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The Voice: Resilient Badgers' toughest test comes Saturday

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIn the last couple of weeks, the Badger men's basketball team has given fans a few more examples of how times continue to change, and for the better.

Last Sunday, Bo Ryan's team beat Illinois in Champaign. Ten days earlier the Badgers held off Purdue in West Lafayette.  It marked the first time since 1918 that a Wisconsin team won in those two cities in the same season. For any team, winning at Purdue and at Illinois is difficult. The Badgers' miseries, especially in West Lafayette, are well documented.

Consider this year's success as another in a line of negative streak-busters accomplished by Ryan's Badgers.

Last Thursday, the Badgers defeated Indiana 57-50. It is the ninth-consecutive victory, and the 15th in the last 18 meetings for Wisconsin against Indiana. In addition, it is the 11th-straight home court win for the Badgers against IU.

You do not need to be in the "over 40" crowd to remember when the Badgers were on the other end of such a streak. From 1980 until 1997, Bob Knight's Indiana teams ran off 31 straight victories at Wisconsin's expense. Included in the domination was a 22-game home court winning streak against the Badgers -- until Ryan's first Wisconsin team ended the madness in February of 2002.

Knowing about that long, rough stretch of years might make it easier to appreciate what this current group of Badgers is doing against a storied basketball program.

Which brings us to another current streak that Wisconsin would love to extend. On Saturday, third-ranked Ohio State comes to town. No doubt there will be plenty of excitement. Perhaps not quite as much as last year, when an unbeaten and top-rated Buckeyes team visited the Kohl Center, but I would like to believe there will be no shortage of noise in the building.

Without a doubt Coach Thad Matta has put together one of nation's premier programs. OSU has had excellent role players as well as major star power. That trend continues this season.

The Kohl Center also happens to be the one building where Matta's Buckeyes have yet to win. They are 0-6 under the current boss, and OSU has dropped nine straight overall in Madison.

Perhaps to some, winning can be taken for granted. These streaks should not be viewed in such a manner. Like the bad streaks, the good ones will end sometime. The Badgers and their fans just hope this good stretch won't stop anytime soon.

Extending it another game will be a tall order. Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft make for a tremendous trio. There are those who believe Craft is the nation's best on-ball defender, which should make for another big time matchup with Jordan Taylor. When we last saw Taylor at home against Ohio State, the All-America guard was putting on a show for the ages, leading Wisconsin from a 15-point second-half deficit to give OSU its first loss of the season.

After starting Big Ten play 1-3, it might have been tempting to give up on this team. Instead, the Badgers have fought their way back into the conference race with six straight wins.

Sometimes they shoot it well. Other times they seem to get it done by sheer will.

Whatever the formula, they have found the right mix to turn negatives into positives. On Saturday, the home team would like nothing more than to keep streaking against a national power.

The Voice: Working with legendary Irwin was a true privilege

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgDuring the 1989 and 1990 Badger football seasons, I had the privilege of working with legendary announcer Jim Irwin. In those days, Jim did the play-by-play alongside Elroy Hirsch and Brian Manthey. My role was hosting the pregame, halftime and postgame shows.

I certainly knew about Jim. In those days, every sports fan in Wisconsin was familiar with the name. Among his many duties, Jim was the voice of the Badgers, the Milwaukee Bucks and, most notably, the Green Bay Packers. When needed, Jim also would fill in for Bob Uecker on the Brewers' broadcasts.  

He did it all. On Friday, Jim would call a Bucks game. On Saturday, he would be in the booth for a Badgers game, and then he would either head up to Lambeau Field or race to catch a plane to wherever  the Packers were playing on Sunday.

It was quite the schedule, but Jim was the consummate professional. There is a reason he is a Hall of Famer.

Like so many sports fans in this state and beyond, I am saddened at the news of his passing. Irwin died earlier this week in Southern California at age 77.

