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Some 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.
Who 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.
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.
For 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.
To 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.
We will start with a quick refresher course on how Big Ten divisional play works, and how the Badgers are still in the race for a trip to Indianapolis. They need some help, and as the saying goes, they need to help themselves. Here is how it can happen:
1. The Badgers right the ship and win their remaining regular season games.
2. Ohio State loses one more game, giving it three conference losses. The Buckeyes will play Indiana and Penn State at home, and will travel to Purdue and Michigan.
3. Penn State loses either at home to Nebraska or on the road against Ohio State. Of course, the Badgers would need to give the Nittany Lions their second conference loss.
In this scenario, Wisconsin and Penn State would finish 6-2 and tied for first in the Leaders Division. Since the Badgers beat Penn State (again, in this scenario), Wisconsin would win the tie-breaker, and thus would earn the trip to the Big Ten championship game.
Does it sound farfetched? I don't think so. Perhaps the most challenging task is the Badgers winning four in a row in a hotly-contested conference race.
Last week, I was not all that concerned with the Badgers' emotional state. Coming off a tough game at Michigan State, I was more worried about the physical toll. This week, it might be a little bit of both.
I have not seen a team go through anything quite like this. The only stretch that is comparable is in 1996, when the Badgers lost their conference opener to third-ranked Penn State on a late field goal. The following week, Wisconsin was a huge underdog at second-ranked Ohio State. In an old-school Big Ten slugfest, the Buckeyes prevailed 17-14. The very next week was the heartbreaker against No. 14 Northwestern, when a late fumble set up the Wildcats winning score.
In last week's Varsity magazine, Barry Alvarez talked about how a coach tries to move on from such a gut wrenching loss. I would guess it is easier said than done.
The difference is that stretch in 1996 knocked Wisconsin out of the league title chase. The 2011 Badgers are still alive for a trip to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy. Yes, they are out of the national title conversation, but quite honestly, opinions vary whether even a 13-0 Wisconsin squad would have made it to New Orleans. It would have been fun to find out, but I tend to believe the computers would have been unkind to the point where a one-loss team would have passed the Badgers.
That is open to debate, but what cannot be questioned is the Badgers are still in play for the Rose Bowl, and getting there does not necessarily require a miracle, something those connected with the program seem to understand.
No doubt this group is hurting right now. As Bret Bielema admitted in his Monday news conference, you tend to feel the bumps and bruises more after a loss. The test will be how this team comes out both mentally and physically for Saturday's game with Purdue. Hopefully, there will be a good atmosphere for 2:30 p.m. game, but that remains to be seen.
The Badgers have lost consecutive games in lousy fashion. They have made critical mistakes, and they have had some bad luck. Yet they remain a very good team with a chance to do something special. If the Badgers can rally and still find a way to reach the conference title tilt, it could say more about this team than any words can describe.
I would like to think the players believe this can happen. The question is, do you?
"I always want to be the aggressor."
That is a quote from Bret Bielema, spoken a few months before he worked his first game as the Badgers' head coach.
We have seen his aggressive nature on multiple occasions, from fake punts, fake field goals and, more recently, a tailback throwing a touchdown pass to a quarterback. The man loves to push the envelope, and that is part of what makes him intriguing. Not everyone loves it, but his outside-the-box thinking forces you to pay attention because you'd hate to miss something.
Last Saturday night's Hail Mary places Kirk Cousins in a time capsule along with Boston College's Doug Flutie and Colorado's Kordell Stewart. I am guessing that last sentence is difficult to read and, trust me, I cannot say I enjoy writing it. The fact is TV networks will show that play forever.
A sidebar story to that final pass is Bielema's decision to use two timeouts to stop clock in the final minute. He called the first after a Brendan Kelly sack and forced fumble made it second-and-20 from the Spartans' 24-yard line. There were 42 seconds to play.
A 12-yard connection to wide receiver B.J. Cunningham made it third-and-8 from the MSU 36. Bielema used his second timeout with 30 seconds remaining. In our radio booth, Mike Lucas and I were talking about the trust Bielema was showing in his defense. I also suggested that if it works, great, but if not... "It's a second guesser's delight."
Was I surprised Bielema called that second T.O.? Yeah, maybe a little. Should I have been surprised? No, not really, because that is how he rolls. When it works, it is a gutsy decision. If it doesn't, well, you know what happens next. It is fresh material for talk shows, message boards and bloggers. Coaches understand that is how it works in big time sports.
