game. Michigan's got two good cornerbacks in Morgan Trent and Donovan Warren, but their safeties and linebackers aren't as imposing. Becks ought to be back near 100% by now, so feature him early and often ... then go to Garrett Graham when they heavy up on Travis. I don't see many catches by the wide receivers this week.

-It may seem to go against conventional wisdom, but I wouldn't do anything special to pressure freshman quarterback Steven Threet, exotic blitzes, stunts, et al. I'd rush the front four, keep as many of the receivers in front of the back seven as we can, and make him beat us down the field with 80-yard drives, six yards at a time. This would also be the best way to limit big plays by Sam McGuffie, their promising freshman running back. (BTW, how great of a name is 'Sam McGuffie?' It sounds like an old gold prospector with an oversized cowboy hat and a bushy moustache, maybe one of the palookas in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out).

We play this game straight-up, without any huge mistakes by either side, and we ought to win this one.

I'll say the final is the type of score they've seemed to hang on us many times in the Big House in the last two decades: Wisconsin 27, Michigan 13.

Comparison report

So Penn State beats Oregon State by 31, Oregon State beats USC by 6, and USC beats Ohio State by 32. Which means Penn State should beat Ohio State by 69 points.

Or not. At the very least, Penn State got a lot more legit in my eyes last night. That result in Corvallis was a stunner.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Could Michigan falter?

Michigan is off to a well-documented 1-2 start this season, a struggle out of the gate that was not altogether unexpected. The Wolverines lost a ton of veteran players from last year's team, many of them four-year starters, and with a new coaching staff and offensive system implemented this year, some bumps in the road were to be expected.

What are the chances these struggles will extend throughout this season, and maybe even beyond?

This is the winningest program in college football history, after all. One that routinely brings in top recruits from around the country and plays in New Year's Day bowl games. Michigan and Ohio State have long been the Big Ten's Big Two, with everyone else grabbing leftovers.

But ever since Jim Tressel arrived at OSU, it's been more like a Big One, and even though Michigan has still been very good, it doesn't feel the same.

I have a feeling that the Michigan football program could be headed for a time of relative mediocrity similar to one it went through in the mid-1990s, when it sandwiched Rose Bowl trips around trips to the Hall of Fame, Holiday, Alamo, and Outback bowls. (Note I said relative mediocrity: that reads roughly like our holiday travel log, which given the history of our program would qualify as relative success.) Here's how it might happen:

1. The state of Michigan is undergoing some really tough times. Michigan's heavy reliance on the automotive industry has put its citizens in a precarious position, as GM and Ford hemorrhage market share and jobs. As such, Michigan has had the highest unemployment of any state in the nation.

Michigan's population growth has also stagnated. Between 2000 and 2006, at a time in which the U.S. population grew 6%, and the Midwest's population grew 2.8%, Michigan's grew just 1.6%. This is the seventh-slowest growth among states. Ohio and Pennsylvania, where UM pulls many of its top out-of-state recruits from, grew just 1.1% (fourth-slowest) and 1.3% (fifth-slowest).

Other states feeding Big Ten football programs grew at much quicker paces: Illinois (3.3%), Wisconsin (3.6%), Indiana (3.8%), and Minnesota (5%).

Michigan will probably always get coveted recruits from around the country, kids who are seduced by the colors, the fight song, and the chance to play before 106,000 people sitting on their hands. That stuff doesn't dry up unless there's gross incompetence running things.

But any college football program worth its salt still counts on home state boys as its heart and soul, and Michigan is no exception. If the state's population continues to dwindle by comparison to other states, with families of talented athletes moving elsewhere (likely south) in search of the blue collar jobs that have dried up; if the state's tax base erodes to the point where youth athletics programs are not as well-funded; if leaner economic times in general dissuade recruits from far-flung locations to matriculate at Ann Arbor; then these demographic considerations could have significant negative implications for Michigan's football success.

2. The Spread. Have I shared my emotions about this offense in this blog? If you didn't know, in a nutshell, I don't like it.

But it's hard to argue that the Spread hasn't revolutionized college football. It has leveled the playing field for traditional doormats, who have a more difficult time attracting NFL-level talent to run conventional offenses. It has boosted programs like Florida to another level, although it could be argued that you and I could figure out a way to turn Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin into 35 points per game.

In Rich Rodriguez, Michigan has one of the best Spread coaches out there, if not the best. You've got to figure that once Rodriguez has players better-suited for this offense, they'll be formidable.

But we've seen this before in college football, haven't we? Quirky offense turns the sport on its head, gives rise to a nation full of copycats, then loses favor when it becomes familiar to defensive coordinators and coaches adjust their rosters to address it?

Remember the run-and-shoot? That was fun while it lasted, gave us Andre Ware and David Klingler. The Wishbone option lasted longer and was used by more premier programs, but after Miami started dominating Oklahoma in the late 1980s, the option fell out of favor.

Of course, that's just when Don Morton brought the Veer to Wisconsin. I'm not suggesting that Rodriguez's tenure in Ann Arbor will resemble Morton's in Madison. But if I'm right, and the Spread has peaked, his time at the helm could produce less-than-desirable results. The Spread might have begun its downward slide because:

-So many teams run it now that it's not a novelty to prepare for. I believe that we play more Spread teams than conventional offenses this season. Familiarity breeds success.

-The international brotherhood of defensive coordinators has committed to sharing notes and stopping this thing.

-It's hard to see NFL teams ever adopting the Spread outside of a limited form. The Wishbone could never be run at the pro level because the defensive players are too big, strong, and nasty -- they'd hit the quarterback hard whenever given the chance. Similarly, the Spread leaves itself open to big hits on runs, hits that come far less frequently in college.

That last point could be the ultimate downfall for the Spread at big time programs. As I noted when Terrelle Pryor chose Ohio State over Michigan, he made a wise choice. How have Spread quarterbacks fared in the NFL? Think the 49ers wish they would have taken Aaron Rodgers instead of Alex Smith?

If elite high school recruits don't think a program's offense is the best chance for them to develop their professional skills, they will not commit to that program. Simple as that.

Do I think Michigan will ever fall to the depths of Indiana? Or even to that of 21st century Michigan State, missing bowl games with regularity?

Not at all. Too much history, too much brand recognition, too much commitment, too much money to let that happen. Plus, the only other Big Ten schools capable of joining Ohio State in a Big Two are Penn State, maybe Illinois.

But it would be nice if the Wolverines came back to the pack for awhile. Winning in Ann Arbor on Saturday would be a step in that direction.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

1998 vs. 2006: Which was the better defense?

