Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wisconsin-Wofford thoughts

I missed the first five minutes of the Badger game yesterday. Every year my family participates in the Memory Walk, which raises funds for the Alzheimer's Association in its efforts to fight the disease. My grandfather had Alzheimer's, and it was heartbreaking to watch what the disease did to him at the end of his life. It's always good to get together with family and remember him.

So as we pulled into the parking lot of the sports bar where we would watch the game, the refs were confirming John Clay's first fumble. Then, two plays after we forced and recovered a Wofford fumble, Zach Brown coughs it up. My relatives were amused by the figurative steam coming out of my ears after those fumbles and the stupid penalties on our first scoring drive.

Of course, the second quarter made it a laugher, and everyone was giggling about how relaxed I looked. Glad my emotional torment could provide entertainment for the family.

Put the fumbles aside, good game. I was legitimately worried about Wofford's option, but this one was a complete mismatch. Reading the Journal Sentinel's recap today, I almost thought the Badgers lost. Yeah, there was sloppiness, but let's focus on the positives.

-The defense played well, especially the linebackers. Culmer St. Jean had the best game of his career, 15 tackles, two for loss, and a fumble recovery. Mike Taylor had nine tackles, two for loss, and a sack. Jae McFadden had eight tackles, one for loss. It didn't seem like the play ever reached the secondary, the front seven really maintained their individual responsibilities against the option.

-The receiving corps is really looking like the strongest unit on the team. Lance Kendricks emerged from hibernation to have a really nice game, and Garrett Graham had a touchdown. Throw in Mickey Turner's blocking and I can't see how anyone else in the country has a better group of tight ends than us. Nick Toon had another solid game, he has been playing really well this year. And Scott Tolzien is finding them.

-What more can I say about Chris Borland? First he forces a fumble. Then he makes a super-athletic play to block that punt. For the time being, we have a special teams star in the making. Bigger picture, he's going to make plays in the base defense.

Two things on that punt block: I don't think David Gilbert necessarily recovered it in bounds, or at least it was close enough that it should have been reviewed. Nice to see another true freshman making a big play. Also, the fact that Borland could get close enough to jump over the "personal protector" and block the punt shows that formation's limitations. I prefer to see the blockers engage the rushers at the line of scrimmage, rather than letting them build up a head of steam.

-Good for Erik Smith capitalizing on his playing time by running well. He hit holes well, showed power and quickness. Just as nice was that on the drive of Smith's touchdown run, John Moffitt and Bill Nagy made their season debuts. We should be operating with a full deck on the offensive line heading into the Big Ten season.

-Curt Phillips' time was productive. In my mind I compare him to Michigan's Denard Robinson, who is an electric runner at quarterback, very quick and fast. Phillips isn't as quick as Robinson, but is effective running because he's powerful. It wil be interesting to see how and when Phillips will get playing time in tighter conference games. We may go games without seeing him.

-O'Brien Schofield wasn't around the ball as much as the first two games, but he still had a big sack/forced fumble and a pressure that led to Devin Smith's interception. He's playing at an all-conference level.

-Even though he had a fumble, Zach Brown ran reasonably well.

-Lots of guys got in on defense: Kevin Rouse, Shelton Johnson, Kevin Claxton, Tony Megna, Jordan Hein, Brendan Kelly, Leonard Hubbard, Jake Current, Rob Korslin, Ricky Wagner.

Now for the not-so-good parts:

-The game wasn't a sellout, broke a fairly long streak for us. Have to imagine this is a minor protest for UW scheduling another Division I-AA team. It looked, however, like the bulk of the protesters were likely UW students, who have shifted their efforts from Tibet.

-David Gilreath had a bad game with a big negative run, and he should have caught the ball from Tolzien that was ruled a fumble. Isaac Anderson dropped a perfect pass and was called for holding on a Brown touchdown run. Maurice Moore picked up a penalty. Wideouts other than Toon have to clean it up.

-Our defensive tackles are just not making many plays, although you could say that they are occupying blockers and letting the rest of the guys make plays. But they certainly aren't disruptive forces.

-Philip Welch missed an extra point. He's been more inconsistent than anyone thought he'd be.

-Lastly, there are these fumbles, specifically Clay's. What do you make of them? I watched each of them over and over, hoping to be able to give him the benefit of the doubt, that maybe each was the result of an incredible Wofford hit. But while you have to give the Wofford defenders credit for making things happen, all three were plays in which a Division I running back needs to hold onto the ball. You can't really blame the coaches for it. You think John Settle emphasizes ball security less than other running back coaches?

The bigger issue is that through three non-conference games against teams with defenses inferior to what we'll see in the Big Ten, we have not run the ball well at all. Not to be a broken record, but Moffitt and Nagy's absences had to play a role in that, as did opposing defenses stacking up against the run. But screw that -- we're Wisconsin, and it shouldn't matter what Northern Illinois or Fresno State throw at us defensively, we should still be able to pound the rock.

We won, it wasn't as close a game as I'd feared. We made it through the non-conference season without being upset, as Michigan State, Purdue, and Northwestern were. (How about Northern Illinois?) But while I'm happy, it's still really hard to tell what type of team we had heading into the real part of the schedule.

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