Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
The Badgers' record hardly tells the whole story
It's 12/12/12, which means we've got 20 days until the Rose Bowl. Now seems like a good time to start scouting out Stanford's opponent. Today, let's start by taking a look at Wisconsin's schedule.
At first glance, Wisconsin's season looks a whole lot like Stanford's, with one glaring difference. Both teams are undefeated in double-digit games (6-0 for the Badgers, 4-0 for the Cardinal). The obvious distinction between the teams comes in one-score games: Wisconsin is 2-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer, while Stanford is 7-2.
The Badgers' five losses came by a combined 19 points, which would lead any reasonable person to say that this team is not nearly as bad as its record. Add in the fact that three of those five losses came in overtime, and Wisconsin starts to look like a completely different squad than the unit that will enter Pasadena as the first ever five-loss team to play in the Rose Bowl.
However, just as win-loss record doesn't tell you the whole story, neither does winning margin. A home overtime loss to undefeated Ohio State can be seen as a "good loss," but what about a home overtime loss to mediocre Michigan State? Is there such thing as a "bad win"? If so, you would have to think that a five-point home victory against a sub-.500 FCS team would have to qualify.
So let's look game-by-game at Wisconsin's road to Pasadena.
Game 1: Wisconsin 26, Northern Iowa 21. Teams often start the year flat, but this was quite the scare for the Badgers. Wisconsin led 26-7 in the fourth quarter at home against an FCS team, but the Badgers gave up two touchdowns and were on the verge of giving up a third before making a crucial stop on fourth-and-1. When you consider that Northern Iowa had virtually no running game (41 yards total, no rush for more than eight yards), couldn't stop Wisconsin through the air (9.5 yards per pass) or on the ground (167 yards for Montee Ball and James White), and forced zero turnovers, the game really should not have been that close. In hindsight: This win looks even worse, as Northern Iowa ended up going 5-6 for the season and gave up more than 26 points in all its other losses.
Game 2: Oregon State 10, Wisconsin 7. This was a shocker. Oregon State was coming off a 3-9 season and had yet to play a game in 2012 after its opener against Nicholls State was postponed. Even so, the Beavers completely stifled Wisconsin, holding the Badgers scoreless until the waning moments and limiting the potent Wisconsin running game to only 35 rushing yards. In hindsight: This loss looks a heck of a lot better now, as Oregon State turned out to be a much better team than anyone would have predicted. Now this looks like an impressive job to hold the Beavers to only 10 points in Corvallis.
Game 3: Wisconsin 16, Utah State 14. Three games, three very shaky results. Wisconsin was very lucky not to be 0-3 after this one, let alone have a winning record. The Aggies outgained the host Badgers by 74 yards, won the turnover battle, and had a 14-3 lead at halftime. But Wisconsin scored two touchdowns in the third quarter and survived, thanks to a missed 37-yard field-goal attempt by USU's Josh Thompson in the final seconds. In hindsight: This was another game that looks a lot better now than it did at the time. Utah State was coming off a crazy 2011 season that saw the Aggies go 5-5 in one-score games, but no one thought much of them as a team that could hang with Wisconsin. Now Utah State is 10-2 and ranked, so any win over the Aggies looks pretty good.
Game 4: Wisconsin 37, UTEP 26. This was finally a two-score win, but it was far from convincing for the Badgers. Ball had the first fumble of his career in this game, and he later had to leave the game due to injury. Wisconsin led 23-6 before the Miners reeled of 13 straight, and it took two touchdowns in the span of 15 seconds late in the fourth quarter to put the game away. On the bright side, the Badger running game really got going, despite the loss of Ball, with 213 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. In hindsight: Not so great. UTEP went 3-9 this season, and the Miners only scored 26 points or more against three other teams: New Mexico State, Houston, and Southern Miss.
Game 5: Nebraska 30, Wisconsin 27. In one of the crazier games of the year, Wisconsin led 27-10 in the third quarter at Nebraska, thanks in large part to three touchdown runs from Ball. The Cornhuskers seemed to flip a switch, though, as they reeled off 20 unanswered points over the next 15 minutes to take a 30-27 lead, and Ball fumbled on a late fourth-and-1 to give Nebraska the win. For the game, Nebraska outrushed Wisconsin 259-56, which just about always spells doom for the Badgers. In hindsight: This game looks far more interesting now because of what happened between these two teams nine weeks later. In particular, note the rushing discrepancy.
Game 6: Wisconsin 31, Illinois 14. Finally, an easy win. Not that it was easy all the way through; the score was tied 7-7 at halftime. Still, the Badgers dominated the second half, Ball ran for 6.1 yards per carry, and Wisconsin got its first comfortable win. In hindsight: It's a good thing this win was easy. As it turns out, this was only the third of the Fighting Illini's nine straight losses to end the season, and hardly any of them were close.
