Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better in Madison…………

After last week’s win over top ranked Ohio State, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect a “Badger letdown” for this week’s game against the 15th (BCS) ranked Iowa Hawkeyes.  And, since I’m not an unreasonable BigSnakeMan, that’s pretty much what I expected.  Which makes Wisconsin’s win in Iowa City that much sweeter.

It wasn’t pretty, but it didn’t have to be.  It was the first time since 2004 that the University of Wisconsin football team has beaten ranked opponents in consecutive weeks.  Under such circumstances, ‘style points’ are a superfluous extravagance.  The Badgers have typically struggled at Kinnick Stadium and against Iowa in general and yesterday’s game was no exception.   The only difference this time was the outcome.       

The Badgers’ defense generated very little pass rush against Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi which allowed the Hawkeyes to get behind the Wisconsin secondary for a couple of scores.  The Badgers also had trouble containing Iowa tailback Adam Robinson, who they went away from inexplicably in the second half.

This time, though, it was Wisconsin that made the plays to win that Iowa usually makes against them.  No Chris Borland, no James White, no Nick Toon and no Lance Kendrick.  No problem on this day for the Badgers.

Normally, I don’t put much stock in the game input of coaches; preferring instead to believe that it’s the players performance on the field that generally makes the difference in winning and losing.  But Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema made a couple of key decisions that directly impacted this game. 

The first one came in the 3rd quarter with the Badgers down 13-10.  With a 4th & goal situation, Bielema declined to attempt a game tying field goal and instead ran John Clay up the middle for a touchdown.  It was a gutsy call on the road in a close, hard fought game.  The second came on the Badgers last possession on another 4th down play.  From the Badgers’ own 25 yard line with just over 6 minutes left in the game, Bielema had his team execute a fake punt that caught the Hawkeyes completely off guard.  Punter Brad Nortman ran for a first down that kept the drive alive and eventually allowed forgotten 3rd string tailback Monte Ball to score what would be the game winning touchdown.    Without either of those calls, it’s difficult to imagine the Badgers coming out on top.

Contrast those plays with coach Kirk Ferentz’ decision on Iowa’s last possession to use his final timeout instead of having Stanzi “clock” the ball with time running out inside Badger territory.  That essentially removed any possibility of having his team attempt a last second game winning field goal. 

Overlooked in the Badgers’ recent resurgence is the fact that their special teams are no longer a joke.  In addition to the successful fake punt, defensive end J.J. Watt blocked an extra point that proved to be the winning margin in the game.  And kick returner David Gilreath is reminding us what a dangerous weapon he can be.  Iowa must have noticed as they made a point of kicking away from him.  The Badgers have also been doing a better job of covering kicks as well.  

You often hear football players and coaches talk about their team’s ‘identity’.  If the last two weeks are any indication, it appears the Wisconsin Badgers have finally found theirs.  The only thing remaining between them and where they want to be is Michigan State’s refusal to lose.  It’s enough to make one wonder where the Badgers would stand if they had ‘found’ themselves a little sooner.  But still better late than never, as they say.  If nothing else, the Badgers have restored some hope to a once promising season for football fans in the ‘Dairy State’.

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Earlier this week, in his fine Packers blog at www.TundraVision.com , C.D. Angeli advocated that the Green Bay coaching staff abandon the infamous “zone blocking” scheme that they’ve instituted for the running game.  Angeli makes a logical case in his post, but elimination of the ‘ZBS’ should be just a starting point.  Given the Packers struggles and injury shortcomings on offense this year, I believe they should also return to a more traditional version of the ‘West Coast Offense’.

Now I know that the ‘WCO’ has been adopted and adapted so many times that the label is now almost meaningless, so let me explain.  I don’t mean to quibble directly with the play calling because I have no idea what part is actually the play called and what part is the result of any checks that quarterback Aaron Rodgers makes at the line.  But it seems to me that the Packers current offensive philosophy is backward.  For most of this season, Rodgers has appeared determined to throw the ball downfield with his initial read.  This puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line and directly contributes to the often heard criticism that Rodgers hold onto the ball too long resulting in too many hits and sacks. 

What I have in mind is the restoration of the short passing game that was the hallmark of the West Coast Offense.  With running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley shelved for the rest of the season, the remaining offensive personnel would look to be better suited to that scheme.  Backs Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn may not be dynamic runners, but both appear to be capable receivers.  The screen pass used to be a staple in the Packers offensive arsenal.  I suspect that part of the reason they don’t run it as effectively as they used to is that they don’t spend enough practice time on the play.  The screen, perhaps more so than others, is a play that depends largely on timing, which is difficult to achieve if it’s not drilled regularly.