Raised this question in last week's bye week stat marathon, but wanted to take a closer look. Before delving back into the stats, let's consider some other variables first:

Coordinator: Kevin Cosgrove (1998) vs. Mike Hankwitz and Dave Doeren (2006). Not sure quite how to call this one. By this point in Barry Alvarez's tenure, he had probably moved away from much micromanaging of the defense and become the chief delegator. So this was likely Coz's show. But the '06 team was Bret Bielema's first, and after a great start as defensive coordinator in 2004, the defense was awful in 2005, and he was probably eager to show people Barry didn't make a bad choice. I'm going to go with Coz on this one. Edge: 1998

Defensive line: Tom Burke/Ross Kolodziej/Eric Mahlik/John Favret (1998) vs. Joe Monty/Jason Chapman/Nick Hayden/Matt Shaughnessy. Burke had one of the best seasons a UW defensive lineman has ever had (22 sacks!), Kolodziej played in the NFL, Favret was in his second year of a four-year starting career, and Mahlik was underrated. Monty was a plugger, Hayden regressed in his junior season, and Shaughnessy was solid if not spectacular. Edge: 1998

Linebackers: Bob Adamov/Donnel Thompson/Chris Ghidorzi (1998) vs. DeAndre Levy, Mark Zalewski, Jonathan Casillas. The '98 unit was long on experience and chemistry, the '06 unit was long on speed and big-play ability. Edge: 2006

Secondary: Jamar Fletcher/Mike Echols/Jason Doering/Leonard Taylor (1998) vs. Allen Langford/Jack Ikegwuonu/Joe Stellmacher/Roderick Rogers (2006). I like the '98 corners better, even if they were freshmen, and the '06 safeties better. Edge: Even

Schedule difficulty: The 1998 team held a high-powered Purdue team to 24 points in that classic night game when Jump Around was invented, gave up 27 points to Michigan in its only loss, and held just enough (31 points) against UCLA to win the Rose Bowl. No Ohio State on the schedule.

The 2006 team also gave up 27 points in the team's only loss ... at Michigan ... and allowed 24 points at home against Illinois, but missed high-scoring Ohio State. My first inclination is to call this even, but I saw all of the 2006 games, and the Big Ten was pretty bad that year. Holding an Arkansas team with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, both of whom look like Pro Bowlers, to 14 points is impressive, even if the Hogs' passing game was pathetic. Neither team stoned any dynamite, versatile offenses. Edge: 1998

Rushing yards allowed per game: 1998 - 92.2, 2006 - 114.8. Edge: 1998

Passing yards allowed per game: 2006 - 138.3, 1998 - 200.4 Edge: 2006

First downs allowed per game: 2006 - 13.7, 1998 - 16.0. Edge: 2006

Third down conversion % allowed: 2006 - 28.2%, 1998 - 34.7%. Edge: 2006

Turnovers forced per game: 1998 - 2.8, 2006 - 1.9. Edge: 1998

Points allowed per game: 1998 - 11.9, 2006 - 12.1. Edge: Even

It appears the numbers slightly favor the 2006 defense, but the personnel of the 1998 defense strike me as better, and in my opinion they did it against better competition. So I'm going to give the slight edge overall to the 1998 defense. What do you think?

If the 2008 defense can even approach these levels, we ought to be in good shape this year.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Big Ten thoughts

You know what? I'm sick of hearing how bad the Big Ten is. Sure, conference teams have lost some high-profile games, but still, by my count, the Big Ten is no worse than the third-best conference out there. That may be as much a reflection of other leagues' weakness as it is the Big Ten's strength, but whatever Here's how I'd rank the conferences.

1. SEC. Nasty conference. Superior athletes, excellent coaching. Who watched LSU and Auburn butt heads on Saturday? Who watched Georgia dismantle Arizona State, Florida crush Tennessee, Alabama run over Arkansas? Hell, Vanderbilt's ranked.

2. Big 12. Oklahoma and Missouri are real national title contenders. Texas and Texas Tech are overranked, but still very good. And don't forget about Kansas and Colorado.

3. Big Ten. Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Illinois are a very respectable top four, losses by the Buckeyes and Illini notwithstanding. Watch out for Michigan State.

4. Mountain West. Utah, BYU, and TCU are tough. Put them in one of my top three conferences and they'd lose 3-4 games, though.

5. ACC. Is this what these schools had in mind when they poached Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech from the Big East? Wake Forest is good, but do they scare anybody legit? Clemson should be good, but laid an egg against Alabama. VaTech could end up being good, but that's about it.

6. Pac-10. USC's dominance obscures the fact that the rest of the conference is freaking horrible. Oregon, which doesn't have a quarterback, and Arizona, which is still not much better than they were when we were in Tucson in 2004, are the only other teams with less than two losses. Pathetic.

7. Big East. Maybe this would be a good time for Marquette to launch a football program. South Florida is on top for now, but do they scare anyone legit? Who's #2 - UConn? Pitt? Louisville? West Virginia is 1-2 and Rutgers is 0-3 ... sad.

So fret not, Big Ten aficionados. Things could be much, much worse.

All that said, what do we know about Big Ten teams after four weeks of pre-conference play? Not much more. Here's how I ranked 'em on August 28:

1. Ohio State, 2. Illinois, 3. Wisconsin, 4. Penn State, 5. Michigan, 6. Michigan State, 7. Purdue, 8. Iowa, 9. Indiana, 10. Northwestern, 11. Minnesota.

Here are my revised rankings:

1. Ohio State. Good move by Jim Tressel not waiting to make Terrelle Pryor the man. Many coaches would have stuck with Todd Boeckman out of loyalty to the senior, but Pryor is what makes this team dangerous.

2. Wisconsin. Hope I'm not overrating our win over Fresno. But I like what we're doing, and think we can still play much, much better.

3. Penn State. They're good, but I'm not buying all the hype that's surrounded this team's start. Beat someone legit and get back to me.

4. Michigan State. Javon Ringer is going to win some games by himself for this team, but they're also going to blow one or two that they should win.

5. Illinois. That loss to Missouri doesn't influence my thoughts on these guys much. Beating Louisiana-Lafayette by three points at home does.

6. Michigan. Much of their pain is self-inflicted, but add a young roster to a new system and the growing pains will likely continue.

7. Purdue. Not much to talk about here.

8. Iowa. Thought they were on the right track, but losing to Pitt? Pitt lost to Bowling Green for goodness sake.

9. Minnesota. At least the Brew Crew beat Bowling Green. Beating bad non-conference opponents like Wisconsin in 1992 ... hope they don't take the next step we took under Barry.

10. Indiana. Have a feeling Kellen Lewis will get hurt at some point and the wheels will fall off.

11. Northwestern. Defense showing signs of life under Mike Hankwitz, but let's see how it holds up against Big Ten teams.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Setting the bar

Now that I've numbed you all to sleep with four days of numbers — hey, wake up! — I'm going to tie it all up with the statistical thresholds I believe the Badgers need to hit for 2008 to be a great season.

50 rushing attempts per game
245 rushing yards per game (4.9 yards per carry)
47% third-down conversion percentage
1.2 turnovers per game
30 points per game

35 rushing attempts per game
120 rushing yards per game (3.4 yards per carry)
215 passing yards per game
37% third-down allowance percentage
2.5 turnovers per game
16 points per game

If time permits, I'll compare each week's performance to these standards, and hopefully keep a running total on how we're doing. Of course, if we lose three of our next four, I'll start writing about recruiting and whether Dustin Sherer or Curt Phillips will be starting at quarterback in 2009.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Mmmm, Ro*Tel

OK, I've got to write something about this, it's been bugging me for four weeks. Show of hands: who watches Friday Night Tailgate on the Big Ten Network? This show takes product placement, a common practice for inserting marketing messages into inescapable spots in television programming, to absurd heights.

In particular, I'm talking about Ro*Tel, which is sponsoring the Ultimate Tailgate Package Sweepstakes. The BTN takes product placement here to new, hilarious levels. Friday night was the peak.

The BTN was in Columbus, Ohio, apparently previewing the epic OSU-Troy clash. The host was accompanied by former Buckeye great Butler By'not'e (always loved that name) and two young ladies attending The Ohio State Community College. They actually had a bowl of Ro*Tel on set, and were sampling it, when the host threw it to By'not'e for analysis, asking him something like "Can you taste the real diced tomatoes and green chilies, Butler?" It was asked in the same earnest tone reserved for questions like "What percentage of the offensive snaps do you think Terrelle Pryor will get tomorrow, Butler?"

He then put the two co-eds on the spot with something like "Will you be serving Ro*Tel at your next party, Mandy?" If I was Mandy, I would have been like "Hell yeah!" Who turns down free salsa, or whatever Ro*Tel is? Throw in some chips and the first keg stand is yours dude! And bring Charissa Thompson, the poor man's Erin Andrews!

When they threw it back to the studio, I half expected host Mike Hall to be doubled over on the floor with laughter. Milk coming out of his nose laughter.

Bottom line is, however absurd this is, whatever Ro*Tel is paying the BTN for the right to sponsor, roughly 1/22 of that money (after the revenue share with Fox) is coming back to Barry Alvarez.

Now, about that Solo Cup Stacking Challenge ... that's actually a perfect fit with a demographic that knows a thing or two about plastic cups.

Overall, I enjoy the show, it's funny and shows non-sports aspects of Big Ten campuses. Watch it next week, and get ready for some Ro*Tel!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The T-shirt I didn't expect to receive

Remember last week, when I made the post about how Jana's Uncle John has been sending me T-shirts of teams that beat Michigan in non-conference play? Remember when I said I was uncertain if, in the event that Notre Dame beat the Wolverines, he'd send a Fighting Irish shirt?

Well, yesterday I opened the mailbox and saw a stuffed oversized manila envelope, cackled, and instantly knew what it was. The thing is, it's not just some cheapo shirt you buy at the grocery store, it's a nice adidas Notre Dame shirt, with classic colors.

The nice thing is John's team — Michigan State — beat Notre Dame at home today (Javon Ringer is a stud; I'm hoping he carries the ball 40 times a game, every game, and somehow is running out of gas when we play them November 1). So everyone can smile about this one!

After playing us and Illinois, Michigan plays host to Toledo. I'd look good in Rockets blue and yellow!

Statistical leaders: Defense

Here are the teams that led these statistical categories on the defensive side of the ball:

Yards per game: 2006 (253.1), 2004 (291.3), 1998 (292.6). The '06 defense was 38 yards per game better than the second-best — wow! In an era when more and more teams were running the Spread. And without a lot of exceptional individual players, maybe Ike and that's it. That's a credit to Joe Stellmacher, Mark Zalewski, and the other leaders of that defense who made sure everyone was in the right spot at the right time.

Rushing yards per game: 1998 (92.2), 1999 (109.9), 2006 (114.8). Holding opponents under 100 yards rushing per game over 12 games is nearly impossible to do, but Donnel Thompson, Chris Ghidorzi, Jason Doering and friends did it.

Completion percentage: 2006 (47.8%), 2004 (48.8%), 2000 (50%). That '04 mark is a tribute to the pass rush provided by Erasmus James and the defensive line — Brett Bell started at corner opposite the underrated Scott Starks.

Passing yards per game: 2006 (138.3), 2004 (167.3), 1999 (188.2).

Third-down conversion percentage: 2006 (28.2%), 2004 (31.2%), 1999 (33%), 1997 (33.3%), 1998 (34.7%). Are we coming to realize that the 2006 defense was the greatest in modern UW history?

Turnovers per game: 1993 (2.8) and 2998 (2.8), 2002 (2.5), 1994 (2.3). And yet the '02 team lost six games.

Penalty yards per game: 2006 (38.3), 1996 (39.1), 1999 (39.3).

Points per game: 1998 (11.9), 2006 (12.1), 1999 (12.8), 2004 (15.4), 1993 (16.3).

So here's the question I'll throw out at the end of today's exercise: which defense was better, 1998 or 2006?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Statistical leaders: Offense

Okay nerds, you sick of these numbers yet? I'm not. (Please, Michigan Week, get here soon!)

Here are the leaders of the Alvarez-Bielema era in key statistical categories.

Yards per game: 1993 (455.2), 1994 (423.6), 1999 (417.2), 2007 (408.8). I don't think people remember just how explosive that 1993-94 offense was. Had Lee Deramus not been injured that '94 team could have been absolutely awesome. And that '07 average being so high is a testament to Paul Chryst.

Rushing attempts per game: 1999 (53.0), 1993 (50.3), 1998 (50.0). Whether rushing attempts are a cause or an effect is debatable, but the fact is our three Great Teams rushed the ball more than the other 12. The first two are the same in rushing yards per game, but the 2006 team is third ... thank you, Ron Dayne.

Passing yards per game (fixed, thanks Toohey): 2005 (228.4), 1995 (221.7), 2003 (217.9), 2001 (213). Several points here:

1. John Stocco's 2005 was so overlooked because for three-quarters of the season everyone was still bitching about how bad he played in 2004. But what a season!

2. 1995 and 2001 are our only two non-bowl years since 1993. They were also seasons that got Darrell Bevell and Brooks Bollinger's butt whipped.

3. Is it really that surprising that Jim Sorgi ('03) has stuck in the NFL this long? He was a nice quarterback in college, and more pro-style than just about anyone we've had.

4. Last on this list: 1998, when Mike Samuel and friends passed for just 113.6 yards per game. Unreal.

Third-down conversion percentage: 1993 (58.3%!), 1996 (47.4%), 2005 (46.6%). The '93 team's margin of 'victory' here is staggering. Imagine how demoralizing it had to be playing against that team, when it converted so many of its third-down chances. Remember, UW's average in this period is 43.6%. Why again did the '96 team only go 8-5?

Turnovers per game: 1998 (0.8), 1999 (0.9), 2005 (1.1). On the other end of the spectrum, the '94 team turned it over 2.2 times per game. Obviously an important factor in a team's success.

Penalty yards per game: 1995 (25), 1997 (34.4), 1993 (35.1), 1998 (35.3). Funny, I don't remember that '95 team being an exceptionally disciplined bunch.

Points per game: 2005 (34.3), 1999 (34.1), 1998 (31.8), 1994 (29.8), 1993 (29.5). Few surprises here, except that the '98 team averaged almost 32 points per game while throwing for just over 100. A testament to Ron Dayne and, I presume, Jamar Fletcher.

So there you have it, another post that reinforces that we win big when we run the ball well and run it a lot. It's fun seeing a stat, seeing where it ranks, and remembering who was involved in making it happen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Keys to greatness: Defense

Bored yet? If not, let's plunge on with the defense.

Stat category, 15-year average, great team (1993, 1998, 1999) average, 2008 average thus far.

Rushing attempts per game: 35.4, 33.4, 28
In our three great seasons, we run the ball almost 18 times per game more than our opponents. This year thus far the disparity is 19.

Rushing yards per game: 139.5, 110.8, 87.7
That 1998 defense was nasty, wasn't it? Those guys allowed only 92.2 yards per game. I'm not ready to put this crew in that class, nor the class of the 1999 defense that allowed 109.9 rushing yards per game. But with a pretty good defensive line and pretty good linebackers, they could finish in the 120 ypg range.

Passing yards per game: 212.2, 205.6, 230.3
So what do we make of this? Are teams just passing more nowadays? Is this because Akron and Marshall were playing from great deficits in the second halves of those games? Or is our secondary just plain shaky? They haven't made me throw a pillow at the TV yet. It appears we'll get Aaron Henry back for Michigan, which should help in the nickel and dime.

First downs per game: 18.0, 17.2, 17.3
Not much to comment on here. One guess is that even when teams are getting beat handily, they're going to get some first downs against our second-string defense playing a vanilla scheme.

Third-down conversion percentage: 37.1%, 37.3%, 44%
Cause for concern? Not yet. This year's defense does not seem to have given up as many third-down conversions as last year's team, which allowed opponents to convert 38% of these chances.

Turnovers per game: 2.1, 2.5, 2.0
In average years, we're +0.5 turnovers per game; in great years we're +1.4. That's a big difference — 12 possessions per season.

Penalty yards per game: 49.2, 45.0, 39.0
Nothing to talk about here.

Points per game: 19.8, 13.7, 13.7
The bottom line. My guess is this year's unit ends up yielding about 17-19 points per game.

So it boils down to stopping the run and forcing turnovers. This defense can do it. Will they?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Keys to greatness: Offense

OK, here goes. Let's take a look first at the offense. We're going to lay it out like this: Stat category, 15-year average, great team (1993, 1998, 1999) average, 2008 average thus far.

Rushing attempts per game: 45.6, 51.1, 47.3
5.5 rushes per game may not seem like that big a difference between average and great, but over the course of a 12-game season that's a lot of time of possession, and considerably less exposure to turnovers.

Rushing yards per game: 199.1, 247.4, 238.7
No surprise here, either, given the previous stat. But 48 yards per game is a huge disparity between average and great. Our 2008 offensive line and backs show the potential to near that great number.

Passing yards per game: 181.7, 153.3, 184.7
This surprised me a little. I thought the great number would be less than average, but not by 28 yards. Consider that one of the three great teams was quarterbacked by Mike Samuel and this makes more sense. Still, makes you feel okay about Allan Evridge behind center.

First downs per game: 20.1, 21.1, 23
Nothing much to look at here.

Third-down conversion percentage: 43.6%, 48.1%, 44%
The great-to-average disparity is significant here, 10% different. That's a couple more drives kept alive per game, improves field position, keeps the defense off the field, etc.

Turnovers per game: 1.6, 1.1, 1.3
Also very significant. Over a 12-game season that's six less turnovers.

Penalty yards per game: 41.6, 40.2, 39.0
Surprised by this one, thought that the great teams would be far less penalized than average.

Points per game: 27.8, 31.8, 34.0
Of the three great teams, 1993 surprisingly averaged the fewest points per game — 29.5 ppg. It's not a stretch to see this year's team averaging more than 27.8 ppg.

The takeaway: run the ball, don't turn it over, don't get forced into throwing the ball.

The 2008 stats thus far have to be taken with a grain of salt, given the quality of our first two non-conference opponents. But the trend is encouraging.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Are you ready for statistics?

A couple months ago while we were talking about whether or not this year's Badgers have five great players, it got me thinking: there's got to be a better way to define greatness — aside from the obvious wins and losses and championships and such. Surely there are common statistical threads among great teams.

So, being the nerd my brother tells me I am, I decided to dig into this further. Using the stats provided by the UW media guide online, I put each Badger team's stats going back to 1946 into an Excel spreadsheet and started figuring.

I then calculated per-game averages for each season. After all, there is a great disparity in the number of games played by modern teams and teams even 20 years ago.

Then I narrowed down date range. After all, the 1951 team was great, but how often did teams pass 50 years ago? Figuring out what statistical categories were key for that team carries little weight with what might make the 2008 team great.

As such, I picked 1993 as the starting point season. That was the year that the Wisconsin football renaissance began in earnest, and even though there have been plenty of tweaks along the way, the program's blueprint for success has remained the same.

Lastly, I chose three great teams: 1993, 1998, and 1999. No surprise there. I weighed adding two other 10-win teams, 2005 and 2006, but the former lost three games in Big Ten play and the latter didn't really beat anyone until Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl.

So here's what we're going to do: over the next few days we'll show what the team's average has been in key statistical categories over the past 15 seasons, see how the three great teams performed there, and then monitor those areas over the course of the season to see how the 2008 edition shapes up.

Excited yet?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Top 10 again

The Badgers quietly moved into the AP top 10 after beating Marshall last week, and moved up to #8 after beating Fresno State. It really wasn't all that unexpected, given that we started ranked in the top 15 and the frequency with which highly-ranked teams lose in college football nowadays.

But consider this: that's three years in a row now that we've cracked the top 10, and four of the last five.

So here's my question: can Wisconsin be called a perennial top 10 team? Probably not, because in only one of those seasons has UW finished in the top 10, this season pending. But it's still pretty cool to get there on a regular basis.

By my count, Wisconsin has reached the AP top 10 in 20 seasons in its history, with nine of those seasons coming since 1993. From 1958 through 1963 the Badgers reached that part of the rankings four times, and ascended to #11 and #13 in the other two seasons (that's Ron Vander Kelen, quarterback of the 1962 Rose Bowl team, above). That could arguably be the best run in school history.

