For much of the last decade, the Wisconsin Badgers have been good. Good, but not great.
They were the guys who you knew had the talent, but just couldn’t put it all together; the ones you didn’t mind playing with in a pickup game, but not the ones you would pick first. In essence, the Badgers were the Little Engine That Could, chugging along, finding success, but never blowing you away. Outback Bowl here, a couple Capital One Bowls there, another Outback Bowl and some Champs Sports Bowls mixed in for good measure.
Now, after Wisconsin’s heart-stopping 31-30 triumph over Iowa Saturday and its seismic upset of Ohio State the weekend before, Bret Bielema & Co. have completed the first phase of transforming UW’s football program — going from good to great. Now, that Little Engine is kind of like the Titanic, powering along at an awe-inspiring pace.
Phase two, though, is where the icebergs come in — Bielema needs to keep the Badgers moving forward and not backward. Getting a taste of the glory, the recognition, is great, but it’s all for naught if it’s short-lived. There might not be any daunting opponents left on the Badgers’ schedule, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to get tripped up. Going into the Big House, as Wisconsin will do Nov. 20 against Michigan, is never easy. A week later, the Badgers will host the Wildcats of Northwestern, and everybody knows how much they love to spoil the party.
Furthermore, Wisconsin doesn’t even really control its own destiny as long as Michigan State keeps winning games. With visions of the Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl or some other BCS bowl being thrown around everywhere they look, Badger fans have been absolutely giddy since the Hawkeyes used their degree from the Les Miles School of Clock Management to bungle the end of Saturday’s game. Sorry, Les, that one was obligatory.
Anyways, there is a point here, and it’s that Wisconsin still has some work to do. No team is perfect, especially the one that looked miserable in East Lansing just three weeks ago. And with the road to BCS glory determined by, well, the BCS computers, there’s plenty of room for some season-derailing tomfoolery. So, here’s what the Badgers need to do as they continue on their path to greatness, striving to avoid the icebergs, traps and computers.
Stop making that one mistake
Against both Ohio State and Iowa, Scott Tolzien accounted for the Badgers’ only turnovers. Up 21-3 with a little over five minutes remaining until halftime against the Buckeyes, Tolzien stepped back and fired a bullet — directly into the arms of OSU’s Andrew Sweat. At the time, Wisconsin was up 21-3, and everyone watching the game was stuck in some sort of surreal disbelief. Tolzien’s pick shattered that and brought everyone back down to earth. Suddenly, the Badgers went from being on cloud nine to putting the Buckeyes back in the game.
Maybe, in hindsight, that turnover doesn’t loom as large, because the stigma of a Jim Tressel-coached team prevents fans from ever really being sure that their team has put the Buckeyes away until the final whistle sounds. Yet, Tolzien and the Badgers survived unscathed — due in large part to OSU’s Devin Barclay missing a 45-yard field goal just four plays later.
Yet, against Iowa, Careless Tolzien emerged from wherever he hides during the majority of most games to replace Careful Tolzien, as the Badgers’ signal caller once again threw a pick with 10:16 left in the fourth quarter. This one was much more significant, surely provoking dirty, dirty words from the mouths of Badger faithful everywhere. Wisconsin was trailing Iowa 27-24 in a game that had been seesawing back and forth since kickoff. It really seemed like the stereotypical “late turnover that loses the game,” but once again, the Badger defense bailed Tolzien out. While UW’s defense has been very stout ever since the debacle in East Lansing, Tolzien and the offense can’t afford to rely on them every single game.
Keep up the strong special teams play
Against Ohio State, special teams played as large a role as I can remember in any recent football game. The impact of David Gilreath returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, at home in Camp Randall, in that atmosphere, against The No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes, simply cannot be understated. But then UW kicker Phillip Welch was flawless the rest of the game, both on kickoffs and on field goals, and punter Brad Nortman averaged 50.5 yards on his two punts — one of which was fair caught, and the other went into the endzone for a touchback. Ohio State, with its vaunted return game, didn’t return a punt all game. That’s effective.
Saturday in Iowa City, Wisconsin’s special teams received less fanfare but achieved many of the same results. Welch was only one for two on field goals, connecting from 33 yards out, but Nortman once again was stellar, averaging 48 yards on his two punts. The Badgers’ coverage units — maligned for much of the season — excelled once again, allowing only 74 yards on three kickoffs to Iowa’s ace kick returner, Derell Johnson-Koulianos, and 12 yards on two punt returns to Colin Sandeman. Gilreath also played well, returning four kickoffs for 92 yards, including a 37-yard return to the Badgers’ 49-yard line that eventually set up John Clay’s second touchdown run late in the third quarter.
More trickeration, please
This will be brief, but in all seriousness, the “chain” fake punt the Badgers called in the fourth quarter was genius. That’s easy to say in hindsight, after the call propelled Wisconsin to such a big win. But while the Badger offense under offensive coordinator Paul Chryst is known for being fairly complex, the team as a whole is arguably a bit vanilla.
You can see it with Michigan State now, after two successful fakes on special teams — give opponents another thing to prepare for, and it can pay dividends. This isn’t a call for NFL Blitz-style “strategy,” but some creative calls on both sides of the ball — and obviously special teams — can be tremendous additions to Wisconsin’s weekly gameplan.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. How do you think the Badgers can keep playing well? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.