A friend of mine who used to work with the Wisconsin basketball program had some tongue-in-cheek advice for the coaches. "Hey, just run the plays that work, OK?" If a team is hitting a bunch of 3-point shots, it must be running a great offense, right? If they're tossing up bricks all day, we say the offense looks flat.
This is Bielema's sixth season as the Badgers' head man. In that time, I thought the nuttiest call he made was the fake punt in the Rose Bowl. It was in the second quarter, with TCU leading 14-10.
Unlike the Iowa game when he had clear sailing, punter Brad Nortman had to break through some traffic to make the first down. If the Horned Frogs would have stopped Nortman, take a guess on how observers would have reacted.
You know how many people told me that call was crazy? None. Zero. Nada. Why? Because it worked -- therefore it was a good call.
It was that incomplete pass on the two-point try that had fans upset. Jacob Pedersen was wide open, but Tank Carder made a big-time play by knocking down the throw. Therefore, it was a bad call.
With that off my chest, it is on to Ohio State, where the Badgers likely will face an even more hostile atmosphere than they dealt with in East Lansing. It is Homecoming in Columbus. OSU is honoring Hall of Famer Eddie George. The Buckeyes are wearing special uniforms.
One more thing. Given what happened last year to OSU's top-ranked football and basketball teams, it is safe to say those folks do not like the Badgers very much.
What an opportunity for Wisconsin to bounce off the deck after last week's disappointment.
There is one more thing. If you were not a fan of divisional play before, maybe this will help change your mind. Granted, there is a long way to go, but perhaps the Badgers will get back on track and win the Leaders Division. Perhaps Michigan State will continue its winning ways and capture the Legends.
That would set up a rematch in Indianapolis, with a Rose Bowl berth on the line.
I know, I know -- first things first, but it never hurts to dream a little, does it?
With the release of the first BCS rankings, the college football season officially shifts into high gear. The annual debate about the system itself picks up steam. Fans yell that their favorite teams are not rated high enough.
Of course, there is what is becoming the annual "Boise State question," regarding whether the Broncos can crack the top 2 and play for the national championship.
Last but not least, columnists and sports yakkers across the country campaign for a playoff.
I am not going there -- at least not today.
The Badgers find themselves ranked sixth in this week's BCS standings, which seems about right to this observer. Given the strength of schedule to date, the computers will not love the Badgers as much as the human voters.
Try not to worry about it. Every year we speculate, watch ESPN's "BCS Countdown" show, and we either hear something favorable from one of the commentators or we fight the urge to throw a brick at the TV.
Speculation is part of the fun, but most of the time this BCS stuff works itself out. I say most of the time because the 2004 Auburn Tigers, which finished 13-0 but third in the final BCS rankings, would beg to differ.
While it appears the Badgers will need a few things to happen to move into the Top 2, I still would suggest that No. 6 is not a bad place to be in mid-October.
As the late, great Al Davis always said "Just win, baby." (And in college football, if you can win by a lot, all the better).
For the Badgers beginning this Saturday night in East Lansing, I would tweak Mr. Davis' saying -- "Just win on the road, baby."
Similar to college basketball, the pollsters tend to judge whether a team is elite by watching how it performs away from home. Last year, I thought the Badgers made their greatest statement outside of Madison.
While last October's victory against No. 1 Ohio State will always be memorable, I believe the game that truly defined the Badgers season came in the following game at Iowa. In a hostile environment against a rival, in a stadium that some folks on the sidelines told me was every bit as loud as Camp Randall at its raucous best, Wisconsin found a way to beat the Hawkeyes.
A fake punt, some clutch work from quarterback Scott Tolzien as well as tailback Montee Ball, and a team that overcame several injuries to put together a late-game scoring drive went a long way in the Badgers' championship run.
To beat a top notch team at home is great theatre. To defeat a team when 75,000 fans are against you is even more impressive.
This week the Badgers have their first true road game, and it happens to be against a Michigan State outfit that leads the Big Ten in most of the major defensive statistical categories, including total defense, where the Spartans also rank second in the nation.
Wisconsin is rolling, and so is Sparty. It also seems safe to say that this week's opponent is eager to see Russell Wilson and company. After MSU beat Michigan last Saturday, ESPN.com quoted Spartans safety Isaiah Lewis as saying "Wisconsin should know we're coming."
He later added "And just like any other team, if they're throwing the ball up, our DBs are going to go get it, our linebackers are going to go get it and our linemen are getting after the quarterback. And they're going to hurt him."
There is nothing like a juicy quote to get the fans and the pundits talking all week.