Overall, including this week Wisconsin has been ranked in the top 10 in 111 weekly polls, with 48 of those coming in the last 15 seasons. It should be noted that modern day polls appear to be published more frequently than they did in the '50s and '60s. Here is the breakdown:

Season Weeks in top 10
1942 8
1947 1
1951 5
1952 4
1953 1
1954 9
1955 2
1958 9
1959 10
1962 7
1963 7
1993 4
1994 3
1998 9
1999 10
2000 4
2004 6
2006 4
2007 6
2008 2

Trivia question: what is the only season since 1993 in which Wisconsin hasn't cracked the AP top 25?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday thoughts

Looks like we've moved up to #8 in both polls that matter, which is nice. Unfortunately, our big win last night doesn't seem to have made he radar of most national media. For instance, the Badgers' win on the road against a ranked team in its biggest game ever didn't even merit mention in Yahoo's "Winners" list, and it's making few if any lists of Saturday's college football headlines. Hmmm. Not that surprising, given that our game got over at about 2 a.m. EST.

-Read that this was our first road win over a ranked non-conference team since 1958. Unbelievable. As much as that's a reflection of our program's quality over that time, it's also a sign that we should probably take more shots at big time programs.

-As bad as Ohio State looked yesterday, I think it's premature to declare Wisconsin, Penn State, or Illinois the new Big Ten favorite. Especially if Jim Tressel makes the move to start Terrelle Pryor at quarterback immediately.

-Any national media coverage of our game is focusing on Fresno's lost opportunity to crash the BCS, not our gain. Whatever, keep us under the radar.

-Key to yesterday's win: no fumbles, no interceptions. Seven penalties is too many.

-That may have been DeAndre Levy's best game. Nine tackles, three for loss, one sack, one interception and one pass breakup. Good time for it Dre!

-Seniors carried the defensive effort overall. Allen Langford had seven tackles. Jonathan Casillas had seven tackles and ran down Mathews on the long screen pass after the ridiculous fumble call overturn, saving four points on the possession. Jason Chapman was quick off the ball as usual, with six tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss. Mike Newkirk had four tackles, 1.5 for loss. And Matt Shaughnessy had those two deflected passes and a TFL (not noted in the official stats).

-Nice to see that Jeff Stehle, Patrick Butrym and Chris Maragos all saw time on defense in meaningful situations. The first two are sorely needed for depth. Also nice to see Aubrey Pleasant still contribution in pass defense packages.

-Now that our game is in the past, I'm a huge Fresno fan. If the Bulldogs can win out and get back in the top 25 our win looks much better over time.

-With all due respect to Cal Poly, the non-conference season is essentially over. How do you feel about it compared to how you felt at this time last year? Wins over Akron and Marshall feel about the same as wins over Washington State and UNLV, but beating Fresno is about 100 times more satisfying than beating The Citadel.

UW-Fresno State thoughts ... yeaaaaaaah!

Charlie is set to be baptized in about 10 hours, and that's probably what I'll remember about this weekend for the rest of my life, but ...

What a great win! Billy Rentmeester with the save!

We beat a really good team in front of their hostile crowd in THE BIGGEST GAME IN SCHOOL HISTORY! So Fresno State fans can take all those cute little T-shirts they had made up for the game and use them to clean the kitchen next week.

I'll be honest: for the last hour in my head I've been writing, in my head, a rant about the preposterous overturned fumble call. More on that later. But now, thankfully, I'll focus on the positive, with an emphasis on the second half.

-Did you notice how we switched things up on kickoffs? In the last one of the first half it only went to about the 25, fielded by Fresno's up back. In the first kickoff of the second half, Fresno's returners moved up and Philip Welch kicked it into the end zone. Maybe this is how we have to do things without Taylor Mehlhaff's big leg.

-Did you notice how on several plays Chris Pressley started out split wide, then moved back to his customary fullback spot? Who are we trying to kid with that initial formation? He ain't going anywhere on a passing route lined up out there.

-On Devon Wylie's touchdown the announcers harped on Casillas for missing a tackle, but I thought Jay Valai's was worse. But Valai played a good game overall — Bear never got off, and Jay made some nice plays around the line of scrimmage. Any game in which I'm not making many notes about the secondary is a good game.

-Everyone will be raving about Fresno blocking another punt, but that one was on Brad Nortman dropping the snap, which was fine. He catches it cleanly, they don't block it. The defense made a great stand after the blocked punt.

-Did you hear ESPN2's Joe Tessitore's orgasm after that blocked punt? Embarrassing.

-Kraig Urbik was offside twice in the second half, and I thought we were dangerously close to completely losing our composure, but we kept it just enough to persevere.

-A disturbing trend in the second half was not running or throwing to receivers at first down yardage on third down.

-That punt that bounced into their blocker was the big break we needed to get over the hump in the second half. Rod Gilmore's comment afterward was classic: "That play is essentially a turnover." You think?

-That option that Evridge ran deep in Fresno territory was a curious call, although he ran it relatively effectively. But there was a holding call on it, not surprising.

-Bringing in Clay when we did was a nice move, but why not keep feeding him the rock? He ran well in his limited chances. A tough 112 yards for P.J. as well, he ran with authority behind some stubborn blocking.

-When Wylie fumbled, you could hear palpable disappointment in Tessitore's voice. I then wrote down "Really stupid challenge by Pat Hill." Who knew.

You know why teams don't want to play you at Fresno, Pat? It's because of refereeing like that overturned fumble. That was so clearly a fumble it was not even close. All three announcers certainly thought so, as would any impartial viewer. Unless you can get neutral-conference officials for a matchup like this, you run the risk of officiating deciding the outcome.

Which it almost did tonight. Not only did Fresno get three points, but we were deprived of the ball deep in their territory. Then, we clipped on the ensuring kickoff return, putting us in bad field position.

After Fresno kicked the field goal, Tessitore said, disappointedly, like his dog has rabies: "And Wisconsin holds."

BCS teams ought to think long and hard before scheduling games either at WAC schools or using WAC officials.

Tessitore: "Finally a home game break for Pat Hill!" Hooray for horrible officiating!

Thankfully that's the end of my rant, rather than my entire game recap.

-Evridge and Kyle Jefferson were not on the same page tonight. Allan looked Kyle's way several times but they never came close to a completion. It would be nice to have KJ's deep play threat going into Big Ten play.

-Won't say much about Evridge's cramping until I hear more about it. But what about Jae McFadden's club on his right hand? What was that about? He wasn't in on as many tackles as he has been the first two weeks, wonder if that was a factor.

-What a great punt by Fresno to pin us deep late.

