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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.
There is the Wisconsin-Minnesota rivalry, known as the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe. There is Wisconsin-Ohio State, which has had no shortage of drama, especially in the last couple of years.
The same can be said of Wisconsin-Michigan State. When it comes to football and men's basketball, we might be hard pressed to name another pair of programs that have traded thrilling victories and rip-your-heart-out losses quite like these two schools.
The Hail Mary pass from Kirk Cousins off the facemask of B.J. Cunningham and into the hands of Keith Nichol is the latest and the craziest, but it is hardly the only wild ending between the programs.
In 2000, a Jim Sorgi 45-yard pass to Lee Evans in the final half-minute gave the Badgers a 17-10 victory in East Lansing. Not quite a Hail Mary, but it was close.
In 2007, the Badgers and Spartans had a shootout as the teams combined for 1,025 yards of offense. Yet it was a fourth-down stop with a little more than one minute to play that helped Wisconsin hold off MSU, 37-34.
A year later, Sparty rallied from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit in East Lansing to beat Wisconsin on a last-second field goal, 25-24.
Now onto basketball, where there also has been some tremendous theatre. Take Bo Ryan's first year, when Wisconsin snapped Michigan State's home-court winning streak at 53, thanks to a Freddie Owens shot, followed by a Spartans' buzzer-beating bucket that was disallowed because the ball was shot and not tipped with two-tenths of a second remaining.
In 2004, there was the famous "Banner Night" at the Breslin Center. Michigan State was making plans for a Big Ten title celebration, only to see the Badgers ruin the evening with a 68-64 overtime decision. Eleven days later, Wisconsin beat State in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis (an omen?), 68-66.
In 2008, Indy again was the location for another Badgers-Spartans thriller. Trailing most of the game, and down 12 with about eight minutes to play, Wisconsin fought its way back. A Michael Flowers steal and layup gave the Badgers a two-point lead, and in the closing seconds, MSU sharp-shooter Drew Neitzel missed what would have been a game-winning shot.
Final score: Wisconsin 65 Michigan State 63.
To be fair, the Spartans have had their moments as well. In 2007, the Badgers went into East Lansing as the nation's top-ranked team. MSU ended that with a 64-55 win. Not quite two weeks later, Kam Taylor's 3-pointer in the closing seconds helped the Badgers to a 52-50 win on Senior Day at the Kohl Center.
Last year at the Breslin Center, the Badgers looked to be in great shape, but the Spartans scored the final nine points of regulation, then went on to beat Wisconsin in overtime, 64-61.
A few weeks ago I repeated what I have long believed to be the case -- the Wisconsin vs. Minnesota series is the most underrated rivalry in college football. That is my story, and I am sticking to it.
However, it may be fitting to add another nugget. When it comes to the Big Ten's most high-profile sports, is there really a better
rivalry going on today than Wisconsin-Michigan State?
I will make the wild assumption that if you are reading this, you have a strong rooting interest in the game. But even if you do not, I would strongly urge you to tune in Saturday night. I am not smart enough to predict a winner, but recent history tells us it should be a heck of a show.
For the first ever Big Ten championship game, could the script be any better?
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?
For someone who had been little more than an afterthought through the first five games, UW punter Brad Nortman was now hearing tongue-in-cheek comments about being "overworked.''
Against Indiana, Nortman had six punting opportunities -- or two more than he had in the three previous games combined. Prior to last Saturday, he had punted only 10 times overall.
Nortman definitely made each punt count against the Hoosiers. Besides averaging 43.8 yards per kick -- including a long of 52 -- he had four punts downed inside Indiana's 20-yard line (at the 14, 8, 18 and 1).
"I had some good hang time and pooch punts,'' said Nortman, a senior from Brookfield Central. "I was proud of that. Even though it was a windy day, I worried about what I can control, not the wind.''
Indiana's Nick Stoner had a 10-yard punt return; marking only the second time this season that Nortman had a punt returned. Nebraska's Tim Marlowe had an 11-yard return in the Big Ten opener.
Nortman has turned his kicks into non-returnable items. That's huge, especially in the context of the Badgers' 2010 loss at Michigan State, when Keshawn Martin returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown.
You don't have to remind Nortman of the consequences; how a single play on special teams can impact the outcome. He has often confided that the Martin return has been "seared in my mind.''
In retrospect, Nortman outkicked his coverage; an old school cliché that still rings true. Could the specialists -- kickers or returners -- factor into Saturday night's rematch in East Lansing?
Martin is still around; still dangerous.
Meanwhile, the UW's Jared Abbrederis leads the nation in punt return average (22.75). That includes a score against Indiana and one that was called back because of a penalty against South Dakota.
"Coach (Bielema) always says it's one-third of the game, along with offense and defense,'' Nortman said. "Special teams are kind of an X-factor, a momentum swing, for the good or the bad.
"It's my job to make sure it's for the good. And there will be a time in this game, if not another game, where special teams, whether it's punt or kick return, will be called upon to make a big play.
"Even though I personally haven't gotten a lot of opportunities to make my presence felt in a game, inevitably I will be thrown into a situation that will require me to have a good punt.''
Nortman was quick to add, "I expect every punt to be a good punt.''
While Nortman has been in big games and pressure situations before, Michigan State's Mike Sadler has not been. Sadler, a redshirt freshman, has replaced Aaron Bates, a second-team All-American.
Bates was a four-year fixture.
Sadler has 23 career punts; 136 fewer than Nortman.
Spartan Stadium can be unforgiving to kickers; experienced or inexperienced.
"Besides the chilly Midwest weather,'' Nortman pointed out, "it's a challenge because of the way the stadium is shaped; the openings and such -- allowing wind drafts to come in and swirl.''
It can be particularly tricky for placekickers, whether it's Michigan State's Dan Conroy, who's 6-of-9 on the season, or Wisconsin's Philip Welch, who's just rounding into form after being injured.
As such, Nortman is hoping the Badgers have an edge since each member of the "field goal operation'' is a senior: the snapper (Kyle Wojta), the holder (Nortman) and the kicker (Welch).
"We've just been around for a long time,'' Nortman conceded.
Welch is just happy to be kicking again after dealing with a frustrating quad injury. Last Saturday, he converted on his first field goal attempt of the season; a 38-yarder against Indiana.
"It helped a lot to get that first one out of the way,'' said Welch. "I'd say that I'm about 90 percent (physically) but with the adrenaline on game day I'll be 100 percent.''
In some ways, the injury might have been a blessing.
"I've learned to appreciate what I had -- coming back now is actually more fun,'' Welch said. "It helped me appreciate the football can be taken away from you at any moment.''
Asked whether he felt any degree of urgency to return as soon as possible from the injury to enhance his NFL marketability, Welch said, "The main thing is helping the team.''
Nortman believes that Welch can be a big help in potentially a close game. "Kyle French stepped in and did a great job; he has a bright future,'' he said. "But having him (Welch) back is an asset.''
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.