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Fans of both the Wisconsin Badgers and the Green Bay Packers might have needed two television sets in their living rooms Sunday night. As the Packers were about to begin their beatdown of the Dallas Cowboys, ESPN was airing its weekly BCS Countdown show.
Anyone who has lived in this state longer than five minutes knows about the popularity of the Packers. When they play, much of our world stops. I'm just not sure how many fans figured that a show about the BCS rankings would be appointment viewing.
As the regular season heads into the stretch drive, the seventh-ranked Badgers remain the Big Ten's highest-rated team in the BCS standings, two notches ahead of Ohio State. In a potential three-team tie-breaker scenario, that is very significant.
Who knows how the final few weeks of the regular season will play out, but one possibility would be a dead heat featuring Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State. In that specific case, the highest-ranked team would be the conference representative in the Rose Bowl.
That raises an interesting issue for head coach Bret Bielema.
So what does a person who covers sports for a living do during a free weekend? He sits on the couch and watches sports, right?
With the Wisconsin football team idle last weekend, it was fun just to be a fan. From all the pomp and circumstance of the NBA's opening week, which included the home opener for the Miami Heat (and that guy named LeBron), to the World Series (see what happens when you get some pitching, Brewers fans?), to the latest in the Brett Favre Saga, this past weekend had plenty to offer.
Oh yeah, there was plenty of college football to take in as well. It was a good chance to take in some of the craziness that is making for a truly wild season. Who knew that Iowa would put that type of a beat down on Michigan State? How 'bout Oregon's seemingly unstoppable offense? Auburn quarterback Cam Newton's Heisman campaign continued as he passed for two touchdowns and caught one as well.
Nebraska did not look half bad, and it was not freshman sensation Taylor Martinez who stole the show, but rather running back Roy Helu, who rushed for 307 yards and three touchdowns as the Cornhuskers knocked off Missouri.
It seems just about every team in the top 10 has a fair amount of sizzle. From high-octane offenses featuring dazzling quarterbacks, to a coach nicknamed "Mad Hatter," and another coach who names plays after ESPN personalities. Yes, there seems to be lots of sizzle in college football's high-rent district.
Then you have the Badgers.
If ever a team needed a bye week, it would be the Wisconsin Badgers. When we taped Bret Bielema's TV show late Saturday night, the Badgers' coach let out a huge sigh of relief. To say the least, it is a much-needed break for a banged-up football team.
No doubt it is an elated group, but it is one that needs some time to heal and get ready for the second half of the Big Ten season.
As special as the victory against Ohio State will always be, perhaps last week's effort at Iowa trumped it. It is the perfect example of what a coach means when you hear the words "find a way to win." In Iowa City, Scott Tolzien completed passes to 10 different players, and none of them is named Nick Toon, who had to miss the entire game with a leg injury.
As the game unfolded, key players such as Lance Kendricks, James White and Peter Konz joined Toon as spectators. On defense, Jordan Kohout had to sit out after being injured the previous week, and during the Iowa game, Beau Allen had to miss some time with a leg injury.
Mike Taylor, who also was hobbling in the days following the Ohio State game, shuttled in and out of the lineup last Saturday, playing a game of tag team with fellow linebacker Kevin Claxton. Still, tender knee and all, Taylor made the final tackle of Hawkeyes running back Adam Robinson, making sure he remained inbounds as the final seconds ran off the clock.
There were so many key moments and key players in this latest "Instant Classic." The work of Montee Ball. J.J. Watt blocking an extra point, tackling holder Ryan Donahue on an aborted field goal try, and of course, his final series sack of Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi.
Bill Nagy sliding into the center position after Konz had to give way because of an ankle injury. Ethan Hemer's effort at defensive tackle for the injured Kohout. The list goes on and on, but in what I guess is becoming a bit of a theme in these blogs, I look to another play that helped keep the Badgers alive in the fourth quarter.
In the stat book, it will go down as a 3-yard gain, but it was so much more than that.
Not long after last Saturday's electrifying game at Camp Randall Stadium, one of the players asked me where I would rank it. "Well, it is certainly on the short list of the all-time best," I responded. Now that truly is insightful analysis, isn't it?
No doubt my broadcast partner and UWBadgers.com writer Mike Lucas would have another chapter to add in the book he wrote a few years ago, The 25 Greatest Moments in Camp Randall History
In the days leading up to last week's game, I was trying to compare the hype with the 1999 matchup against Iowa, when Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record (another book plug -- Justin Doherty's The Dayne Game
-- pick it up at your favorite Madison area bookstore), or perhaps the 2003 tilt with Ohio State, when the Buckeyes came to town as the defending national champions and owners of a 19-game winning streak (to my knowledge, there is no book about that game).
