Well, at least we know this isn’t 2008. That year, coming into the season with high expectations, the Badgers blew a 19 point lead at Michigan and wound up on a four game losing skid, derailing the season. Some fans, including myself, wondered if there was any risk of a similar letdown season this year, after crushing emotional losses to Sparty and the Buckeyes the last two weeks. Yesterday, the Badgers demonstrated why those fears should be put to rest.
In what can only be described as a field day for the Wisconsin offense, the Badgers posted 62 points on Purdue, while only giving up 17. Scoring 60+ has seemingly become the norm in Madison. It had been missing the last two weeks on the road against stout defenses in East Lansing and Columbus. Saturday reminded fans of how good this team can be when it’s firing on all cylinders.
Initially things looked questionable, that this may turn into a shootout. At the end of the first quarter, Bucky led 14-10, with the Boilermakers being kept in the game thanks to poor special teams coverage (both on punt and kickoff) by the Badgers. However, after the first quarter the Badgers took over, posting 24 points in the second quarter, 14 in the third, and 10 in the fourth.
Offensively the Badgers looked like themselves from the first six games of the season. Russell Wilson made plays with his arm and his legs, throwing 15/20 for 205 and 2 TDs (no picks), and rushing for 76 yards and 1 TD. He looked noticeably more comfortable in the pocket, not getting flustered under pressure, and not making silly mistakes like poor throws (for INTs) or intentional grounding penalties. Montee Ball made a strong case for being the team’s most valuable offensive player, putting up career high numbers with 223 yards on 20 attempts (11.2 avg) and 3 touchdowns. By the same token, his numbers wouldn’t have been possible without the dominant performance of the Offensive Line, which dominated the line of scrimmage. They appeared to be playing with anger, after being questioned following a lackluster run game against Ohio State last week. Receivers also stepped up, noticeably youngster Jeff Duckworth, who led the team in yardage – 2 catches for 78 yards. Toon (3-35 yds), Pederson (2-28 yds, 1 TD), and Abbrederis (2-19, 1 TD) also chipped in. Yes it is true that Purdue doesn’t rank high defensively, but it is still uplifting to see the Badgers O get its groove back after heart-wrenching losses to MSU and OSU. Bucky had 605 total yards in the contest (241 passing, 364 rushing).
Defensively things were working as well. Except for some seriously bad Badger play on special teams coverage and a poor play in the first quarter, things were on lock down for Purdue in Camp Randall. They were held scoreless in the second half, and limited to 17 in the first. Those types of numbers simply won’t do against the high flying Wisconsin offense. What made it happen was improved play by the defensive line, and consistently great performances from the linebacker unit. Chris Borland had one of his best games ever, locking up 11 tackles, 3.5 for loss, with 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. It was almost like a flashback to Borland from 2009 when he won Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Penalties (8-65 yds) and turnovers killed Purdue at key moments, stifling drives and giving the Badgers excellent field position. The Boilers ended the day with 284 total yards of offense (164 passing, 120 rushing). Some slightly concerning news – Senior Captain and starting Free Safety Aaron Henry left the contest in the first half with an apparent ankle injury. Reports indicate nothing is broken, so time will tell as to his return.
Overall this was an almost flawless performance for the Badgers. It gives hope that they have rebounded emotionally from the two losses in previous weeks. For those games, Wisconsin couldn’t get out of its own way – blocked punts for TDs, INTs, penalties. (Potential song lyric!) Luckily, none of those were a serious problem against Purdue. Special teams does remain a serious concern, but the improved play from the O-Line, Russell Wilson’s consistency, and Montee Ball’s dominance are reasons to hope that if Bucky wins out, we could end up in the B1G title game, and potentially the Rose Bowl. Certain things have to fall in place for all that to happen – namely PSU losing to us and beating OSU. All Badger fans can do now is hope that their team takes care of business against the remaining competition. Next week, at arch-rival Minnesota, and Paul Bunyan’s Axe on the line.
MVP: Montee Ball. A case could be made for Russell Wilson, who kept several plays alive with his feet, and was consistent all game. While Russell deserves credit, Ball's performance was simply outstanding (20-223 and 3 TDs). Not only did he set a new career high in yardage, but he racked up 3 more touchdowns, bringing his total for the season to 25 (21 rushing, 3 receiving, 1 passing). The man is a touchdown machine, and he ran with purpose against Purdue. 11.2 yards per carry average? Are you kidding me? Insane numbers. Perhaps him shaving his head this week brought the beast out in him. Whatever it is, all Badger fans hope he continues his hot streak for the rest of the season.
Biggest Concern: Special Teams, enough said. 7 kick returns for 246 yards? That's a 35 yard average, and terrible. It's been 3 weeks in a row now where either punt protection or kick coverage has been a serious liability. Either a coaching change may be necessary, or some serious soul searching, because unless special teams get their act together, the Badgers will be vulnerable.
**Picture courtesy of Neil Ament**