For many years, Jim Irwin was the voice of teams that had very little success. When we worked together for those two years on the UW football broadcasts, the Badgers' record was 3-19. On the field, those seasons were anything but pretty, but Jim always had plenty of energy, and he was the eternal optimist.

As for your truly, I was a twenty-something kid from Ohio still trying to figure out the business. The next think I knew, I was sitting next to a Wisconsin broadcasting icon.

While those were trying times for the Badgers and their fans, the 1989 and 1990 Wisconsin football seasons are years that I cherish. Why? Because Jim could not have been more welcoming to someone who was still fairly new to the industry.

Someone like Jim could have "big timed" me, but he always offered words of encouragement. In a sense, perhaps he was taking me under his wing. It was only 22 Saturdays, but for me they were important Saturdays, and Jim made me feel as though I was a big part of the Badgers' radio crew. He did not have to be that way, but he was. The same goes for Jim's lovely wife, Gloria, who often joined him in Madison for those home football games.

Jim retired more than a decade ago, and clearly the Packers have a great announcer in Wayne Larrivee. The Bucks' Ted Davis also does terrific work. But I think we all understand that for so many people, hearing Jim Irwin's voice takes us back to so many memorable moments.

From Wes Matthews' half-court heave to beat Michigan State in 1979, when he told his listeners, "Yes! He made it! He made it! He made it, and we win the ballgame! 83 to 81! From mid-court! Wesley Matthews made it!" to the 1981 Badger football team's upset of No. 1 Michigan.

On that September afternoon, Irwin described Matt VandenBoom's three interceptions, including the pick that sealed the game: "Back goes (Steve) Smith. He's gonna throw. He looks. This is the last play of the game. He fires it over the middle. Picked off!  The Badgers win it. With 2 seconds to go, Matt VandenBoom intercepts the ball!"

Then there was the Packers' Super Bowl XXXI victory against the New England Patriots: "The Vince Lombardi Trophy is coming home where it started!" said Irwin that day.

Hearing those calls is like turning back the clock and being a kid again.

I am proud to say that I had the chance to work with Jim Irwin. I was very lucky to have had that opportunity. It isn't every day that one can say he was able to spend time with a Hall of Famer who was gracious, supportive and just a pretty down-to-earth man who loved his craft and performed it at a level that most of us can only hope to reach.

Rest in peace, Jim. Thank you for all of your wonderful calls, and thank you for believing in that young broadcaster.

The Voice: All bets off in wide-open Big Ten race

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgBefore the Big Ten basketball season began, it seemed everyone picked Ohio State to win the conference title, and perhaps win it going away.

On paper, it was hard to select any other team. With Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft and William Buford, among others, the Buckeyes appear to be the most skilled team in the league.

That still could be the case, but through six games, the Buckeyes already have two losses.

Not one team made it through the first five Big Ten games unscathed. Home court has not always been an advantage.

The Badgers have dropped two of their first three conference games at the Kohl Center.

Indiana, which has beaten previously top-ranked Kentucky and then No. 2 Ohio State, lost to Minnesota last week at Assembly Hall. It was the Gophers' first victory in league play.

As Jim Polzin accurately writes in Tuesday's Wisconsin State Journal, "The Big Ten standings already are a mess."

With nine teams in the RPI top 50 and no one rated lower than 145, the Big Ten appears to be incredibly deep -- at least so far.

It makes me wonder. Will Big Ten teams beat up on each other all season and be worn down by March? Or will the best teams in this league be that much tougher and more NCAA tournament ready?

I realize it is early, but right now I tend to believe the answer is the latter.

My guess is Ohio State still has its best basketball ahead of it. Michigan State, led by Draymond Green, is just plain tough. Michigan, despite losing by 16 at Iowa last Saturday, appears to be strong. Freshman guard Trey Burke has been a valuable addition, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. is improving.