Game 7: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 14. There they are. For the first time all season, Wisconsin put together a dominant effort for four quarters, pounding the Boilermakers throughout to win its first road game of the year. Ball had one of the best games of his career, rushing for 247 yards and three touchdowns while passing Ron Dayne for the Big Ten record for career touchdowns. In all, the Badgers put up 467 yards on the ground. In hindsight: This fits with a pretty clear pattern for Purdue. Against FBS competition that finished .500 or better, Purdue went 0-6, while the Boilermakers went 6-0 against the bad teams on their schedule. This game was in the middle of a five-game losing streak, with four of the five by at least 16 points.
Game 8: Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 13. Another blowout win, another impressive rushing performance. This time, Ball and White combined for 341 yards and five touchdowns on the ground, and Wisconsin cruised to its third straight comfortable win. In hindsight: This looks about the same now as it did then. Minnesota got off to a hot start, mostly against subpar teams, before struggling in the meat of its conference action.
Game 9: Michigan State 16, Wisconsin 13 (OT). After three straight easy wins, this was somewhat of an unexpected loss. The Spartans and Badgers always seem to be in tight games, but at 4-4, this was not the same Michigan State team of years past. Add in the fact that Wisconsin was leading 10-3 with under two minutes left, and this would not be the time that you would expect the Badgers to lose at home for the first time in over three years. But that's just what happened, as the Spartans pulled off a 12-play, 75-yard drive to tie the game with 1:08 left in regulation before winning it with a touchdown in overtime. As usual, rushing yards told the story, as Wisconsin was held to only 19 yards on the ground. In hindsight: Another game that seems to be as much of a missed opportunity now as it did at the time. Michigan State had to win its final game just to get to 6-6, although the Spartans were more successful away from home in 2012, going 4-1.
Game 10: Wisconsin 62, Indiana 14. The Badgers came out angry after their tough loss, and Indiana was the unfortunate victim of the Wisconsin ground-game buzzsaw. Wisconsin piled up a school-record 564 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns to get win No. 7. Along with being a rout, the win was actually crucial for the Badgers, as they clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. In hindsight: It seems somewhat ridiculous that this was ever an important game, because Indiana's defense was so bad all year. The 62 points were impressive, but they came against a team that gave up over 40 on six different occasions, so it was somewhat par for the course.
Game 11: Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14 (OT). Although Wisconsin had already locked up a spot in the Big Ten title game, this was a tough loss. The Badgers outgained the Buckeyes 360-236, but all the little things (an OSU punt-return touchdown, a missed field goal, a goal-line fumble by Ball, and a 26-percent conversion rate on third downs) gave Ohio State a late lead. However, Curt Phillips led the Badgers on a late drive, tying the game with a touchdown pass with only eight seconds left. Wisconsin could not answer Ohio State's overtime touchdown, though, dooming the Badgers to their second overtime home loss. In hindsight: There's not much we didn't know about Ohio State by the time this game came around. The Buckeyes went undefeated but rarely dominated good teams, and that trend continued in this game.
Game 12: Penn State 24, Wisconsin 21 (OT). The Badgers' regular season ended with yet another excruciating loss. Ball set the NCAA record for career touchdowns in the first quarter, and Wisconsin led 14-7 at the half. After Penn State put up 14 straight points to take a 21-14 lead, Phillips led the Badgers on another late drive. This time, he tied things up with 18 seconds left on the clock to put Wisconsin in overtime for the third time in a month. After a Penn State field goal, Wisconsin's offense stalled and Kyle French missed a 44-yard field-goal attempt to end it. In hindsight: This was an emotional game for Penn State, as this was the team's final game of the season. Wisconsin, on the other hand, had no motivation to win this game, so making it to overtime in Happy Valley is impressive.
Game 13: Wisconsin 70, Nebraska 31. Wow. I think that was just about everyone's reaction upon seeing the Big Ten Championship Game. After consecutive disappointing losses, the Badgers exploded for 10 touchdowns, eight of them on the ground, in a romp over a team that had beaten them just a couple months before. The numbers were astounding: Ball ran for 202 yards and three touchdowns, Melvin Gordon had a touchdown and 216 yards on only nine carries, and White had 109 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, plus a touchdown pass. As a team, Wisconsin ran for 10.8 yards per carry, and all three main backs had a touchdown run of over 50 yards. There is still no word if anyone has found the Nebraska defense. In hindsight: The only hindsight we can have is time, as this was the last game either of these teams played.
Looking back on Wisconsin's schedule, you can see some trends. For one thing, if the Badgers run the ball effectively, they are almost impossible to stop. If they don't, it's going to be a close game. I think it is also pretty clear that Wisconsin is a much different team now than it was in September.
As for how Stanford fits into this picture, there will be more to come on that topic in the coming days and weeks. But it's fair to say that Wisconsin shouldn't expect to run for 500+ on the Cardinal defense.