Let the road show begin.
Last week during a commercial break on the Barry Alvarez radio show, the University of Wisconsin's director of athletics had a big grin and said, "Isn't it fun when you win?"
All I could do was smile and nod -- and remember to way it was in the late 1980s. Back then I was doing morning sports updates for WTSO Radio, which in those days was a country music station. It seemed every Monday the weekend recaps centered on how the Badgers lost on Saturday, and how the Packers lost on Sunday.
As for interest in the Brewers, that generally faded by about the end of July. Beyond the greatness of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, and the occasional streak, the highlights were few and far between.
It is a good thing our radio station played a lot of Garth Brooks and Randy Travis tunes. Had WTSO been a sports talk station in those times, there would have been very little to chat about. A show once a week was about all anyone, hosts or listeners, could tolerate.
Oh, my how things have changed, and what a stretch this is for Cheesehead Nation.
The defending Super Bowl champion Packers remain unbeaten. Aaron Rodgers might be the best player in the NFL. The Wisconsin Badgers are unbeaten and ranked fourth. Russell Wilson might be the best player in the Big Ten, and he appears to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. The Milwaukee Brewers are NL Central Division champions, and currently are battling rival St. Louis for the right to advance to the World Series. Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder are top MVP candidates.
There is all of that, plus, could we have had better weather around here the past 10 days or so? I mean, if this is what heaven is like, sign me up.
Who knows how these stories will end, but I would suggest -- at least for now -- this state is the envy of most sports enthusiasts in the country.
Other places have had multiple champions, and I certainly am not assuming that it will happen in Wisconsin, but what is going on now seemed so unlikely in the late 1980s and early '90s. The mere suggestion of this type of stretch would get you laughed out of the room.
Alvarez often tells the story of coaching his first game in 1990. On the bus ride from the team hotel to the stadium, he has said "You could fire a cannon down the street and not hit anyone." He was right. It was all he and his staff could do to create any excitement with a fan base that was staying away in droves.
The once proud Packers franchise fell on hard times, as Lindy Infante's team finished 4-12 in 1988. The following year was much better, but they fell just short of a playoff berth. The next two years produced a 10-22 record. A college-aged Packers fan today cannot relate to such futility.
As the NLCS progresses, no doubt there will be some tense moments that will have Brewers fans biting their finger nails.
Perhaps one week, the Packers will need a late fourth-quarter drive to win a game.
As for the Badgers, do not expect them to win by 30-plus points a week. In time, they too will have a couple of those down-to-the-wire affairs that will keep you glued to your TVs and radios.
Enjoy every second of it. As a fan, there will be moments that might make your stomach do flip-flops, but this is only because your teams are playing on big stages.
There are those who say this is as good as it gets. Right now, that is true. Then again, it is possible -- I repeat, possible -- that the best could get even better.
As Barry would say "Isn't this fun?"
Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson has many skills, including dealing with the media. Being a two-sport athlete with a degree in communications, it makes sense.
While it is unlikely he ever will provide the pen and microphone crowd with much in the way of controversial quotes, the man has proven he is capable of having some fun.
After last Saturday's Big Ten opening victory against Nebraska, Wilson spoke with ESPN's Chris Fowler. During the chat, Wilson used the term "passion bucket."
So why is that funny? "Passion bucket" happens to be a pet term for Dan Patrick on his national radio show. From time to time, Patrick or one of his producers will ask a guest to drop that "passion bucket" line in future interviews.
Turns out one of the "Danettes," Paul Pabst, aka, Paulie was in Madison for the big tilt. On Friday, Pabst said he met Wilson and fellow QB Nate Tice. If the game went well for the home team, "Paulie" asked Wilson to find a way to fit those words into one of his answers. Wilson obliged, and he said it got a little laugh from Fowler, who of course used to be a co-worker with Patrick at ESPN.
I am thinking there is a future in this business for Wilson. Hopefully that is many years down the road. Already a minor league baseball player, his work so far this season seems to be getting him a bit more on the NFL radar as well.
Yes, there is a long way to go, but Wilson, while very humble, also is very confident. The Badger QB told Patrick that he believes he is pro-ready.
At this point of the season, it is difficult to argue with Wilson.
At this point of the season, it also is interesting to look at Wisconsin's offense.
There are those who believe the Badgers are passing the ball a lot more. The fact is, they are not. Here are the numbers through five games of Scott Tolzien's 2010 season, and Wilson's from this year. ATT COMP
Wilson 111 83
Tolzien 109 75
Not much difference there, right?