Illinois will be interesting to watch. Brandon Paul is coming off a monster 43-point outing against Ohio State, and big man Meyers Leonard is capable of being a difference maker.

It is unwise to look past anyone, including Northwestern. Otherwise neutral observers likely will pull for the Wildcats to make the NCAA field. When the Cats are on their game, they are a very tough out.

The shooting of John Shurna and Drew Crawford, impressive guard play from freshman Dave Sobolewski and the ever-present threat of the backdoor play in the Princeton offense make for a challenging preparation.

So where does this leave the Badgers?  The shooting continues to be up and down, but for the most part, the defense has been quite good.  

On most nights, that should give Wisconsin a chance.

As impressive as they looked at Purdue, perhaps Sunday's grinder with Nebraska said every bit as much about this team's resolve.   When you shoot 31 percent from the floor (21 percent in the second half) and still win the game, you take it and move on.

I would like to believe that the Badgers' best ball is ahead of them too.

Let's face it. Replacing the scoring of Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil is no easy task. Opposing teams are doing what they can to make life difficult for Jordan Taylor, and at times they are daring someone else to beat them.

As players such as Ryan Evans, Jared Berggren, Ben Brust and Mike Bruesewitz continue to grow in their roles, the hope is they can become more consistent threats.

When they are in rhythm, the Badgers are pretty good. When they struggle to score, the Badgers struggle to win.

The one safe assumption about Big Ten basketball this winter is that little if anything will be easy. That is part of what should make it fun to watch, and perhaps it will help this conference make plenty of noise in March.

The Badgers are hoping to get a little winning streak going and be in the middle of all that fun.

The Voice: Ending just one chapter of a special story

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWhen our red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Madison landed at about 5 o'clock Tuesday morning, Mike Lucas suggested that, with the way things are going in the Badgers' world, Michigan State will win that night's basketball game on a buzzer-beater.

It was worse. It went to a replay review. Are you kidding me? Another (expletive deleted) replay review?

And yes, the officials got it right. Ryan Evans' desperation 3-point attempt -- a Hail Mary if you will -- was just a tad too late, leaving Badger Nation with yet another shot to the solar plexus.

This follows Monday's gut-wrenching setback in Pasadena, where the Badgers went toe-to-toe with lightning-fast Oregon only to fall one play short of at least having a chance to force overtime.

In yet another sign of how things have changed in these parts, a storyline coming out of the Rose Bowl is how Badgers coach Bret Bielema is in search of winning the big one. Or is it The Big One?  

It is the same question Ducks coach Chip Kelly had to hear after his group lost the 2010 Rose Bowl, and then went down on a last-second field goal to Auburn in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.

I understand how it works, but let's be honest -- you have to win some big games to get to The Big One, don't you? The Badgers turned in a dominating performance against Penn State to win the Leaders Division. They followed that effort with the Big Ten championship game thriller with Michigan State. Those were pretty big games.

Following a legend is never easy, and fans, as well as some in the media, are wondering why Bielema's Badgers are 0-2 in Rose Bowls, while Barry Alvarez and the boys went 3-0 in the 1990s.

I suppose it is a natural question, but at the same time, perhaps it just points out how hard it is to win these BCS games, and it serves as a reminder of how special those 1993, 1998 and '99 teams were to have so much success at the Rose Bowl.

One could argue that the two most famous coaches in Big Ten history are Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler. They led Ohio State and Michigan teams that, more often than not, ran roughshod through the rest of the Big Ten, and then squared off in what amounted to an almost annual conference title game. The winner would go to the Rose Bowl, where it would lose a lot.

Schembechler's Rose Bowl record was 2-8. In his book, written with Mitch Albom in the late 1980s, there is a chapter called "Why My Bowl Record Stinks, and Other Thoughts."

Hayes' OSU teams dropped four of its last five Rose Bowls, and went 4-4 overall.

I am talking about two dominant programs that generally ruled the day in the Big Ten.

