Just like that, the memories came rushing back.
There were the Wisconsin running backs, streaking through the Greyhound Bus-sized gaps along the offensive line and continuing to pound the ball down the field. Minnesota knew exactly what was coming next – James White or Montee Ball bull-rushing his way into the second or third level of the Gophers’ defense. But try as it may, the opponent had no answer.
Even as it set up at the line of scrimmage, prepared for the all-but-guaranteed cutbacks and fierce stiff arms, Minnesota looked helpless. The UW offensive line was too physical, too strong and too fundamentally sound to let even one member of the front seven slip through the cracks and drag down a tailback in the backfield. That was the moment when the fans knew: The Badgers’ offense was back, and with it came a renewed sense of confidence – even swagger – in the team.
It was a flashback to 2010, when Ball came but four yards from joining John Clay and White as the third running back on the team to cross the 1,000-yard mark in a single season, a feat never before achieved in college football.
In its most dominant victory of the season Saturday, a 38-13 steamrolling of Minnesota, Wisconsin finally looked like the team everyone expected to take the Camp Randall field against Northern Iowa eight weeks ago. And on the way to their third straight win by at least two touchdowns, the Badgers proved why they are again a popular selection to celebrate New Year’s in Pasadena for the third time in as many years.
The victory that would land them in the Coaches Poll Top 25 for the first time since the Nebraska loss also made a repeat trip (that’s back-to-back-to-back) to the Rose Bowl more than a mere possibility.
Quarterback Joel Stave threw the ball 15 times for just more than 100 yards, an underwhelming performance that made the term “game manager” seem like overstated praise. Not that it mattered. Because when UW’s running game operates like a beautifully crafted machine, the signal-caller is little more than a stand-in for any other fan who can successfully backpedal and place the ball into the chest of a pair of immensely talented backs.
It proved the eye-popping 467 rushing yards against Purdue – a team that supposedly boasted one of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten – was more than simply a fluke. Even without Ricky Wagner anchoring the offense line at left tackle, Ball and White found plenty of space. It was vintage Bill Nagy of 2010, as the backup filled in for Peter Konz and the running backs continued to run wild.
Over the last two games, Wisconsin is averaging 402 yards on the ground. But its ability to simply overwhelm opposing defenses through the run game compares remarkably well to the 2010 squad that would end the season with a heartbreaking loss to Texas Christian in the Rose Bowl.
Without a dynamic, game-changing passer sitting in the pocket, the Badgers’ two most impressive victories of the season have come almost entirely from the battered hands of White and Ball.
Stave has certainly been efficient and looked remarkably cool in daunting situations as a redshirt freshman. But to even compare him to Russell Wilson, a man who fits the description of a dynamic, game-changing passer, would be an insult to the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks.
The strong-armed, relatively slow-footed Stave compares much better to a quarterback whose primary job similarly included handing the ball off and converting play-action passes – Scott Tolzien. Tolzien had an entire year of starting experience under his belt before he took the Badgers to Pasadena in 2011 for the first time in more than a decade. But the two quarterbacks’ preferences for efficiency over gaudy numbers only further deepens the similarities between the 2010 and 2012 Wisconsin football teams.
A UW defense that ranks third in the conference may serve as a more critical piece of this team’s success, but a J.J. Watt-powered unit two years ago also finished second in the Big Ten in total defense. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor have taken the reigns from Watt, but the combination of a physical Big Ten ground attack and a solid but not suffocating defense matches up nicely with the team from two years ago.
And then there’s the scoring. Early in the season, an invisible forcefield seemed to guard the end zone on the Badgers’ offensive drives as they averaged 16.3 points per game in the first three games of the season (including a frustratingly stagnant seven points against Oregon State). Over their three most recent games? Try 35.7 points.
Not quite up to the record-setting pace of 44.1 points per 2011, but you get the idea. A team can only put up so many points when it relies on a clock-consuming rushing attack on nearly every offensive drive.
As far-fetched as it seemed after Wisconsin nearly fell to Utah State and dropped to 1-2 through the first three games of the year, the Rose Bowl is now something more palpable than the elusive dream it was five weeks ago. It comes as little surprise that the Road to Indy is already paved in a Big Ten fraught with NCAA infractions. But if the Badgers continue to dominate on the offensive end, their chances of winning the Big Ten Championship Game will increase by the minute.
The team has all the hallmarks of Bret Bielema’s 2010 squad. So now it’s time to see if the year ends in similar fashion – with players dancing around, roses clenched between their teeth.