Likewise, the change would also benefit the wide receiver corps.  Wideouts Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, as well as James Jones, have traditionally displayed excellent ability at running after the catch.  Teams are generally playing a lot of ‘Cover 2′ defense against the Packers in order to keep their receivers from getting deep.  Why not take advantage of that and let them run underneath the coverage.  Once they get opposing defenses conditioned to that approach, then the Packers can take the occasional shot downfield when it’s appropriate to keep them honest.  As I see it, this ‘move the chains’ philosophy would take advantage of Rodgers’ normal accuracy while also increasing the Packers’ time of possession, thereby relieving some pressure on an injury depleted defense. 

Head coach Mike McCarthy regularly stresses running his offense at the proper ‘tempo’.  I believe the concepts described above would go a long way toward accomplishing that.

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The National Football League is to be commended for its recent efforts to protect its players.  That’s why its ironic that the most vocal opposition to their plans seems to be coming from the very people it’s designed to benefit: the players.

Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison ridiculously postured about retiring in protest of the league’s emphasis on preventing ‘head shots’ before backing off those comments earlier this week.  Player’s union president Kevin Mawae openly questioned the league’s sincerity over player safety at a time when it’s simultaneously pushing a plan to go to an 18 game regular season.  Other defensive players have also expressed reservations about the league’s plan to levy larger fines and possibly suspensions in response to such plays.  Even offensive players have been surprisingly reticent about the new emphasis by the officials.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand the players’ skepticism.  The NFL has marketed itself for decades on some of the very plays it now hopes to ban.  The league even undermined its own position this week by offering for sale pictures of the same plays for which they invoked fines.  They later removed the pictures from their site while lamely blaming the computer program of a subcontractor for the snafu.  But the league’s stance remains a dichotomy.  They’re pushing for safety in an inherently violent game.

Another part of the problem is that it relies on the officials to enforce the rules.  As Packers fans have seen already with certain hits on Rodgers, the level of officiating in the NFL this season could charitably be described as inconsistent.  Some like myself would go so far as to say it’s downright horrible. 

The bottom line, as usual, is the bottom line.  More regular season games means more money with the increased risk of more injuries.  For their part, the players are loath to surrender money in fines but seem willing to accept the risk of injury as long as they’re compensated proportionately.

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RANDOM SAMPLINGS:  Rookie defensive end Mike Neal looks to be the latest Packer to be lost for the season.  The way things are going in Green Bay, the training staff may want to encase the remainder of the team in bubble wrap………..The best thing about the Texas Rangers winning the American League pennant is the panic it will cause in the front office of the New York Yankees.  That’s not always when the best decisions are made………..I bet not even Cody Ross’ mom anticipated the impact he’s had for the San Francisco Giants in the National League playoffs………..3rd baseman Casey McGehee was voted Brewers’ 2010 MVP by the Milwaukee chapter of the Baseball Writers of America, much to the chagrin of the Brewers’ blogosphere.  Personally, I would have picked Rickie Weeks but I can understand the pick of McGehee.  What I don’t understand is the dissatisfaction with McGehee, who hit 23 homers and drove in 104 runs this past sesaon.  Guys like that aren’t exactly a dime a dozen; at least for a team like the Brewers………..The Brewers announced that they were maintaining ticket prices for next season.  With the season they had, you’d think the Chicago Cubs would follow a similar path.  Instead, they formulated a convoluted multi-tiered ticket plan designed to gouge fans for premium games against opponents like the Yankees………..It’s ‘next team up’ in the BCS standings as the Oklahoma Sooners were the 3rd consecutive #1 team in college football to lose, falling to the Missouri Tigers last night.  Coaches may want to avoid the top spot until late in the season………..Notre Dame lost to the U.S. Naval Academy 35-17 yesterday.  It was the third time in the last 4 years that the Midshipman have defeated the (not so) Fighting Irish.  Have we time-warped back to the ’40s?……….The Milwaukee Bucks are trying to fit a lot of new faces into place as they’ve struggled in their exhibition games.  Don’t be surprised if they get off to a slow start early in the NBA season as center Andrew Bogut works himself back into shape.  But, barring any major injuries, I fully expect they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the second half of the year.

Thanks for reading.  Enjoy the rest of the weekend.  GO PACK!!!

 

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