In more current events, albeit from a different league, Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer now has a 1-5 record in the big boy bowl games of the BCS era.

My point is not to sound like a Badgers apologist, but rather to suggest that the final step to becoming an elite team is extraordinarily difficult.

Wisconsin has turned in some tremendous work to reach its current level, which is that of a nationally-respected program.  In the BCS era, only USC has made more Rose Bowl appearances than the Badgers.

That is something to shout about.

The 2011 Wisconsin Badgers embraced the lofty expectations. They fell a little short of meeting all of them, and that will hurt for awhile.

But man, what a ride it was. Monday concluded my 24th year of covering Badger football, and the 18th as its radio play-by-play announcer.  This offense was the most exciting I have seen, led by a quarterback who always gave his team a chance, right up to the final second of the final game.

To be sure, there were flaws with the 2011 Badgers, but the team found a way to win another conference title, giving thousands of fans a great excuse to head to Southern California to ring in the New Year. That isn't so bad, is it?

I have been around this program long enough to remember when big stage games were few and far between.

I also understand the disappointment of losing a second straight Rose Bowl, but I hope most fans will look back and recall how much fun it was to watch this team.

The last chapter might have had the wrong ending, but in my book, this team will forever be special.

It certainly gave fans plenty to shout about.

The Voice: Don't forget about the defense

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgFor years, many have said only half-jokingly that those who run the Tournament of Roses are far more interested in the Rose Parade than the game itself.

To be sure, through the years the hundreds of thousands of fans who have made the trip to Southern California have made every effort to take it all in. From Disneyland to Santa Monica Pier to Colorado Boulevard, it is all a part of the Rose Bowl experience. For the players, that includes the always popular Lawry's Beef Bowl, when we find out who can down the most red meat at one sitting.

That is all fine and dandy, but those who know their Rose Bowl history also are aware the game itself often produces high drama. I believe we may very well see more of the same next Monday.

Just take a look at Wisconsin's history in Pasadena. The victories have been one-score games. Last year, the Badgers were a deflected pass away from forcing overtime. Close games are not an annual occurrence, but they have happened enough to add to the magic of a game played in a stadium that has as beautiful a setting as any in college football, if not all of sports.

Outside of the BCS title game, you can state the case the Wisconsin-Oregon matchup is the most intriguing. Yes, the Fiesta Bowl with Stanford and Oklahoma State will be a fun watch, as well, but the Badgers and the Ducks are two teams that score a ton of points in different ways.

Badgers coach Bret Bielema likes to control the ball. His team led the Big Ten in time of possession and scored 44.6 points a game. Ducks boss Chip Kelly apparently could not care less about time of possession. In that statistic, his team was dead last in the FBS. It did OK anyway, averaging 46.2 points per game.

However, it would be a mistake to label this as an "Old School vs. New School" matchup. Without a doubt, Kelly thinks outside the box. The same can be said of Bielema. Kelly has a history of trick plays -- against Stanford, the Ducks ran a fake PAT, with the TIGHT END throwing for a two-point conversion.

Badgers running back Montee Ball is 2-for-2 as a passer, with one of those completions going for a touchdown.

Other than that, Bielema has kept the trickery to a minimum this year, but on his radio show last week, the coach reminded listeners that there is one more game to play. Hmmmm.

I would guess by now that players on both defenses are sick and tired of hearing about how the Rose Bowl scoreboard operator might be the hardest working person in the stadium.  I have to admit I am one of those who figures it will be a fairly high scoring tussle, but I have seen enough football to understand that a couple of defensive plays can make all the difference.

The 1999 Rose Bowl between Wisconsin and UCLA comes to mind. It was an offensive showcase.  Ron Dayne ran wild. The teams combined for 1,035 yards of offense. However, two plays that I always will remember are Jamar Fletcher's interception return for a touchdown and Wendell Bryant's sack that sealed the victory.