What struck me last week is how the media world has changed in the last decade. In the days leading up to the '99 game, the fans were giddy at the chance to see Dayne break the rushing record, and oh by the way, see the Badgers win another Big Ten title.
It was a crazy week, but the game was a regional ABC telecast, and we had no idea about this thing called HDTV. The ESPN College GameDay crew was elsewhere, in part because it already made a visit to Madison several weeks earlier for the conference opener.
Since they handed out a championship trophy after that Iowa game, I still lean to that day for genuine atmosphere, but what might put last Saturday's game as "1-A" on my list -- at least for now -- is the number of cameras and media folks in the stadium.
For the record, there are three occasions in Badger football history when Wisconsin beat the top-ranked team in the nation. In 1942, the Badgers bumped off Ohio State 17-7. That is the season Terry Frei covers in the superb book he wrote a few years ago, Third Down and a War to Go
In 1962, the eighth-ranked Badgers of Pat Richter and Ron Vander Kelen fame hammered Northwestern 37-6. That Wisconsin squad eventually rose to No. 2 in the polls before the epic Rose Bowl game against USC.
Finally, in the 1981 season-opener, Dave McClain's Badgers made magic by shocking Michigan 21-14.
Badger fans old enough to remember those games cherish the moments, as well they should. Who wouldn't want to be part of that atmosphere? Just ask South Carolina fans, who witnessed the Gamecocks defeat previously top-rated Alabama last Saturday.
The Badgers are 16th in this week's coaches' poll, but as they head into this Saturday's showdown with No. 1 Ohio State, fans and media types continue to be unsure about this group. A popular belief is that Wisconsin is overrated. An elite team would find a way to win at Michigan State, and it would not need a blocked PAT to get past Arizona State.
A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that this team is good, but not elite. I also mentioned that we can all check back in a few weeks to learn whether Wisconsin can be such a squad. That time is approaching.
It's Homecoming Week in Madison, and what better opponent to play than Minnesota? Here comes the annual Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe, an item that has been in the Badgers' trophy case for the last six years.
One word of caution to those who simply assume the prize will stay in town for another season -- never underestimate the power of a rivalry.
While the Badgers are eager to prove they are better than what they showed last Saturday in East Lansing, the Gophers are smarting in a big way after losing four straight home games, including a gut-wrenching setback to Northwestern at TCF Bank Stadium.
Having already lost to South Dakota, USC and Northern Illinois, the assumption, dangerous as it might be, is that the Gophs will just punch out between now and Thanksgiving weekend. A rivalry such as this suggests otherwise.
With the non-conference portion of the schedule complete, Badger fans are eager for the main event to begin. Through the first four games, folks have used a couple of different terms to describe this team, such as inconsistent and resilient. Both descriptions apply.
After hanging 70 points on a desperately overmatched Austin Peay squad, there is one thing even the harshest scheduling critic should admit. After at times being accused of playing down to the competition, the Badgers did no such thing last Saturday.
As someone pointed out after the game, one could argue that last week's game created little if any interest outside the locker room. The key is the players needed to care, and they did. Many times a game such as this can be sloppy beyond description.
The Badgers avoided sloppy play, and now they can move on to Michigan State with the hopes of being a reasonably healthy team.
Football fans, not to mention players, have often heard coaches talk about how games, and even seasons, can be defined by a handful of plays.
Who knows what last Saturday's game against Arizona State means for the rest of the season, but you certainly could say a handful of plays made the difference between victory and defeat.
To this observer, Jay Valai's blocked PAT after the Sun Devils' last touchdown was huge not just for what happened, but also how close that play was to becoming a potential disaster for Wisconsin.
If you are a Badger fan still splitting a gut from laughing after Minnesota lost to South Dakota last Saturday, consider this a friendly heads-up -- the Coyotes come to Madison next September.
When an FCS team knocks off an FBS squad, my first reaction is to wonder how many seniors start for the underdog. South Dakota has three, and none of them is the quarterback who accounted for five touchdowns against the Gophs. By the way, the defensive line and special teams coach is Jake Sprague, who played for the Badgers from 1998-2002.
Suddenly, the urge to fire off a few cheap shots at Gopher fans is quickly fading. South Dakota plays in the Great West Conference. Cal Poly has a football team in the Great West Conference. Remember Cal Poly?
Congratulations to the newest members of the University of Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame.
Former football coach and current Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, 12-time All-American swimmer Ellen Stonebreaker, two-time NCAA champion wrestler Donny Pritzlaff, two-time All-American track athlete Dick Houden, football All-American Dan Lanphear, four-time Academic All-American football standout Don Davey and Theran Welsh, who remains the highest scoring defenseman in Badger hockey history.
To say the least this is quite a group, and UWBadgers.com is featuring each inductee. I hope you take a few moments to read about some of this school's greatest performers.