Wisconsin Stomps Northwestern, Could Be Smelling Roses
MADISON, Wisc. -- In any debate, it's always good to get the last word. The last word is the last impression. If it's a good, memorable one, it'll linger in the minds of the people you are trying to persuade.
Thanks to a three-way tie between Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan State, the Big Ten's Rose Bowl representative will be determined by a vote. Whichever team finishes highest in the final BCS Poll on Dec. 5 will be going to Pasadena. Who should go? Wisconsin got the last word in that debate, and that word was "stomp." The No. 5 Badgers kicked Northwestern to the curb, 70-23, on Saturday.
Seventy points. Again. That's the third time this season the Badgers have scored at least 70. The first, against Austin Peay of the FCS, was expected. The second, an 83-20 squashing of the Indiana Hoosiers, made coach Bret Bielema and his presumed bad sportsmanship fodder for sports talk radio all over the country.
Let me nip this in the bud: Wisconsin did not run up the score on the Wildcats.
Northwestern committed seven turnovers. Wisconsin committed none. Any time a team is plus-seven in turnover margin, it's going to win by a large margin. Some teams would be happy to finish plus-seven on the year.
Bielema took heat after the Indiana game for continuing to throw the ball when Wisconsin's lead was far beyond insurmountable. In this game, the Badgers attempted exactly one pass in the second half. It was a killer, a 40-yard bomb from Scott Tolzien to David Gilreath, but still, it was the only pass attempt of the second half for the Badgers. Bielema also pulled his offensive starters at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Wisconsin's final touchdown came on a 50-yard interception return by Aaron Henry just before the end of the third quarter. Henry had recovered a Northwestern fumble in the second quarter which the Badgers quickly converted into a touchdown.
Northwestern had its opportunities as well. Even though Wisconsin was up 14-0 before the first quarter was halfway over, the Wildcats didn't give up. Coach Pat Fitzgerald used two freshman quarterbacks, Evan Watkins and Kain Colter, to replace the injured Dan Persa. Both had success running the ball on quarterback keepers. It seemed like every time the Wildcats started to move the ball, though, Wisconsin would force a turnover. Watkins completed 13 of 22 passes but threw three interceptions. Colter completed only one of his three pass attempts -- and it was to Wisconsin's Mike Taylor.
"We can put all the blame on those guys (Watkins and Colter)," Fitzgerald said after the game, "but it's not fair. It's not just those turnovers. We got a chance on defense to go and get (Wisconsin) off the field but we just didn't do that."
No, they didn't. Wisconsin was running and throwing to open space all day long. When the Wildcats closed in, they couldn't tackle. At times it was almost comical, as when Wisconsin tight end Lance Kendricks made three Northwestern defenders who were closing in on him miss. What did he do?
He stood still. They tackled the air in front of him.
Look, Bielema's picture would be in the dictionary next to the word "irascible" if anybody was still printing dictionaries. I don't doubt that he'd slap around an opponent just to score points with the voters who held his team's postseason fortunes in their hands. I know what I saw, though. The Badgers weren't running up the score. They're just a phenomenally talented football team playing out of their minds right now, and Northwestern couldn't stop them.
Montee Ball ran 20 times for 178 yards and four touchdowns. James White ran 20 times for 134 yards and another score. Scott Tolzien completed 15 of 19 passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns. Ball and White, you must note, are backups to John Clay, who saw limited playing time as he continues to recover from an ankle injury. Tolzien was third on the depth chart heading into camp last season. The offensive skill players were impressive. But they weren't the most impressive Badgers in this game.
Defensive lineman JJ Watt would be that most impressive Badger. Watt, a junior, will be talked about in hushed tones on Northwestern message boards for years to come. He made seven tackles, all unassisted. He recorded a sack, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, a pass block and three quarterback hurries. Every time something horrible happened for Northwestern's offense, Watt was involved. Watt so dominated this game that Fitzgerald didn't really want to talk about him after the game.
"He's a great football player," he said. "I know how you want me to expand on some superlatives, but he's a tremendous football player."
So that's the case Wisconsin made. That's its argument for why it, and not Ohio State or Michigan State, should be going to Pasadena. Never mind that Michigan State beat the Badgers in East Lansing. That was back in early October, which in football terms is practically last season. The Badgers won at Iowa. Sparty got deep-fried by the now-withering Hawkeyes. Ohio State shouldn't be in the discussion with Wisconsin. The Badgers beat them straight up, 31-18, in a game the Buckeyes were never really in. Maybe the Buckeyes think they could beat Wisconsin in a rematch. Maybe they should think about that some more.
Michigan State and Ohio State played in the early games today. Wisconsin played late. The Badgers should get the last word in the Rose Bowl debate, and this is what Bret Bielema said after the game: "I think we're playing as well as anybody in the country right now."
I wouldn't argue.