No matter how saucy you were Saturday morning and afternoon, chances are you saw pretty much the same thing everyone else saw – the Wisconsin Badgers are kicking off the 2010 season with sloppy football.
Not necessarily sloppy in the sense that repeated mistakes have kept games closer than they should be, and not sluggish in a way that implies the Badgers have struggled to really get things going. Rather, Bret Bielema’s squad has been sloppy in a manner that makes it clear that, if things continue along the current trend, better teams will keep games close and make it difficult for UW to get things going.
Against San Jose State Saturday, Wisconsin put the ball on the ground four times. Only one was lost – James White’s fumble into the endzone – but others killed drives and turned potential touchdowns into field goals. Quarterback Scott Tolzien threw another interception, giving him two in two games against markedly weaker teams. Yes, the Badgers still won both of those games, but against better teams, time of possession will have to be much better (UW only held the ball for a little under four minutes longer than SJSU) and red zone scoring will have to be better than four for seven, as it was Saturday.
Further adding to the threatening cloud of concern that looms around this team is the observation by some that the Badgers have just looked slow so far this season. As one commenter on Herald Sports’ website notes, Wisconsin “does not sem [sic] as fast this year in a conference that seems to be getting faster.”
Again, it’s only mid September and only two games into the season. Yet, this anonymous commenter is onto something – the Big Ten is getting faster. Look at Michigan, or more directly, Michigan sophomore quarterback sensation Denard Robinson. Look at Penn State and the speed in their quarterback rotation of Robert Bolden and Kevin Newsome. Look at Ohio State’s entire offense.
Still, the question remains, are the Badgers slow? Perhaps more importantly, does it matter if they are? After all, Wisconsin football is power running behind a massive, powerful offensive line. Even the Big Ten as a conference is generally regarded as too slow to really compete once bowl season rolls around.
While a dissection of Wisconsin’s performance thus far this season and an assessment of its team speed could easily fill more than the rest of this column, the conclusion will almost definitely be that the Badgers, on both sides of the ball, were too slow on some plays and just fine on others.
So, then, what do the Badgers do? Focus more on speed? But how do you do that, exactly? Pass downfield more? Alright, but then that’s a departure from the aforementioned Wisconsin football, which is unlikely to ever totally happen.
The first step might be to just simply step back, relax and see how the team fares against Arizona State this weekend. After that, though, the mission should be clear – the Badgers need to play to their strengths.
Look back to last year’s Champs Sports Bowl, the game that thrust Wisconsin into the 2010 Rose Bowl watch. Entering the showdown with Miami, the weeklong pregame talk centered around the Badgers being a slow, Big Ten team, supposedly unable to keep up with the speedy Hurricanes of the ACC.
Yet, once the game was played out and the final score read 20-14 in favor of Wisconsin, it was clear that the Hurricanes were really no match for the Badgers. UW compiled 430 yards on the night, 170 of which came on the ground. In comparison, Miami only mustered a measly 249 total yards, with 61 rushing.
Watching that game, it was so undoubtedly clear that the Badgers’ mammoth offensive line – this year’s version weighs in at an average of 6-foot-6, 320 pounds – was just too overpowering for Miami’s smaller, quicker defensive line. With 18 starters from that game returning this year, there’s no reason Wisconsin shouldn’t be able to replicate that philosophy.
Furthermore, it’s not like the Badgers don’t have any fast players – the question is more regarding team speed on both sides of the ball. Just look at one of UW’s superstars of the Champs Sports Bowl, tight end Lance Kendricks. Now a senior and one of the Badgers’ six captains, Kendricks caught seven passes for 128 yards. At 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, the Milwaukee native is a freak – his blocking his second to none, and he is surely a big-time receiving threat.
Even running back John Clay, star of Wisconsin’s power running game at 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, is not slow. His backup Montee Ball also put on nearly 25 pounds in the offseason just to improve his power running the ball. Clearly, the Badgers’ running game just plays to their strength. If you do want speed, though, look at third-string running back James White, whose 40-yard dash time has been clocked at 4.43 seconds.
Playing to your strengths, that’s what it comes down to. Even if the sloppy, sluggish, “slow” play so far this season is more than early-season jitters, Wisconsin will continue doing what it does best, really the only thing it does – play Wisconsin Football. Run the ball behind that gigantic offensive line, and run it well. That shouldn’t change, and you should bet that Bielema and the offensive staff aren’t about to try.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. What are your thoughts on the Badgers so far? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org.