The 2012 Rose Bowl has two of the nation's top four offenses. It is fair to expect big plays from Russell Wilson, Montee Ball and company. The same goes for LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas, among others.  Do not forget the special teams. Thomas has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis has one punt return for a score.

But don't forget about the defenses. In what might be a shootout, the defense that can come up with just one more big play could determine who is holding up the trophy.

The Voice: Passion isn't always conveyed in public

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt is the holiday season, and in college football, 'tis the season to hire head coaches. At last count, there are 25 Football Bowl Subdivision schools that have, or will have, new coaches going in 2012. Keep in mind there are 120 schools in the FBS.

Perhaps a job description could read as follows:

Wanted: Head Football Coach

Job Requirements: Win your opening press conference, win lots of games, keep the NCAA investigators away, beat our arch rival on a regular basis, recruit players who go to class and stay out of trouble, win conference championships, be a dynamic public speaker, and win bowl games.

Qualified applicants can expect an excellent income, but you might want to rent rather than buy a home. If it looks like you are struggling, we might have to let you go after two years.

Good luck.

Win the opening press conference? What does that mean?  

It seems many school presidents, athletics directors and hiring firms are really into people who immediately wow an audience, be it a group of media members or boosters. I keep hearing a coach who wins the press conference is a coach who shows passion.

I certainly understand that having a presence is important. Barry Alvarez has a presence. Bret Bielema has a presence. It helps.

They can coach, too, and is that not the idea here?

In the last few years, Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been in the mix for a few head coaching jobs. On Thursday, after deciding he'd found the right fit, he accepted the top job at Pittsburgh. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Chryst had interviewed the previous day.

Later in the story, the writer mentions that Chryst "is not considered a dynamic personality."

It is not the first time someone has described Paul Chryst in such a way. What is part laughable, yet insulting, is that there are those in school administrations who assume a more flat-line individual is someone who lacks passion.

Sometimes I think we overuse the word "passion." Being animated on the sideline or in a news conference could mean you have great passion. It also might mean you are an attention-starved blowhard.

To me, passion is defined in a very simple way -- what are you doing to make yourself and your team better when nobody is watching?  There are no TV cameras and the stands are empty. Preparation equals passion.

This is where folks like Paul Chryst shine. He loves football. He loves working with players and coaches. He enjoys preparing for a game, from the position group meetings, to video study, to the work on the practice field.

Is he the type who will wow the fans with his first news conference?   Maybe not, but is that really vital in determining whether someone can lead a football team?  

I should add that media members who cover UW football on a regular basis seem to like and respect Chryst. When you get to know him, you will find that he is pretty honest. At times he can be rather blunt, and he also can be pretty darn funny.

People seem to wonder whether Chryst can handle all the duties that go with being a head coach, from boosters and increased media obligations to dealing with issues that will be plopped on his desk.

I say the answer is yes.

To Panthers fans, I can offer you this -- if you are looking for someone who will parachute from a small plane, all in an effort to promote the spring game, someone such as Paul Chryst might not be your choice.   

But if you want someone who is a terrific coach, a terrific family man, and is as grounded as any football person I have ever known, you won't find much better than Paul Chryst.

And no, I am not his agent. I just happen to be a big fan.

The Voice: Here's to cheering for the common good

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgSome of the pundits have mentioned it already, and it is best to assume there is more on the way. They are saying that this is a very important bowl season for the Big Ten.

Two years ago, the conference performed well in the postseason. Wisconsin was among the winners with an impressive showing against Miami in Orlando, but in the months that followed, the big news was the announcement that Nebraska would join the Big Ten.

Even though the games were still a year away, the Huskers' story seemed to overshadow a good holiday season for the league.

Last season, the Big Ten went 3-5 in bowl games, with Jan. 1 being an especially tough day. The conference went 0-5, including the Badgers' 21-19 loss to TCU. While the result was disappointing, the game was highly competitive, unlike Michigan and Michigan State's performances in the Gator and Capital One bowls, respectively.