-But what a time for Billy Rentmeester to have the biggest run of his career! It was certainly unexpected, but the type of contribution that can turn a good season into a great season.

I'm exhausted, and will be up with Charlie soon for a middle of the night feeding, so I'd better wrap it up. But again, great win, and I'd like to think this keeps us in the top 10 for at least two more weeks. More to come Sunday.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Carrying the Big Ten flag: Michigan and Ohio State

It's never a bad Saturday when Michigan and Ohio State get embarrassed. First, it was the Wolverines against a thoroughly mediocre Notre Dame team. Michigan's special teams early on were just awful. Then I took a nap, woke up, and they were still losing and life was good.

Then we've got Ohio State losing big against USC. To be fair, the Buckeyes were missing Beanie Wells, and the Trojans might win the NFC South if given the chance. But it was very encouraging to see OSU look so vulnerable, even if no one else in the conference has athletes like Pete Carroll does.

A couple other notes:

-Kirk Herbstreit was fine in this game, but I always cringe when he's calling an Ohio State game. Why? Look at this picture, originally posted on the O-Zone. It's during the Fiesta Bowl where OSU won its referee-aided national title against Miami, and Herbie's celebrating with Eddie George. He's an alumnus, and a fan. How can he be counted on to call a Buckeye game even-handedly?

-Ohio State looked 10 times better with Terrelle Pryor in the game. USC couldn't just rear back and go whole-hog on the pass rush like they did when Boeckman was in at quarterback. It wouldn't be a shock to see Pryor get even more playing time; the every-other-play deal looks really awkward for a team as good as Ohio State.

-Saw the quote where Ohio State's Ray Small said that his school's football program is focused on making players better all-around men, while USC is just focused on football. Puh-leeeeeeeze! You've got to be kidding me ...

-Cal Poly opened the season by beating San Diego State. The next week, Notre Dame beat San Diego State by about the same margin. This week, Notre Dame beat Michigan by even more. So does that mean Cal Poly is better than Michigan? Our much-criticized non-conference schedule looks better every week.

UW-Fresno State halftime thoughts

Can't believe I'd be this happy with a 10-0 halftime lead. But we played a nice first half. Took their fired-up crowd out of the game early, which has been important. Offensive line is blocking well, defensive line has made a lot of plays.

-On the first (and only thus far) three-and-out drive, Allan Evridge locked onto Travis Beckum on third down and forced a tough pass into a tight spot for an incompletion. I was afraid he'd do that, but Evridge has spread the ball around well since.

-Niles Brinkley started at cornerback opposite Allen Langford.

-Good push by the right side of the offensive line on the second drive that ended at the goal line, especially by Kraig Urbik.

-On that drive: why wasn't P.J. Hill in on third and goal? Zach Brown is not the right guy for that run. It was no surprise Fresno stuffed us on fourth down, but I'm still glad we went for it and didn't kick the field goal.

-It looks like Blake Sorensen is coming in for Jonathan Casillas on third downs, yet Casillas has been matched up on Bear Pascoe on certain passes by Fresno. Casillas made two really nice tackles in traffic on Fresno running backs.

-Really good half for Matt Shaughnessy, with his tip on Deandre Levy's interception, tackle for loss, and another tip. Mike Newkirk did a nice job splitting blockers on a tackle for loss, and Jason Chapman ran a great stunt around the offense's left end to sack Brandstater.

-Great call on the touchdown pass to Garrett Graham, the play-action pass ought to be there the way we're running. Another solid half for Graham. Interesting to hear the announcers talk about how Graham might be the better tight end than Beckum. They're both really good, in different ways.

-It's nice to see an opposing offense running the I on offense, a man's offensive scheme.

-Even though the late field goal attempt was blocked, I like the aggressive play calling on the drive to get us in position to kick.

Keep it going in the second half and Charlie's baptism Sunday will be off to a good start!

Hail to this T-shirt collection

What in the world, you might ask, is going on in this post? Well, it's like a page from one of those kids' books we're reading Will nowadays: what do these three pictures have in common?

That's right: kid-friendly Bucky Badger is wearing T-shirts commemorating the teams that have beaten Michigan in non-conference play in the past two seasons. All courtesy of Jana's Uncle John.

You'll remember that John gave me the Appalachian State T-shirt last year at around Thanksgiving. The Oregon shirt (and that Wolverine loss was almost as fun, as humiliated as they were by Dennis Dixon and friends) was a gift this summer.

Yet for some reason I didn't expect to receive any new clothing after Michigan lost its opener — at home again — to Utah. But there it was in the mail earlier this week. At first I thought it was a Badger shirt from someone, but when I realized what it was and its significance, big laughs.

Michigan plays Notre Dame on Saturday, and it's anyone's game, two proud programs in a bit of a rebuilding mode. I'm pulling for the Fighting Irish in this one, but I'm wondering if Uncle John is; as a Lansing native and lifelong Michigan State fan, he still harbors ill feelings from the infamous 1966 State-Notre Dame tie game in which Ara Parseghian elected to run out the clock and take the tie. We'll see if Unc can bring himself to buy a Notre Dame shirt for the purpose of ribbing his golf buddy.

And I also hope this is strictly a deal for non-conference Michigan conquerors. It will be a cold day in hell when I put an Ohio State shirt on Bucky Badger.

Friday, September 12, 2008

UW-Fresno preview

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: I don't think Wisconsin will beat Fresno State tomorrow night.

Wherever my brother is when he reads this, he'll be rolling his eyes and grumbling about my set-the-bar-low philosophy.

But consider everything going against us:

-This is a program that routinely plays BCS schools and often beats them, and is not the least bit intimidated by our pedigree or size. They humbled us at Camp Randall seven years ago, a game I won't forget.

-This is at their stadium, which will be amped to a fever pitch. It's being billed as the biggest game in school history, and they will sure as hell be jacked for that. (I love Deandre Levy's quote about how they had "cute little T-shirts" made for the game.) If we come out flat like we did against Marshall, or suffer a quarter-long brain freeze like against Akron, we could get blown out in a hurry. Last year's loss at Penn State comes to mind as a worst-case scenario.

-This is a team that looked really good in the second half of its opener against Rutgers two weeks ago. The defense, especially, completely shut down Rutgers.

-This is a team with a lot of good players. One coach has said quarterback Tom Brandsteter is the best QB we'll see this year. Ryan Mathews is a good running back. A couple of their offensive linemen are all-conference caliber. They've got a really good tight end named Bear (Pascoe), and we've shown vulnerability covering tight ends. They've got an elite safety in Moses Harris. Lots of players here.

-Two of our best players, Travis Beckum and Jonathan Casillas, haven't played yet this year. They're bound to be rusty.

All that said, I can definitely see scenarios in which we win this game. Here are what needs to happen or what I'd like to see happen.

