Nov. 26, 2010
By Skip Myslenski
NUsports.com Special Contributor
And so, to end the regular season, it is on to Wisconsin, where (to recap quickly) the 'Cats will meet up against this. The Big Ten team ranked highest nationally (No. 5). The highest-scoring team in the Big Ten (40.9 ppg) and a team not at all embarrassed to pile on the points (witness the 70 they rolled up against Austin Peay and the 83 they laid on Indiana). A team that has scored 31 points or more in each of its last six games. A team with the most-efficient passing attack in the Big Ten (and fifth most-efficient in the country) with a rating of 165.7, and a rushing attack that averages 239.9 ypg (second best in the Big Ten, 12th best in the country). A team that, in addition, has many reasons to be juiced.
Just consider. It has a shot at the Big Ten title. It has a shot at the Rose Bowl. It has a shot to avenge its loss of a year ago to the 'Cats. It has a shot to send its seniors off in style on their day at Camp Randall Stadium. It even has a shot, if it wants to get personal about it, to take it to 'Cat defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who held that same position with the Badgers before coming to Evanston.
"You couldn't ask for a better opportunity," Pat Fitzgerald says in the face of all this. "Nobody's going to Camp Randall to watch us on Saturday. We get to go up and have some fun and hopefully play our best football game of the year. It's going to be a great challenge."
Anything special about going back to Wisconsin, we ask Hankwitz.
"No," he says. "Another Big Ten game and an opportunity for us to get that bad taste out of our mouth that we have from last week."
Last week, of course, Illinois ran over the 'Cats both literally and figuratively at Wrigley Field. Now, in the Badgers, they bump up against a team that can come at them with not one, but with three accomplished foot soldiers who are all among their conference's top 10 rushers. There is John Clay, who averages 103.2 ypg (third). And there is James White, who averages 89.5 ypg (sixth). And there is Montee Ball, who averages 68.6 ypg (ninth). No wonder, then, that 'Cat safety Brian Peters will say, "It's guaranteed they're going to run the ball. We have to bow up, step up. . . If we show up and execute for 60 minutes, it'll be a fun game to watch."
"They do what they do. . . A very powerful running attack. . . A three-headed monster at running back. . .," echoes Fitzgerald. "I've also really been impressed by their fullback (Bradie) Ewing, (number) 34. "The more tape I watch, he embraces the position, plays hard, chops you down, plays through the whistle. Then their offensive line is enormous. . . A lot of beef."
Fitzgerald's mention of both Ewing and that line is hardly mere puffery. They, as well as the Badger tight ends, were named their team's MVPs after their win last week at Michigan.
So how, finally, does the Badgers' rushing attack compare to the Illini's? "Some of the formations they're going to run are similar," says Fitzgerald. "They're going to run some lead plays that Illinois ran. Not as much option. They're going to run some fly sweep that we've seen. They're going to run power like everybody runs power. They've got a great mix. They do what they do. That's a great way for me to describe their program. I think similar to everybody in the Big Ten, very few teams in this league reinvent the wheel week to week, and the teams that are having the most success are going out and executing at a high level and making plays."
The choreographer for these Badgers is a fifth-year senior named Scott Tolzien, whose pass efficiency rating is merely second-best in the Big Ten and seventh-best in the nation. You will not be committed if, while watching him, you flash back to Iowa's visit to Ryan Field two Saturdays ago since even Fitzgerald says: "A lot of similarities to some of the other guys we've seen, some of the elite quarterbacks in this league. There's no question Scotty's right up there. Similar schemes to what Iowa does with Ricky (Stanzi, the most-efficient passer in the Big Ten). Kind of hammer it in there and have great play action pass off of it (to) not only wide receivers, but also tight ends who can make you pay down the field. So, yeah. He does a great job. He manages the game well. The same thing I said about Ricky Stanzi. He doesn't take a lot of, I guess, poor risks. He's going to throw the ball down the field. But he's not going to make poor decisions. He's not going to take risks to put the offense in a bad situation. . . So he's given his team a chance to just keep moving the ball and offensively, when you manage a game like that, you have a chance to keep drives alive and get first downs and that's what they've done."
"He's a tremendous competitor," his own coach, Bret Bielema, says of Tolzien. "If there's one word to sum up Scotty, it's an easy way to say it, but he has an uncanny way of just being a winner in everything he does."
Note well that Fitzgerald mentioned the Badgers' tight end, who is not merely an ornament in their passing game. His name is Lance Kendricks and he is not only his team's leading receiver. He is also one of the three finalists for the Mackey Award that goes to the nation's best at his position.
This, from Fitzgerald, sums up the Badgers as neatly and succinctly as possible: "I think they're a great football team. You don't have 10 wins by accident after 11 weeks. . . They've got great players. They probably have as many guys that'll be nominated for All-Big Ten as anyone in the league. I think we're just playing a great team, something we aspire to have said about us. At times we've played that way. We've just got to continue to trust in ourselves and play that way."
Daunting, then, would be an appropriate adjective to describe the task now confronting the 'Cats. But, of course, that same word was in use after they fell to Penn State and as they prepared to take on highly ranked and highly regarded Iowa. That is why the last word here shall go to Fitzgerald, who duly notes: "It's going to be a great challenge for us. . . But we've been in this position before, unfortunately. I wish we weren't, but we have been."
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