The marquee win came from Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, but of course that became tainted with the Buckeyes' NCAA violations.

Fair or unfair -- and one can make an argument either way -- a conference's image is formed by postseason play. How the teams fare in September non-conference games can help too. While there were some exciting finishes, such as Michigan's rally to beat Notre Dame, and Illinois holding off what most thought at the time was a very good Arizona State team, the Big Ten was lacking in signature victories.

Which leads me to suggest something that might be difficult for Badgers fans to do, but I will give it a try. It is never a bad idea to root, root, root for the home team, which in this case means the Big Ten Conference.

What? Lepay is asking me to pull for Michigan State? Is he nuts? (in keeping with the holiday spirit, don't answer that). Why would I care whether Michigan or Ohio State wins?

I understand what you might be thinking. Sports, especially college football, are about cheering for your team and the heck with everyone else. That goes double for rivals.

But hear me out. If Michigan can beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, and if the Spartans can take care of Georgia in the Outback, it looks good for the Big Ten.

Nebraska draws South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. For one day, Wisconsin fans can root for the Big Red of Nebraska to defeat Steve Spurrier, aka the "Ball Coach."  

It sure would be a boost if Iowa can slow down the high-powered Oklahoma Sooners in the Insight Bowl.

The list goes on and on. The conference is sending a record 10 teams to bowl games this year, and while some are more under the radar than others, the more the Big Ten can win the better.

That certainly is true for the bigger stage games. Once again, the Badgers have the biggest stage by playing Oregon in the Rose Bowl. For the first time this season, it appears Wisconsin will be a decided underdog. I kind of like that. Think of what a Badgers victory would do not just for them, but for the league.

Understand, I grew up in Ohio, so rooting for Michigan is not exactly in my blood. But for now, I say "Go Blue!"

There is a genuine rivalry between the Badgers and Michigan State, but on Jan. 2, I say "Go Green! Go White!"

Is this crazy? Maybe, but the Big Ten is a proud conference that must be getting a little tired of being a punching bag to critics. I know fans in these parts are weary of the all the SEC love.

There is one way to change it. In the next few weeks, each of the ten Big Ten teams in bowl games will have a chance to do its part.

Then, on Sept. 29, 2012, when the Badgers open conference play at Nebraska, feel free to return to your regularly-scheduled dislike for everyone else in the league.
The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWho knew that one of the top passes in Wisconsin football history would be a non-scoring play? One of the top passing plays in history? Yeah, given the game's high stakes, I do not believe that is overstating the case.

Hail Wilson-to-Duckworth.

Officially, it was fourth-and-6 from the Michigan State 43-yard line. The Spartans led 39-34. It might not have been a "game on the line" play, but then again, maybe it was. Russell Wilson was flushed from the pocket and rolled to his left. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to take off, but the Michigan State defense was in hot pursuit.

Wilson then did what he does so well. I would think it is difficult to find many college quarterbacks who can roll to his off-hand and throw as well as Wilson.

He did it again at a rather critical moment. Wilson let it fly deep to the right side. Waiting for the ball was sophomore receiver Jeff Duckworth, and with two Spartans defenders near him, Duckworth pulled it down at the MSU 7-yard line. One play later, Montee Ball ripped through the line for what proved to be the game-winning, Big Ten title-clinching touchdown.

But back to the catch. The Badgers talk a lot about receivers attacking the ball. That is exactly what Duckworth was able to do. It was one three catches he had on Saturday night. Those numbers give him a grand total of 15 receptions this season, and 18 for his career. Duckworth also scored the game's first touchdown. It was his first TD this season. It was the first touchdown of his college career.

Michigan State has an outstanding defense. I doubt the Spartans expected Jeff Duckworth to be much of a factor in the passing game. That is the beauty of sports -- it is never a bad idea to expect the unexpected. 

As I wrote last week, the recent history of games between these two teams has given us plenty of such examples.

Now for True Confession Part I. At halftime, I thought the Badgers had little, if any, chance to win. I just did not like the matchup. After another hot start, the offense was struggling.  Wisconsin's defense could not get a stop. Kirk Cousins was in rhythm with his receivers, especially B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin.

Someone who must have been thinking the same thing asked me about spending late December in Tempe, Ariz., instead of Southern California.

Silly me. Silly us -- at least some of us.

In the second half, the defense hung in there, and allowed just 10 points against an offense that has been nearly as hot as Wisconsin's. It forced a three-and-out on the Spartans final possession.

Maybe just as important was the previous Michigan State series. Leading 38-36, the Spartans were on the move, and marched to the Wisconsin 8-yard line. The drive stalled, forcing a field goal to keep it a one-possession game.

Time for True Confession Part II. While I avoid publicly predicting games I am announcing (kind of my own Broadcasting 101 rule), I thought there was no way the second Badgers vs. Spartans game could approach the original for drama.

Silly me again.

This game had just about everything. A fake PAT in the second quarter. A receiver who ad libs a lateral near the boundary that results in a touchdown. A running back completing a pass to his quarterback (note: Montee Ball is now 2-for-2 as a passer this year). A quarterback with two receptions in the same game. A replay reversal that went in the Badgers' favor, and a special teams miscue that secured victory.

I don't know about you, but I was worn out just watching it. Try to imagine how the players and the coaches felt after such a game.

Even though I will admit to whiffing on my thoughts before and during Saturday's classic, please allow me to try one more time with this bit of "wisdom" -- if Badgers-Spartans II exhausted you, make sure you are well-rested before the Rose Bowl.

If ever a game had the potential to be even wilder, this might be it.

The Voice: Special senior class can leave lasting legacy

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgFor a tough dude who grew up on a hog farm and went on to play defensive line in the Big Ten, Bret Bielema can be a softie. The sixth-year Badgers head coach does not hide the fact that he can be sentimental, especially when it comes to his family, close friends and his football team.

This Saturday, the Badgers play their final home game of the season, with the Leaders Division title on the line. The winner of this week's Penn State-Wisconsin game will advance to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis, where a Rose Bowl trip is at stake.

Saturday also is Senior Day, when 21 players will make their final Camp Randall Stadium appearance. This is what makes the head coach's eyes water. It happened a couple of times during his Monday news conference. It has been known to happen when we tape Bielema's TV show. Whenever he talks about players nearing the end of their careers, the farm boy from Prophetstown, Ill., has a difficult time holding back the tears.

"Senior day is going to be very tough here," Bielema said on his show following the win at Illinois. "You are playing the last game at home with a lot of kids that you love, parents that you love, people you have grown close with for four or five years, and you are never going to want to say goodbye."

As the seniors run on to the field, one-by-one, there is a good chance that Bielema will not be the only person in need of a hanky.  

As is generally the case, this senior class is made up of an interesting mix of young men, each with his own story, and each has made his mark on the Wisconsin program. I can only sit back and admire someone like Josh Oglesby, who has endured six knee surgeries and continues to suit up every week. Had he decided to give up the game, there would have been no shame, but he kept pushing. He remains an important part of the Badgers' offensive line.

Imagine what it is like to be Nick Toon. To the credit of his father, Al, who will be this week's honorary captain, it always has been important for Nick to carve his own niche. Nick is very proud of his father's accomplishments, on and off the field, but clearly Nick has made a name for himself, as well.

The list goes on and on. Bradie Ewing could have pursued a college basketball career, but luckily for Bielema, the Richland Center native chose football, and after battling through his own lousy luck with injuries, has turned into a standout fullback who might be best known for his crushing block that helped David Gilreath score on the opening kickoff in last year's game with Ohio State.

