Poof! Whoosh! Boom! Bam!
Unless you were watching old “Batman” reruns all weekend, those sounds you heard Saturday afternoon were the Wisconsin Badgers’ Big Ten title and Rose Bowl hopes suddenly and spontaneously combusting against Michigan State. If you were unfortunate enough to actually watch the game, it happened literally right before your eyes, play after play, third-down conversion after third-down conversion — for Sparty, that is.
For Bucky, the fun ended with 8:11 left in the second quarter after MSU’s Keshawn Martin took a line-drive punt from Brad Nortman 74 yards for a touchdown. Yup, another poor special teams performance. Before that play, the Badgers were leading 10-6 and looked like they would kick off the Big Ten season with a win. A sloppy win, but still a win.
Never mind that.
After Martin’s return made the score 13-10, Michigan State never relinquished the lead. After 60 more minutes of football extended the score to 34-24, Wisconsin lost. Not just the game, though. The Badgers, after a questionable 4-0 start to the season, finally lost their identity.
You know that identity, “Wisconsin football.” Run the ball, run it hard behind that mammoth, otherworldly offensive line. Play defense with an edge, rush the passer and hit hard.
Maybe the loss of linebacker Chris Borland hurt more than the team was willing to admit, or more than any fan was able to observe. Maybe the prolonged absence of receivers Nick Toon and David Gilreath hindered the offense more than anyone thought. Maybe injuries along the offensive line, particularly on the right side, were never fully tended to.
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Here’s what’s for certain — too many maybes, and all you have are excuses. The straight, definite truth is the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers are not the team everyone expected they were at the beginning of the season, not the team everyone thought they were after a 70-3 romp of cupcake Austin Peay, and surely not the team that everyone thought had suddenly jelled this year and would finally contend for a conference title and BCS bowl.
Nope, the Badgers are guilty of fraud on all counts. That’s not to say Wisconsin’s a bad team, by any means. Winning on the road in the Big Ten is never an easy task. But for a team with aspirations along the lines of what the Badgers previously held, winning the conference opener in Spartan Stadium is a must.
How, then, did Wisconsin lose its identity? To begin, the running game disappeared. Yes, freshman sensation James White impressed once again with 99 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 carries. The stat sheet, and his being named the conference’s second consecutive Freshman of the Week, can tell you that. What the stat sheet can also tell you, though, is that star running back and (former) Heisman candidate John Clay had seven more carries, 14 fewer yards and zero touchdowns.
What now? Now, there’s buzz that White — who already leapfrogged Montee Ball for the No. 2 RB spot — might soon be getting more carries than Clay. A Wisconsin team changing running backs five games into the season? Even if Clay’s not totally healthy after offseason surgeries on his ankles, the Wisconsin identity is gone. White has been stellar so far in 2010, averaging 8.3 yards per carry and equaling Clay with six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Clay, despite posting solid numbers, has just looked too slow and too tentative.
But here’s the kicker. Even if White is the starting back moving forward, Saturday’s game showed that head coach Bret Bielema and his staff don’t totally trust the true freshman just yet. Yes, Wisconsin had to pass more after falling behind late in the game, but for most of it, the score remained close. It was quite clear early on that Clay, for whatever reason, was just too hesitant to be effective. Why not keep giving White the ball? Even in the second half, why not keep going with White? It was so clear from the number of times that the freshman saw he had no holes and simply bounced outside that his speed made him more effective, at least for the remainder of the game.
Speaking of the O-line, that “mammoth, otherworldly” identity is totally gone. Yeah, the Badgers’ starting five is still gigantic. But even left tackle Gabe Carimi, often regarded as UW’s best lineman, was anything but dominant against MSU. His partner directly to the right, left guard John Moffitt, also was subpar. The number of running lanes and the quality of pass protection has diminished in each game, and against legitimate competition Saturday, you could finally say that the offensive line is underachieving. This isn’t just a one-game rush to conclusions; it’s a statement that the Badgers’ offensive line is not playing “Wisconsin football.”
The entire UW offense has underwhelmed all season long, whether it be pass protection (see Saturday’s game), careless ball security (against UNLV, SJSU) or red-zone scoring (every game). Quarterback Scott Tolzien is an efficient game-manager who needs solid protection to truly play at his best. Against Michigan State, Tolzien was only 11-for-25 with 127 yards, which can largely be attributed to the simple fact that he had no time to pass all game. The Spartans had one key player the Badgers needed to stop on defense — middle linebacker Greg Jones — but he still was a force, recording eight tackles and three for loss.
From a strategic standpoint, Wisconsin may have been spoiled by its success with play-action. Particularly against Arizona State and Austin Peay, Tolzien and tight end Lance Kendricks were masterful. Kendricks, a dual threat as a strong blocker and talented receiver, would sell his block and then move downfield to haul in Tolzien’s pass. The connection really was a sight to see, and put Kendricks on the map as one of college football’s most talented tight ends.
Against Michigan State, Wisconsin looked downfield on play-action quite often. Clearly, it didn’t work. Yes, you have to set up the run with the pass, and the Badgers want to have the run opened up later in the game when they want to wear down opponents. But if you pride yourself on being a power running team, then run the ball.
All this isn’t to say change is bad. However, Wisconsin has clearly lost its identity. Maybe it has become cliché, but a team needs to know what it is. If the Badgers need to change and play to White’s strengths, then so be it. If power running behind that huge offensive line is still the gameplan, OK. Just decide, and stick with it.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Do you agree the Badgers have lost their identity? Where should they go from here? Let him know at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikefiammetta.