My, my. What you can learn in a month.
At the beginning of October, I wrote the Wisconsin Badgers – the now 7-1, No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers – were facing an identity crisis. After going to East Lansing and watching them fall apart against Michigan State firsthand, it seemed quite apparent that this Wisconsin squad was going to face trouble moving forward.
John Clay came under fire for not running hard, people (myself included) wanted James White to get more carries, the defense had no playmakers outside J.J. Watt and the Badgers were going to fall short of Madison’s sky-high expectations yet again. Rose Bowl hopes, suddenly laughable, were replaced by groans of disappointment with the prospect of returning to a Champs Sports Bowl-esque game.
Remember all that?
Now, it all feels like ages ago, as the Badgers haven’t lost since. Along the way, you might’ve heard, they toppled then-No. 1 Ohio State and, just one week later, traveled to Iowa to bring down the Hawkeyes in heart-stopping fashion. The result? The highest BCS ranking in the Big Ten and a nice, comfy position in the driver’s seat of the conference’s “Final Four.”
So, while the sports world continues to remind us just how much things can change in a month – ask Randy Moss if you disagree – the question becomes, did we learn anything? After eating my humble pie following the Badgers’ last two stunning victories, I’m comfortable saying Bret Bielema’s squad has provided a few lessons over the past month.
Depth equals strength
Montee Ball. Jared Abbrederis. Jacob Pedersen. Kevin Claxton. That list could continue for another paragraph, and the message would still be clear: the 2010 Wisconsin Badgers are a very, very deep team.
Ball, especially, has received a lot of attention lately after going from No. 2 running back to forgotten man and ultimately back to a having key role in the running back rotation. The sophomore began the year as the Badgers’ unquestioned backup to Clay, and since he was coming off two ankle surgeries, Ball figured to see a lot of carries. Yet, White emerged and even took some carries from Clay.
Against Iowa two Saturdays ago, though, it was Ball who stepped up when White went down with a knee injury. Proving he’s more than just a runner, Ball complemented his three rushes (the last being the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter) for 18 yards with five receptions for 41 yards. Chief among those catches was a fourth-and-four bullet from Scott Tolzien that kept the Badgers’ final scoring drive alive. With White potentially being held out for Saturday’s matchup with Purdue, look for Ball to continue his return to prominence for UW.
Bielema’s boys are crafty
Perhaps responding to the questions regarding UW’s team identity, Bielema & co. have injected some life into all three phases of the game.
Wisconsin’s offense has typically been complex under coordinator Paul Chryst, but lately, the Badgers have pulled a few different tricks out of their bag. Against Iowa, particularly late in the game, UW lined up five-wide, much to the pleasure – and surprise – of Badger fans. In addition to three wideouts, the formation also typically included a tight end and a running back. Opposing teams, at this point, simply aren’t prepared to see that from Wisconsin, and it certainly showed against Iowa.
Defensively, the Badgers have also innovated since Chris Borland went down for the year. Freshman receiver Manasseh Garner, already a significant contributor on special teams, lined up at defensive end as an additional pass rusher against Austin Peay. Since then, he has continued to fill all three roles, as evidenced by his defensive presence against Ohio State.
Perhaps most surprising, though, has been the performance of the special teams unit. Kicker Phillip Welch has improved both on field goals and on kickoffs – helping to improve the Badgers’ woeful kick coverage – and punter Brad Nortman has impressed all year with his booming leg. Yet, it was the play calling that took center stage against Iowa Saturday, as Nortman took the ball 17 yards on a fourth-and-four fake punt midway through the final quarter. The call – which even Clay and Tolzien admitted surprised them on the sidelines – ignited the Badger offense on its final drive, setting up Ball’s own fourth-and-four later in the quarter.
Adversity no longer a giant obstacle
In recent seasons, it often seemed that adversity was the kryptonite for talented Badgers teams. In 2008 – arguably the most hyped season before this one – Wisconsin ultimately crumbled to a 7-6 finish. So this year, when the Badgers got their first taste of adversity right in the Big Ten opener, many were skeptical about any sort of bounce-back campaign.
Since that loss in East Lansing, Wisconsin has proven this year’s squad has the ability to recover from mistakes – even within games. In each of the season’s two biggest games – Ohio State and Iowa – Tolzien threw seemingly deadly interceptions. Against the Buckeyes, the Badgers’ signal caller threw the ball right into the hands of Andrew Sweat, who returned the ball to the UW 38. After a 15-yard penalty, the ball was moved up to the 23, giving OSU tremendous starting position right before halftime. Yet, the Wisconsin D ultimately forced Ohio State back to the 28, where kicker Devin Barclay eventually missed a 45-yard field goal wide left. No harm, no foul.
Against Iowa, Tolzien’s interception looked even worse. With a little over 10 minutes remaining in the game, Tolzien turned it over at the Wisconsin 26. But again, the Badger defense held tough, allowed the Hawkeyes only three yards and surrendered only a field goal. That stand kept UW down only 30-24 instead of 34-24, keeping them alive and allowing that final drive to happen.
All that, all in a month’s time. Next month, the regular season will be over, and the BCS talk will be resolved. Just think about the questions we’ll have then.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. What have you learned about the Badgers? Let him know at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mikefiammetta.