Let's start with a basic premise: Wisconsin was never a national title contender.
You know it, I know it, and the American people know it. It was true in August when I was mocked for even suggesting this team could go 10-2 (I predicted 9-3 in a more sane but still pretty optimistic moment); it was true last week when the Badgers were 5-0 and calculating their Rose Bowl hopes, and it's true today.
We were not going to go unbeaten, and frankly, it's better that we didn't only to be exposed by one of those elite-level teams. Think Illinois versus USC in the 2008 Rose Bowl or Notre Dame versus LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. Trust me, it's not a lot of fun watching your team in a game they don't belong in.
With that premise, I can argue the loss to Ohio State came at the right time and in the right manner to make the Badgers a better team.
It's like what Father Hesburgh (Notre Dame's President Emeritus) once said about Notre Dame's annual tilt with Navy: "I want them to win one of these years, just not this year." Why? Because Navy pulling the occasional upset makes it a better game.
Likewise, while I never like seeing us lose, I think this loss may have made the Badgers better, and at just the right moment.
First, what happened? The Badgers made little mistakes that cost them, as we knew they would in this kind of a game. You just don't beat the likes of Ohio State on the road that way. On the other hand, the Badgers proved they could play with the big boys, moving the ball well on offense, softening an elite-level defense with balance, and largely overpowering the Buckeye offensive line.
This week, Iowa comes to Madison. Like Ohio State, Iowa has a great defense and a suspect offense. However, watching Iowa "look past" Northern Iowa and Arkansas State, and seeing them struggle with Michigan, I think it's safe to assume their defense isn't at the elite level that Ohio State's is.
Very good? Yes. Elite? No.
And Iowa's offense performs at about the same level as Ohio State's. Ohio State has better running backs and a scarier quarterback, but Stanzi is a much better passer than Pryor, making the Hawkeyes' vertical threat a little more serious. Like Pryor, however, Stanzi has shown a fair amount on inconsistency so far this season.
In short, this game has upset potential.
Nonetheless, like last week, the Badgers can't throw two interceptions for touchdowns, give up a kickoff return for a touchdown, drop well-thrown balls, commit holding penalties and expect to win.
That's exactly where the loss to the Buckeyes comes in. Looking back on that game, the players who made those mistakes know that it was the difference between a possible upset of a top-10 team on the road and a game that wasn't close. Any one of those mistakes corrected could have changed the shape of the game. This week, there won't be any papering over mistakes during practice.
I'm going to skip the interceptions; developing a quarterback takes more than a week. But let's take a look at some other mistakes the Badgers can correct:
First up? J.J. Watt fails to contain Pryor on the backside towards the end of the first half. If he stays in his lane, Watt throws Pryor for a five-yard loss, putting the Buckeyes in a difficult down and distance in their own end, not wanting to make mistakes (this is Tressel ball, after all). That probably prevents the go-ahead touchdown they score a few plays later.
Speaking of which, same for Fenelus turning his head on the touchdown pass into the end zone. If he turns and plays the ball, no touchdown, instead a field-goal try, and the Badgers go into the half no worse than tied.
You can bet these two defenders will have those mistakes in mind during practice this week.
Now, back to the offense. Down 21-10, but driving, Tolzien throws to Isaac Anderson, who is open over the middle for a first down inside the Buckeye 20. While the ball is a touch behind him, it's a ball that the Badgers' No. 1 receiver should catch every time. He drops it, and the Badgers settle for a field goal. You think Anderson doesn't have that in his mind this week?
The kick brings the Badgers back within eight, and the way their defense is playing, they are back in the game, despite giving up 14 points on interception returns.
The ensuing kickoff ends it, right? Actually, no, but before we get to that let's take a look at the return. First, Welch likely didn't intend to groove it right down the center of the field. On his prior three kickoffs, he put them to his left, towards special teams-standout Chris Borland, who was in on the play on each of those. This one, straight down the middle. Mental lapse.
Second, two players on coverage slowed up as they approached the wedge, and shied away from it. If they go slamming in there, does Small go untouched? Probably not, and the Badger defense likely gets a chance to get back on the field and do its thing.
Easy corrections to make this week, and a great reminder that when playing solid teams you don't get to take plays off.
As I said, the game still wasn't entirely out of reach. Watching the replay last night, I was reminded how close the Badgers came to making it an eight point game again on the next drive.
I don't mean to pick on Isaac Anderson. I like him a lot, and I've chearleaded for him while others were singing the praises of David Gilreath. But if he catches the touchdown he had slip through his fingers on that drive, the Badgers are down eight having scored on two consecutive drives, and force the Buckeyes to make something on offense.
From where I sat in Ohio Stadium, I didn't see how close that play was. Watching it on my DVR last night, I saw that there was no excuse for him missing it. As it turned out, the dropped pass may have been the pivotal difference between another close battle between the Buckeyes and Badgers, and the blowout it became.
If he catches the ball there, it's a one-score game. Instead, the Badgers come up short on third down and go for the field goal...and miss it. The Buckeyes put together a field-goal scoring drive, and the game is effectively over. It wasn't through outstretched fingers, on extended arms; the ball went right through his hands.
Think Anderson isn't thinking about those two drops this week?
Now, Iowa comes to town, undefeated, No. 10 in the country. With a win, the Badgers can catapult themselves into respectability and contention for a high-level bowl, and even keep themselves in the Big Ten title race (if Ohio State drops one), with only Michigan (in Madison) expected to give them any real fight the rest of the way.
Iowa's defense isn't quite Ohio State's, but they are solid. Every play will count. The experience at Ohio State, playing a competitive game, but losing big because of little mistakes, will inform the Badgers' practice habits this week, and should translate to improved precision on the field on Saturday.
Moreover, even in the loss the Badgers gained confidence in their ability to play with the big boys.
Will it be enough? Who's to say. But the loss to Ohio State may have been just what the doctor ordered.
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