The difference lies in passing yardage and touchdowns: YDS TD
Wilson 1391 13
Tolzien 837 5
Keep in mind this time last year the Badgers had the bruising John Clay in the backfield, while receiver Nick Toon missed three full games with an injury.
Each team has its own set of strengths, and certainly that applies to Wilson and Scott Tolzien. Wilson does things I have not seen from a Wisconsin quarterback, but that Tolzien guy was not half bad either, leading an offense that averaged 41.5 points per game last fall.
The beauty of this team so far is that it has added an extraordinarily gifted player without compromising what has made the Wisconsin system so successful. The Badgers still like to run the ball, and will not hesitate to go into ground and pound mode. Just ask Nebraska's defense. At the same time, the Badgers once again have the ability to hurt the opposition through the air.
This is not new. In the last few years, the Badgers have been a fairly balanced squad. Yes, it will run the ball more, but since 2007, the rushing vs. passing yardage is in the same ballpark.
Obviously, Wilson is a special talent, and at this early stage of the season, it is fair to throw his name around for post season honors, including the one where the winner gets the trophy with a player using a stiff arm, if you know what I mean.
Yet Wilson is plenty smart enough to understand what makes the Badgers tick. At Wisconsin, he is surrounded by plenty of talent, and an offensive coordinator who knows how to use it.
Perhaps there will be quarterbacks with more eye-popping statistics, but if ever there seems to be a perfect fit, it is Russell Wilson and the Wisconsin Badgers. There is no doubt Wilson makes Wisconsin better. It also can be said that Wisconsin is making Wilson better.
From the outside looking in, it appears everyone in the program understands the formula is working. As long as that remains the case, this combination of talent and the ever-present "passion bucket" could make this a rather difficult group to stop.
It is a new era of Big Ten football, and why not start with this week's version of "The Game of the Century?" You thought last year's tussle with Ohio State was big? When it comes to hype, this Saturday night's conference opener with Nebraska might be even bigger.
Beyond the obvious of this being the Cornhuskers' first Big Ten game, the matchup also marks the first time since Nov. 24, 1962 that a game at Camp Randall Stadium featured two teams ranked in the top 10. On that day nearly 50 years ago, No. 3 Wisconsin beat No. 5 Minnesota, 14-9.
That was a few years before Chris, Lee, Kirk, Desmond, David and Erin started doing College GameDay. (I think that is the full roster, not including reporters such as Tom Rinaldi. If I left out anyone, I apologize to the good folks at ESPN)
This weekend also marks the beginning of divisional play, with the Badgers as part of the Leaders Division. Here is a simple formula to remember how the Big Ten is divided -- schools starting with the letter "M," and "N" along with Iowa -- are in the Legends Division. Everyone else is in the Leaders Division.
Divisional play also changes the tiebreaker system, making a game within the division more important. For instance, say Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois finished tied for first in the Leaders Division, and against each other, every team is 1-1. The next step in the tiebreaker is a team's record within the rest of the division. With this in mind, the games against Ohio State, Purdue and Indiana carry more weight than a game against a Legends Division team.
Yeah, I know, this week's game is really huge anyway, regardless of the fact that the Badgers and the Huskers play in opposite divisions.
The atmosphere should be electric, and earlier this week head coach Bret Bielema urged fans, especially the students, to be in the stadium and ready to roll for the opening kickoff.
Which leads to perhaps the question of the week -- how many Nebraska fans will get a ticket? Who knows, but word is we will be able to tell the difference between the Cardinal and White and the Big Red.
Seems folks from Nebraska will be wearing black shirts. Why black shirts? That is symbolic of the Blackshirts nickname for the Cornhuskers defense. This goes back to the early 1960s, when then-coach Bob Devaney wanted to distinguish the defensive starters in practice.
Barry Alvarez knows firsthand about the Blackshirts. He can tell you all about it. He also can tell you about that 25-yard interception return against Wisconsin when the Huskers beat the Badgers in Madison.
Anytime there is video of that play, the Hall of Fame coach catches a ton of grief. In a nutshell, I will say nobody questioned Barry's toughness, but he was not exactly a sprinter. As the old line goes, Barry picked off the pass in 1966 -- and the play ended in 1967.
No doubt that story will be told many more times this week, and that is part of what makes college football so much fun.
So do spotlight games, and Big Game America returns to Madison, Wisconsin, this Saturday as the 116th season of Big Ten football gets underway.
It is a ticket worth saving, don't you think?