Fan Interference: Badgers deserve this shot

C3K sports blogger previews Saturday's title game
Fan Interference: Badgers deserve this shot

It was with some sadness that I read this past week about Gilda’s Club Madison changing its moniker to the much more clinical (not to mention lengthy) sounding name of Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin

In announcing the decision, the club’s director said that “our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed.” True enough. Radner died from ovarian cancer in 1989.

No doubt the Madison chapter of Gilda’s Club does unquestionably wonderful work, but the decision still smacks of disrespect. Not only was Radner one of the finest comedic actresses ever to grace the small screen, but her legacy does indeed live on to this day – not only in her era’s “SNL” repeats (check ‘em out on Netflix), but also in the work of later “SNL” stars like Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Kristen Wiig.

What’s next? New York City eliminates the area of Central Park named Strawberry Fields because John Lennon hasn’t been on the charts in a while? Lincoln, Nebraska becomes Clinton, Nebraska because Abraham Lincoln was president like, so long ago? The Packers change the name of Lambeau Field to Favre Field?

On second thought, forget that last one. That for sure will never happen.

Wisconsin Badger football fans might just want to forget this current football season, despite Montee Ball breaking the NCAA career touchdown record, and despite the team playing in their second – and the second ever – Big Ten Championship game. 

Sure it’s been a tough season, starting with the week 2 surprise loss to Oregon State and the quick firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson and ending with two painful overtime losses to Ohio State and Penn State, the two teams that finished ahead of the Badgers in the Big Ten’s Leaders division.

And no one can argue that were it not for NCAA sanctions keeping the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions out of the postseason, the Badgers’ coaches and players would be home this weekend scouring lightning holiday deals on like the rest of us.

But I would dispute the contention of most that the Badgers are undeserving of playing in this weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game. In many ways, the job that Wisconsin’s coaches and players have done this season in keeping this team competitive is more impressive than what’s been accomplished in recent, more superficially successful seasons.

The biggest challenge facing the coaches this season was not the play of the offensive line, but rather the play at quarterback: Most probably didn’t fully appreciate just how good Russell Wilson was until he graduated and the Badgers responded by trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice with the acquisition of another transfer, former Maryland signal-caller Danny O’Brien. The experiment worked about as well as when the Minnesota Vikings tried to replace old QB Brett Favre with old QB Donovan McNabb. It was a disaster, and Bielema was as quick to pull O’Brien for freshman Joel Stave as he was to oust Markuson. Both moves were controversial, both moves could have been disastrous, and both moves could have sent the season totally off the rails. But it turned out Bielema was correct both times, and he was also correct to plug and play Curt Phillips going forward after getting another look at O’Brien in the October 27 Michigan State loss (another overtime heartbreaker).

While Wilson was missed, the Badgers’ best returning offensive player – RB Montee Ball – presented his own set of challenges for the coaching staff: A bizarre offseason attack that left Ball with severe head injuries – coupled with the early season offensive line issues and inept quarterback play – meant a slow start to the season that in hindsight we all should have seen coming. Then, later in the season, as Ball’s production increased and he approached the NCAA touchdown record, the coaches’ desire to get Ball the TD record at times stagnated their play calling, particularly during those final two overtime losses.

Despite the upheaval on offense, the Badgers’ defense shone throughout the season, finishing as the 17th-ranked scoring defense in the nation and as statistically the second-best in the Big Ten. Their biggest blemish on the season? Allowing 440 yards and 30 points to Nebraska in the Big Ten opener back on September 29, both season highs.

Now the Badgers can get redemption for an earlier season loss by emerging victorious in Saturday’s conference title game. Sound familiar? It worked last year when they narrowly edged out Michigan State in Indianapolis. Can history repeat itself? Let’s look at the Channel 3000 3 storylines to the game:

1. Taylor Martinez vs. Curt Phillips. On paper, the quarterback situation couldn’t be more lopsided in favor of Nebraska. The junior Husker has been the best all-around QB in the Big Ten this year, completing 63 percent of his passes and rushing for 69 yards per game. He’s also been at his best in clutch situations, leading Nebraska to four double-digit second-half comeback victories. In contrast, Curt Phillips has only started three games – Wisconsin’s most recent three contests – in his collegiate career and has never completed more than 14 passes in a single game. But he’s shown enough in those games to give Badger fans hope; having Jared Abbrederis – who left last week’s loss against Penn State with concussion-like symptoms – available could be key to Phillips’s success. Further complicating matters for Phillips is the fact that Nebraska leads the nation in pass defense, only allowing 152 yards per game (although Joel Stave racked up 214 yards against them in September). Making things easier for Phillips is the fact that he isn’t expected to carry the load that Martinez is.

2. Winning a nail-biter. The Badgers are becoming known as a team that can’t win the close ones. (Well, unless those close ones are over clearly inferior teams like Northern Iowa or Utah State.) Since winning in thrilling fashion at Iowa two seasons ago 31-30 (you remember, the Brad Nortman fake punt game), Wisconsin is 1-8 in conference or bowl games decided by a touchdown or less with its only victory coming in last year’s conference title game. In turn, Nebraska won four Big Ten games this year alone that were decided by six points or less, including rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat the Badgers in September. The Huskers have been able to come up with that game-changing play or drive when they need to, whereas the Badgers haven’t. For Wisconsin to win Saturday, those fortunes will have to be reversed.

3. Borland’s Back. If Saturday night’s game turns out to be close – and why shouldn’t it? – one development that could spark the Badgers is the return of junior middle linebacker Chris Borland, who missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. Borland is the top playmaker on Wisconsin’s defense, and he was a key contributor when the Badgers traveled to Lincoln in September, recovering two key fumbles and making nine tackles. As Penn State showed last week, Wisconsin’s run defense isn’t nearly as good without Borland, and the Badgers will face a tough test this week against Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead. The Badgers need Borland, and fortunately, it appears he will be there.

Final prediction: It just goes to show you, that it’s always something. Wisconsin starts its third quarterback of the season in a conference title game that they backed into and they pull off the victory. Wisconsin 24, Nebraska 21.

And to everyone who would disparage the Badgers for playing in this game or to those who don’t know who Gilda Radner is, well, never mind.