Badgers Remain Unproven
The Wisconsin Badgers’ football team clinched a berth in their 2nd consecutive Big(12)Ten title game yesterday by literally running all over Indiana en route (or is it ‘rout’?) to a 62-14 victory. In the process, Wisconsin set a school record for rushing yards in a game with 564 against the upstart Hoosiers. For a program with such an accomplished tradition in the running game, that’s really saying something.
Yes, the Badgers have played better as the competition has waned but I wouldn’t put too much stock into this win just yet. In what has to be considered a down year in the conference even by Big(12)Ten (sub)standards, Wisconsin has been largely underwhelming. Yesterday’s result notwithstanding, the offensive line hasn’t played to the level that we traditionally associate with the Badgers. When you set a pre-game goal of gaining 400 yards against an opponent as the UW O-lineman reportedly did (and then exceed it) , it’s a pretty good indication that the team you’re playing isn’t of championship caliber.
The Badgers have also started their third quarterback of the season for the first time since the infamous “Morton Era”. Freshman Joel (“Rico”) Stave unexpectedly came on for ineffective and disappointingly inaccurate transfer Danny O’Brien and exhibited some poise beyond his years before having his season ended by injury. Now UW is down to 5th year senior QB Curt Phillips. Maybe in a ‘normal’ year with a strong offensive line you could get by with these guys under center, but none of them are playmakers, something Badger fans should be acutely aware of after watching Russell Wilson play the position last season.
Phillips is a great story in perseverance but does anyone really think he’s the ‘answer’ at this point? He threw for all of 41 passing yards yesterday, which isn’t going to cut it against a good team. Head coach Bret Bielema was quoted as saying that there are some throws that Phillips is really good at, which implies that there are many at which he is not. Phillips came to Wisconsin as a running threat, but 3 ACL injuries have robbed him of much of his speed. By his own admission, his pre-surgery self would have scored on one of the running plays that he came up short on yesterday.
All of this could still work if the Badgers had a lockdown defense. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind seeing them return to a Barry Alvarez-like system of a strong defense combined with a dominating running game. After all, Bielema’s background lies in defense and that formula probably provides a better chance for sustained success in Madison. But they’re not there yet. While the defense has played better overall this year, they’ve suffered breakdowns at the most inopportune times that led to key defeats earlier at Nebraska and more recently against Michigan State.
The Badgers, of course, still have a chance to legitimize their Big(12)Ten title aspirations with upcoming games against ineligible Ohio- and Penn- State(s). In fact, this may be their best chance to defeat the Buckeyes, who only figure to get stronger under ‘envelope-pushing’ head coach Urban Meyer. In order to do that, though, they’re going to need to perform better than they have to this point. Both OSU and PSU are sure to view those contests in lieu of the bowl games they are denied this year, so the Badgers will be certain to face their best efforts.
Wisconsin can still fulfill some of the lofty expectations many held for them before the season and all the adversity that came along with it. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re up to the task.