Good Friday morning to you all. In about 36 hours, we should know who is going to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten Champions after Saturday night's game in Lucas Oil Stadium between the Wisconsin Badgers and your Nebraska Cornhuskers.
As we did the first time around, we hit up Mike Fiammetta, one of the fine head folks over at the SBNation Wisconsin community, Bucky's 5th Quarter.
This time around, we talked about what has happened to Wisconsin since that evening in Lincoln, what to expect from Curt Phillips, if Wisconsin is better on either side of the ball, and his idea of how the game will end up. We thank him for his contribution.
1. Well, fancy seeing you here again Mike. Did you think that the Badgers had a chance for this game after the loss in Lincoln?
Glad to be here, Brian. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what I thought after the loss in Lincoln. Given everything that’s transpired since, my memory of that night is still somewhat fuzzy. The pain of that loss has also repressed that memory far, far into the back of my mind.
To be more helpful, I guess, I’ll say that at time, the loss didn’t seem to suggest what came next: three easy wins followed by three killer overtime losses in four games. If you had told me that’s what would follow the loss in Lincoln, I’d be on my way to the Gator Bowl right now.
2. Even though you’re heading into the B1G Title game from your win against Indiana, Wisconsin has lost 3 of their last 4 games, all in overtime. Has there been a certain way the Badgers lose these games that are alarming to you?
I’d say the lack of sustained offense has been especially painful. Bret Bielema and co. seemed hesitant, at first, to unleash Curt Phillips’s arm. Can’t say I blame them, considering the redshirt senior just this year made his first starts. But Wisconsin has managed only an average of 16 points and 300 yards per game over those three overtime losses. That naturally feeds the late-game desperation, and all of a sudden, with many people expecting another close game this Saturday, there are very warranted questions about Wisconsin’s ability to win close games.
3. Curt Phillips is now your quarterback after losing Joel Stave to that broken collarbone. What does he offer that gets him on the field over Danny O’Brien?
Asking that question to Bret Bielema and his staff, or Phillips teammates, has elicited an answer praising Phillips’ toughness and work ethic in working past three ACL surgeries to not only keep playing football, but to finally make it onto the field in his fifth year (he is applying for a sixth year of eligibility that is expected to be granted). Before his injuries, Phillips came to Wisconsin as a highly touted dual-threat quarterback from Tennessee. We haven’t really been able to see much of Phillips on the run lately -- at least not enough to definitely say how much he’s been slowed -- though you have to imagine that’s the case, to some extent.
Personally, I’ve been impressed with Phillips’ arm strength and decision-making. He’s thrown four touchdowns to one interception over the three starts, though his 52.6 completion percentage is even lower than the 58.3 mark he posted as a redshirt freshman in 2009, when he completed seven of 12 passes. That obviously has to improve. I also wouldn’t be shocked if we see a glimpse of O’Brien, though I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it. Bielema loves to drop hints that he has plays for DOB in the game plan, though that’s likely meant to keep teams off-kilter. Simply put, it never seemed he grasped the offense as well as everyone expected after his transfer.
4. Montee Ball has come back to earth the second half of the season after being marginally good the first half. Has he just gotten back to himself, or is it a combination of him and the offensive line finally becoming a cohesive unit?
The offensive line has certainly become more cohesive, and I’ve pegged that as the largest key to the entire offense’s struggles this season. Ball has dealt with so much -- the offseason assault that left him with a concussion, another concussion in Week 2, the failure to meet Heisman Trophy finalist expectations -- but to me, he never "looked different." The numbers just weren’t there.
5. Even with the 3 losses in 4 games, seems like the defense has also gotten a lot better in the second half of the season, only giving up a max of 24 points to Penn State. What’s changed between the first game in Lincoln and this Saturday with that group?
I would say a more disciplined pass rush has coupled with strong linebacker play and an increasingly healthier defense have fostered the change. The most tangible results have been Wisconsin’s ranks in rushing defense (second in the Big Ten with 111.3 yards allowed per game) and 3rd-down defense (third with a 32.4 percent stop rate).
Against Nebraska, linebacker Chris Borland is expected to return after missing the past two games with a hamstring injury. Even with the absence, Borland is third on the team in tackles (82) and first in both sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (2). His return alone could provide the kind of boost that might decide a grudge match.
6. Alright, let’s hear how you think Saturday night in Indianapolis will go. How will the game go, and a final score of the B1G Championship. Do you think the Badgers repeat?
I do think the Badgers will repeat, and my faith largely rests in the fact that 1) Wisconsin typically thrives in the underdog role and 2) Wisconsin very nearly beat Nebraska in its own stadium. However the crowd shakes out -- you have to imagine it’ll be around 50-50, right? -- I see this one being close, but a stellar rushing attack against the Big Ten’s eighth-ranked rushing defense carries the Badgers to a 21-17 victory.