Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Badgers cling to bowl hopes

With their off-field problems tossed momentarily aside and clinging to bowl-eligibility as its rallying cry, the Wisconsin football team ran on to the Camp Randall turf Saturday hoping to find only its second win in the last six games.

504 yards of Illini offense later, UW players limped off that same turf trying to hold their heads high but realizing that, with only two games remaining, they could be making holiday plans with their families for the second year in a row instead of chartering flights to some exotic destination for postseason play.

“I think that the way we go about it is, we can’t let it slip away,” said center Al Johnson following the 37-20 loss. “We are only one win away from going to a bowl game, and it’s the same story every week, I know, but it’s the truth.”


It is the truth. With Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana and Illinois out of bowl contention and Purdue one loss from joining that group, a win would almost guarantee the Badgers a bowl berth, albeit a low-profile one.

And it is the same story every week, and that’s the problem.

After opening 5-0, UW had eight games to pick up two wins to become bowl-eligible. Six weeks later, UW still needs one more win, and with a dangerous Michigan team up next week and the always-unpredictable Minnesota contest following that, the Badgers are in a tenuous situation.

“You have to just put it behind you, and go and move on. If you start worrying about what happened last week, you don’t have any chance this week,” Johnson said.

With all of the distractions surrounding the team leading up to the Illinois game, thinking about last week was something with which the Badgers had to be seriously concerned. But focus didn’t seem to be a problem against the Illini, even with starters Brooks Bollinger and Anthony Davis in street clothes.

“When you step out on the field, and you’ve got stuff like that on your mind, you’ll never succeed,” corner Scott Starks said. “It might have affected us this week, but you’ve got to put it in the past.”

UW went three and out on its first two drives and allowed a 40-yard pass on Illinois’ first play from scrimmage, but on their third possession the Badgers settled down, driving for a touchdown behind the thickly muscled legs of tailback Dwayne Smith, who impressed in his first start.

The rest of the afternoon was highlighted by a phenomenally inconsistent effort from the UW defense, which forced five turnovers but made Illini QB Jon Beutjer look like Jeff George while he passed for 319 yards and four touchdowns.

UW also had difficulty containing tailback Antoineo Harris, who sliced through the Wisconsin line time and again, slipping tacklers and reaching for extra yardage at the end of each run en route to a 161-yard day.

Despite Illinois’ monstrous offensive production, UW hung around thanks to the five turnovers. Alex Lewis returned a Walter Young fumble 52 yards to the six-yard line, and Smith punched it in to cut the Illini lead to 17-10 in the second quarter.

UW also managed to convert Jim Leonhard’s second pick of the day into a touchdown after Leonhard returned the ball to the Illinois 10-yard line. But the Badgers only got three points off their three other turnovers, and the inability to cash in kept UW out of the game in the fourth quarter.

Although the limited offensive production hurt the Badgers, once again, what doomed UW was the inability to get the breaks. As has been the case most of the season, the Badgers were on the losing end of almost every momentum-turning play.

Exhibit A: On Illinois’ first touchdown, Greg Lewis appeared to catch a Beutjer pass well out of the back of the end zone. Although TV replays showed Lewis’ foot landing out of bounds, an official was directly on top of the play, and the touchdown stood.

Exhibit B: In the third quarter, with UW trailing 34-20, Illinois’ offense stayed on the field on fourth and one, appearing to go for the first down instead of kicking a very makeable 42-yard field goal with the wind at its back. With the ability to push its lead to three scores with a field goal, the decision seemed like a strange one, and it appeared some trickery might be in the making.

Sure enough, Beutjer barked out a hard cadence in an attempt to draw UW offside, and Anttaj Hawthorne hopped across the line, giving Illinois a first down. Three plays later, Illinois scored a touchdown to post the final margin of 37-20.

It’s been those plays that have kept UW from reaching that seven-win mark its been striving for all Big Ten season. After it became clear UW was out of the conference-title hunt following losses to Penn State, Indiana and Ohio State, a bowl berth became the team’s ultimate goal.

And now that’s in jeopardy. Wisconsin has only won in the Big House once since 1962. The battle for Paul Bunyan’s axe is always anyone’s game. And with UW’s defense forcing turnovers but getting beat over the top, the potent offenses of Michigan and Minnesota could keep UW out of postseason play for the second year running.

But despite their precarious situation, there appears to be no quit in the Badgers. Yes, they were thoroughly outplayed by Illinois, and no, they haven’t been able to get the breaks all season, but the Badgers feel a bowl berth would salvage an otherwise forgettable season.

“Until that last second ticks off the clock, god forbid that would happen, we’re going to go and give everything we’ve given up to this point every week,” Johnson said.

“Tomorrow we’re going to watch the film, and Monday it’s all on Michigan. And that’s the only way I know how to go about doing it.”

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