-Play like the underdog. So what if we're from the Big Ten and they're from the WAC? They should win this game. So try something to sucker punch them right off the bat, like an onside kick or a fake punt (see last year's game at Ohio State).

-Use their crowd-fueled energy against them. Call a screen on the second play of the game. Run a reverse on a kickoff return. Call some run blitzes early.

-Get Beckum involved immediately. Against Tennessee in the bowl game last season he was taken out of the game and even though Garrett Graham had a nice day, the offense was limited as a result.

-Put Casillas on Pascoe and bracket him with Jay Valai over the top.

-Pound the rock. Pound the rock, pound the rock, pound the rock. Even if we're not breaking off big chunks of yardage and first downs right away, or even if they get up 14 points early, the commitment to the run needs to be made. Even though Allan Evridge showed aptitude passing against Marshall, I would rather not put the game on his shoulders. Pound P.J., Zach, and Johnny behind our road graders and give us a chance to hold a stamina advantage in the fourth quarter.

An LA Times columnist wrote earlier this week that the loser of our game has more to lose than the loser of the Ohio State-USC game. I disagree -- the quality of both teams is established enough that barring a lopsided outcome both will be ranked afterward, and there's a lot of season to go. Realistically, neither one of these teams is a legitimate national title contender.

Fresno 26, Wisconsin 23. Prove me wrong Badgers!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Wire: Season 4

Will was right, Season Four of The Wire was emotionally draining. It is heartbreaking to watch these kids get chewed up by the system at such a young age, for different reasons.

Michael is a leader -- poised, courageous, charismatic, smart, athletic. He is a perfect big brother to Bug. Yet when an abusive parental figure returns, he turns to Marlo, Chris and Snoop for an answer, since Social Services wouldn't work. (Brief aside to compare this to Anakin Skywalker turning the the dark side.) Watching him pull the gun on the corrupt police officer, then kill Bodie (how could they kill that guy?!?), then kill the last guy was absolutely horrifying, as another promising youngster gets sucked into a life of crime. At least he's still a good big brother.

Randy's a good kid, too, just a little bit to eager to make a buck. What a shame that cooperating with the authorities on a murder (albeit to save his own ass) gets him labeled a snitch. My stomach sank near the end of the last episode when he returned to his new room in the group home to see "Snitch Bitch" painted on his bed, and he comes out swinging against the older boys.

Or was Dukie's fate even worse? Here's a kid whose "family" life couldn't have been worse, yet Prezbo (whose growth as a teacher is one of the lone encouraging storylines of the season) helps him out, and brings out his technical skills. Yet he's scared to leave Prezbo and his friends for high school, and ends up slinging for Michael.

Then there's Namond. Jana was steamed at the end of the show when Bunny and his wife took him in. "That's the one who least deserved to end up good!" she said. Couldn't agree with her more. Namond was just a little rat, and even though he shows some good qualities and vulnerability, he's still a rat. Therein lies the complexity of The Wire, which is why it's so brilliant. (How vivid was the portrayal of Namond's Straight Out of Hell mom? She made Wee-Bey look like a great guy.)

The other storylines were good too, but paled in comparison to the boys' journey.

McNulty is sober and in a committed relationship, even though his drunk former partner keeps trying to pull him out of it. Good for him, but bo-ring. Jana said it's like that episode of Friends where Fun Bobby stops drinking and isn't fun anymore.

Herk is a major league screw-up. Didn't need a full season to see that one coming. I love that Fuzzy Dunlop keeps coming back, though.

Good for Carver, taking Bunny's parting advice and becoming a real police officer. His heartache over Randy's fate was palpable.

Bunny's back trying new, creative ways to reform a broken system, but the powers that be still won't let him. So frustrating.

Omar's trip to jail was fun, but the rest of his capers weren't. What's he going to do now that he's rich? Move to Key West?

Bubbles becomes a father and an entrepreneur, but it all goes wrong and he ends up killing the boy. So sad.

Cutty goes from aimless ex-con to ladies' man. Attaboy Dennis!

Freamon wants to open up every vacant in the city and find dead bodies. Attaboy Lester!

It was hilarious to watch Carcetti in the early days of his campaign, when he was behind in the polls and had little chance of unseating Royce. Makes you wonder if all politicians have such high levels of self-doubt bubbling under their confident veneers. Good for him rejecting the advances of his campaign strategist.

Would someone please ship Burrell and Clay Davis off to Delaware?!?

Season Five came in the mail yesterday, and it focuses on ... newspapers! How can it get any better than that? Michael goes to Wisconsin on a football scholarship? Randy opens a vending business in Annapolis? Dukie starts a blog and writes about sports and pop culture? We can only hope.

One more season to go until I officially make my decision on whether The Wire of Sopranos was the better show. It'll be tough.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How did you find Badgercentric?

Back in February I took a look at the keywords that led web searchers to this blog. We're up to 5,929 keywords in about 11 months as of September 1, and I thought it might be interesting and funny to look at some of the new additions. Hopefully none are repeats:

#11 Mario Goins and Potrykus
#18 Kurt Reineck (pretty sure you're the only one, buddy!)
#106 Diamond Taylor Packers (huh?)
#142 Sherman and Polzin and Favre
#143 The timing was nothing short of predominant
#286 1993 West Bend East High School state champion baseball team (yay!)
#315 Brian Rafalski Waupaca
#341 Fluffy Fingers
#417 What's on Tappa (my other blog, a health column)
#410 Tom Crean tan
#428 Chad Henne's parents
#649 Michael Flowers Lance Bass (wrong Bass, dude)
#681 Pimped out Cornhole boards (gotta get me one of those)
#914 Faith Hill (you know, because of all the country/western posts)
#960 Jenna Fischer Rentmeester (Billy, you lucky dog!)
#990 Just climb on her and think of Stanley

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The basketball schedule

The 2008-09 Wisconsin men's basketball schedule was released last week ... finally. It's a decent enough schedule. Some of the highlights:

-Our game against Marquette, scheduled for December 6, is on ESPNU. No, not ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, ESPN 360, or ESPN Deportes. ESPN freaking U. How many of you get that? Time for me to get all worked up like a lot of you did when your cable carriers didn't carry the Big Ten Network a year ago. Then again, the Marquette game gets me so volatile — especially in front of MU's crowd of dentists and xylophone players — that I haven't watched the game live for the past three years, so what does it matter for me? Thanks ESPN, for going easy on my blood pressure.

-The late November Paradise Jam features some good potential opponents in UConn, Miami, and San Diego.

-We play at Virginia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC challenge. Better win this one, or we forever lose the right to bitch about not getting to play Duke at home when we're good.

-Texas at home December 23, should be a nice game.

-Open Big Ten play at Michigan, and home against Penn State and Northwestern. The opposite of the football team's Big Ten schedule.

-Most challenging stretch? I honestly can't come up with one. We play Michigan State and Ohio State once apiece next year, and with the expected overall crappiness of the rest of the conference, I never go more than two games in a row thinking "those games are toss-ups."

Barring injuries or other unforeseen disasters, this looks like a 20-win regular season team easy, 25-win team playing well, and maybe a 30-win season if everything goes right again.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Commemorative Badger Sports Illustrated

Last week while we were waiting in the checkout line at Pick 'n Save Jana spotted the magazine shown at right — Wisconsin: A celebration of Badgers Football from Sports Illustrated. She asked if I wanted it and I initially said no, then relented.

Glad I did. Although I assumed it would contain nothing I didn't know already or hadn't read before, that was not true. Lots of good stuff in the magazine:

-Crazylegs Hirsch feature
-Alan Ameche feature
-Ron Dayne feature
-All-time team
-Preview of this season, along with a P.J. Hill feature
-Barry Alvarez feature
-Jim Sorgi piece

Beyond that there are a lot of great photos. If you live in Wisconsin and see it in the store, snatch one up, it'll be a nice addition to your collection. Cover price is $7.99.

Tackle leaders vs. Marshall

In reviewing the box score of Saturday's win over Marshall, something really jumped out at me: the tackle chart. Jae McFadden led the way with nine total (four solo, five assisted),but check out who came after:

Dan Moore 3-3-6
Mario Goins 5-0-5
Jeff Stehle 3-1-4
Erik Prather 3-1-4
Jason Chapman 2-2-4
Elijah Hodge 2-2-4
Chris Maragos 3-0-3
Blake Sorensen 2-1-3
Kevin Claxton 2-1-3

Of the top 10 tacklers, only four were starters: McFadden, Goins, Chapman, and Sorensen. It's quite possible that next week, only McFadden and Chapman will be starting. Hodge, Sorensen, and Prather will likely be the second-string linebacking unit starting next week, pretty solid. And Maragos hasn't played as much on defense as I thought he would, seems like Aubrey Pleasant is the first safety off the bench.

Ideally Moore and Stehle use this as a springboard to more meaningful playing time in relief of our regular d-linemen.

My hope is that the tackle chart looks like this after a few more games this season -- it'll mean we had some blowouts. Either that or a rash of injuries.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Road to Game Day

A couple days ago I received an email from Phil Arnold, who had corresponded with me several months ago with interest about Badgercentric. He's a former football walk-on who has graduated and along with his brother launched a new college football-focused site. I'll let him tell the story below:

Well, I guess you could say you are kind of an inspiration. I graduated in May with an economics degree and had been doing the whole job search for a few months or more. After missing out on a job that I thought I wanted, and getting a few offers that i knew I didn't want, my brother approached me with an idea completely out of the blue. He sent me a business plan for a college football website that's premise centered around us driving week to week to the best college football games that Saturday could offer, chronicling the journey, gameday atmosphere, and whatever else we wanted to talk about. I had just gotten a sales job offer in Chicago (with sales not being something that I necessarily wanted to do) when he sent me the email.

I guess I figured I'd never get another chance like this and hopped on board. After some very hard work (more by my brother than me) and some how convincing a few investors to provide start up money, we launched www.roadtogameday.com. We managed to sign a partnership with The Sporting News to be hosted on The Sporting Blog, and when i read your recent post about the new Sporting News, I figured I would let you know about my exodus.

We unfortunately missed the first week of the season because of a family wedding in Chicago we really couldn't miss, so I'm now in Gainesville for the first official stop on the Road to Game Day (we filed our company with Game Day as two words, as not wanting to get crushed by ESPN if we ever get bigger). We're planning on doing 3 goofy videos a week and blogging as often as we possibly can. My brother was a writer in Los Angeles before he decided to do this, and I don't really consider myself a writer, so I'm sticking mainly to the football aspect.

I was wondering if you could possibly throw me a link on Badgercentric? I'd be happy to answer any questions you had about the site or the idea. We are just starting to try to gain readership as this was a pretty big rush job, but we are doing a pretty good job already. If you look now, we're on the front page of the Sporting News' college football section. Weird...

Talk to you soon, and good luck to the badgers versus Marshall. Can't wait til we play Fresno next weekend. Hopefully we don't blow that one.

The brothers Arnold are off to a good start, best of luck to them. Maybe someday soon Andy and I will do something like this ... okay, probably not, but what a cool idea!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

UW-Marshall thoughts

So the defense needs to make a big play, eh? How about three picks on Marshall's first three second half possessions? That's more like it!

Overall, after a putrid first 20 minutes, an immaculate last 40 minutes. Passing game was great. Running game did what it could against a team selling out to stop it. Defense turned Marshall over. A good tuneup for Fresno State.

-Good for Niles Brinkley getting two interceptions. That's going to do so much for his confidence, even if both of his picks came on awful passes. On his first one, Marshall's quarterback was pressured by a nice spin move by Matt Shaughnessy and a good edge rush by Deandre Levy.

-Paul Chryst called a good game. In particular, I liked how we seemingly threw on first down more than usual. The pass plays he called did wonders for getting Allan Evridge in a rhythm.

-Evridge showed signs today of being Tyler Donovan tough. Not only did he keep his feet and get throws off with defenders hanging off him, but he took a cheap shot from a Marshall pass rusher on a pass to Garrett Graham. Evridge spread the ball around nicely to seven receivers.

-P.J. Hill's fumbles are starting to concern me, the first one more than the second. He's good enough to keep plays going with his feet and his drive, and that leads to him falling in awkward positions and leaving himself exposed to the types of hits like the one that caused the fumble.

-Good job getting Graham involved in the second half, and Lance Kendricks continued to produce. I'll be happy to have Beckum back for Fresno, though.

-Chryst is calling plays that get the ball in David Gilreath's hands in position to make plays with the ball in his hands, not necessarily depending on him getting himself open. Liked the end around, and the short screen-type play where Gabe Carimi got out and blocked on the perimeter.

-Didn't think we'd see John Clay again after his early fumble, but boy did he run well late. He's on his way to becoming the beast we've thought he could be.

-Was the defense's solid second half the result of adjustments by Dave Doeren and his staff, or just better effort by the Badgers? Probably a bit of both.

-Patrick Butrym and Jeff Stehle both saw time at defensive tackle while the game was still in the balance.

-Sorry, but Bradie Ewing wasn't even close to being in on his touchdown run. But good for him.

-After suffering through Ian Allen last week, we got Charles Davis this week. Davis is probably my favorite college football analyst -- he knows the game, and he knows the Badgers.

On the postgame Bret Bielema just said he wishes they could leave for Fresno right now, and I couldn't agree more. Should be an awesome game against a terrific team in a hostile environment.