Mixed (Badgers) Blessings
Saturday was a jumble of emotions for this fan of the Cardinal and White. I waited with grand anticipation for the Badgers to appear in the first ever Big(12)Ten Football Championship Game in the evening. But before that, in the afternoon, there was the little matter of the annual Wisconsin-Marquette basketball game, to be played this year at the Kohl Center in Madison.
Conditions seemed promising as the Badgers came into the game with a 23-game home winning streak while the Warr.., er, Golden Eagles would be playing this contest without starting point guard Junior Cadougan, who was benched by Marquette coach Buzz Williams for an unspecified rules violation. It became apparent early on, however, that the Badgers didn’t have their ‘A-game’ on this day. The loss of Cadougan barely slowed Marquette down as the Eagles jumped out to a 10 point halftime lead.
The Badgers were coming off a hard fought loss at North Carolina the previous Wednesday so there may have been a ‘hangover’ from that contest. Bucky seemed a step slow on defense and, at times, appeared stagnant on offense; relying on the dribble too much as opposed to the crisp passing and movement that is usually the hallmark of coach Bo Ryan’s ‘swing offense’. Maybe their early season success has raised expectations to an unrealistic level at this point for a young Badger team that is still trying to indoctrinate a new player rotation into Ryan’s system. Sophomore guard Ben Brust, for example, exhibits significant talent but is sometimes overconfident in his offensive ability, offering up shots too early in their possessions undermining his effectiveness.
Senior point guard Jordan Taylor is a terrific college player, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned that he seems to come up small in his team’s biggest games. Taylor didn’t play particularly well in the Badgers NCAA appearance last season and, against the Tar Heels, missed an open 3-point attempt late in the game that would have kept the Badgers hopes alive. On this day, when the Badgers needed him to take over the game, Taylor got in foul trouble and had to sit out much of the second half. Ironically, it was while he was out of the game that Wisconsin staged a rally to close it to a one point game before Marquette was able to stablize itself to hang on for the win.
The basketball team’s loss had the dual effect of tempering my enthusiasm, while at the same time, raising my anxiety level for the evening’s football game against Michigan State.
This game greatly mirrored the Badgers earlier loss to the Spartans, which did little to ease my nerves. The Badgers once again jumped out to an early lead behind the running of junior tailback Montee Ball. Ball scored twice as Wisconsin took a 21-7 first quarter lead. As in the prior contest, though, Michigan State’s defense stiffened, literally dominating the 2nd quarter. The running lanes that were there in the beginning of the game disappeared as the Spartans held Wisconsin to -4 yards total offense. On the other side of ball, the Badgers had little answer for MSU receiver Keshawn Martin. It was as if they suddenly forgot how to both block and tackle as Michigan State scored 22 unanswered points to take a 29-21 halftime lead.
Wisconsin’s defense finally showed up, forcing a Michigan State punt on the Spartans first possession of the second half. From there, the teams traded scores, with Badgers’ senior quarterback Russell Wilson throwing for 2 touchdowns despite being under constant pressure. With Michigan State taking a 39-34 lead on a 25 yard field goal with just over 8 minutes left, the game once again came down to the Badgers’ offense. Whereas in the first matchup, Michigan State benefitted from special teams gaffes and a Hail Mary pass, this time those plays turned against them. Ball’s go-ahead touchdown with 3+ minutes left was set up by a 36 yard desperation heave on 4th down & 6 from Wilson to WR Jeff Duckworth. Michigan State had one last chance but a long punt return by Martin, which could at least have set up a tying field goal if not an outright winning TD, was negated by a running into the punter penalty that gave Wisconsin a first down and allowed them to assume the ‘victory formation’.
Ball continued his record-setting touchdown pace, reaching the end zone 3 times on the ground plus one receiving to leave him one shy of the NCAA standard of 39 set by the immortal Barry Sanders in 1988. Just for good measure Ball even mixed in a throwback pass to quarterback Wilson. If Ball isn’t invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, the award will become a joke. Not to be outdone, Wilson set his own NCAA record for consecutive games with at least one TD pass, breaking the record of the Green Bay Packers’ own Graham Harrell when he was at Texas Tech.
The win allows the Badgers to salvage a season that was potentially derailed by a couple of mid-season losses and puts them where they wanted to be all along-with a matchup against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. That game will bring its own level of anxiety as the Ducks possess an offense that is faster and more prolific than the Spartan one that just gave the Badgers fits. But for now, I’ll enjoy the fact that Wisconsin gets to conclude its season in Pasadena.