There is long snapper Kyle Wojta, who last October tore his ACL. It was the week of the Ohio State game. Bad knee and all, there was no way he was going to miss that game, or any game for that matter. He continued to snap on field goals and extra points the rest of the season, and this year has returned to his role of snapping on both kicks and punts. Maybe you do not know the name Kyle Wojta. That is good. Long snappers thrive on keeping a low profile. He has, which means he is very good at what he does.

For both teams, emotions will be running high Saturday. From strictly a football standpoint, this Wisconsin squad has had to fight through its share of adversity, and it has done so with distinction. After losing back-to-back games in heartbreaking fashion, it would be easy to point fingers. This team seem to have avoided that trap, and a conference title remains in play.

Everybody loves a rivalry game at the end of the season. There will be plenty of those this weekend. In time, perhaps the Badgers and Penn State will turn into a good rivalry, as well.

In the meantime, rivalry or not, this is the Big Ten's Big Show for the week. The winner gets to play on an even bigger stage the following week.

Not a bad storyline for senior day.

The Voice: Badgers not in giving mood with Axe on the line

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgTo some, trophy games might seem a little silly. When we hear the cliche "Throw out the records," we are inclined to chuckle.

Silly, humorous, whatever -- the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe means a ton. Just ask anyone who ever has played or coached in this game. I have said it before and I will say it again -- this is college football's most underrated rivalry. It certainly is not underrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where bragging rights, and a victory lap for the players with Axe in hand is part of what makes winning so sweet, and losing so painful.

Wisconsin has won the last seven meetings, but Minnesota leads the all-time series 58-54-8, so yes, this remains very much a rivalry.

For the last two decades, part of the tradition has been the close games in Minneapolis. Wild and crazy tussles were the norm at the Metrodome, and the close encounters continued two years ago at TCF Bank Stadium, as Wisconsin held on for a 31-28 victory.

It is a series where kickers have delivered in the clutch -- Rhys Lloyd for the Gophers (2003) and Vitaly Pisetsky for the Badgers (1999).

Sometimes the big name players make the big plays. In 1995, the Badgers snapped a two-game skid in the series with a 34-27 victory in Minneapolis. Defensive lineman Jason Maniecki had a huge sack in the closing minutes, taking out an offensive lineman and the quarterback in one fell swoop. After the game, linebacker Eric Unverzagt told reporters that the defensive call in the huddle was for "Maniecki to just kill everybody."

Sometimes players who might not be household names emerge. In 1991, it was Melvin Tucker saving the day for Wisconsin by breaking up a pass in the end zone to preserve a 19-16 Badgers victory. It gave Barry Alvarez his first conference win as the Badgers head coach.

The Gophers have had their share of heroes as well. From 1995-97, Tutu Atwell averaged 126 receiving yards a game against Wisconsin. In the 2005 "Miracle at the Metrodome," when the Badgers won on a blocked punt in the final minute, Laurence Maroney ran for 258 yards, including a 93-yard touchdown sprint.

Fans from both sides have seen plenty of amazing performances and dramatic finishes. It makes me wonder what we will see this Saturday.

The Badgers are big favorites to keep the Axe. Those who understand the rivalry are aware that in a series such as this, it is best to take nothing for granted.

This year's Gophers are 1-4 in the Big Ten and just 2-7 overall. However, under first-year coach Jerry Kill, the Gophs are improving. Two weeks ago they rallied from 11 down in the fourth quarter to beat Iowa. Last Saturday in East Lansing, they gave Michigan State all it wanted.

With three games remaining, the Badgers remain very much in the Leaders Division race. Fans will watch the Badgers and the scoreboard, knowing if a few things break the right way, a trip to Indianapolis can happen.

Yet as far as the Wisconsin Badgers are concerned, it is all about the Axe, as well it should be. They have had it for awhile, and the Gophers want it back. My guess is they believe they are playing well enough to take it.

From this side of the border, here is hoping the Badgers are not in a giving mood.