There are three things I know for certain about my father-in-law: He’s a superb golfer and bowler, he’s very happy that Brett Favre is no longer a Green Bay Packer, and he hates it when a football team runs out the clock to end the first half.
So when Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst dialed up a deep pass from quarterback Scott Tolzein to wide out Isaac Anderson with under a minute left in the first half, I’ll bet my father-in-law was the happiest guy at Camp Randall.
But at the time, even he probably didn’t realize the significance of that play: The throw, which went for 44 yards, led to Philip Welch’s improbable 57-yard field goal (the longest of his career and the second-longest in Badgers history) as the first half ended.
The Badgers, who had been outplayed badly in the first half – their defense was particularly atrocious – never let go of the momentum they gained by Anderson’s catch and Welch’s ensuing kick, and came back to outlast the Fresno State Bulldogs 34-31 in double overtime.
[The worst thing about the victory was that it was won in overtime. College football overtime is the worst thing in sports outside of the Washington Nationals' pitching staff. For the record, although it's preferable, I don't like the NFL's overtime rules either. Professional and college teams should have to play an entire fifth quarter. If the score remains tied after a fifth period, the game should end, like in the NFL, in a tie. Just my opinion.]
On a so-called judgment day for the Big Ten, it appeared as if the Badgers were going to be the day’s first conference casualty, as its soft, uninspired defense let Fresno State’s quarterback Ryan Colburn pick them apart for what was at one point a 21-7 second-quarter lead. By halftime, the Bulldogs had gained 227 yards, 172 of which were gained in the air. (By comparison, Northern Illinois gained just 274 yards in the entire season opener.)
But even the 172 first-half passing yards don’t speak to just how glaringly awful the Badgers’ pass defense was early on. Defensive back Devin Smith was completely outmatched by Bulldog Devon Wylie, who racked up 111 receiving yards in the first thirty minutes, including a easy 70-yard touchdown bomb that made the score 14-0 in the second quarter. The Badgers’ defense did itself no favors by failing to get off the field on third down, allowing the Bulldogs to covert 6-of-9 third down opportunities despite often being in third-and-long situations.
Colburn’s early play overshadowed the play of Scott Tolzien, who himself showed flashes of brilliance – especially in the face of consistent pressure from the Bulldogs’ aggressive defensive line, which pushed around the Badgers’ offensive line for much of the game. Tolzien finished the day 17-of-28 for 225 yards and one touchdown. In the process, Tolzien showed enough poise in the pocket and playmaking ability for fans to hope that the quarterback rotation with freshman Curt Phillips seen last week was merely a one-time experiment.
But for all of the great quarterback play, the Badgers’ victory will be remembered for other reasons. Here are the Channel 3000 3 reasons the Badgers emerged victorious on Saturday:
1. Second-half defense. As bad as the first-half defense was, the Badgers played aggressive, opportunistic defense in the second half and overtime, allowing just three second-half points before the Bulldogs pulled out an overtime touchdown. (But many first-grade flag football teams could score touchdowns against college competition under this silly formula.)
Besides replacing Devin Smith with Niles Brinkley to cover Devon Wylie (who had only three yards receiving in the second half), the biggest key to the second-half turnaround was turnovers: The Badgers picked off Ryan Colburn on Fresno State’s first two drives of the second thirty minutes, with both interceptions coming in Badger territory.
But of course the biggest interception – as well as the most athletic – was Chris Maragos’s leaping end-zone interception in the game’s second overtime. The turnover allowed the Badgers to be comfortably conservative on the last drive and win it with Philip Welch’s 22-yard field goal.
2. John Clay. The Badgers’ best running back had a tough go of it in the first half, as the Bulldogs’ dominance up front resulted in Clay gaining only 27 yards on eight carries. But Clay rewarded Bielema and Chryst for maintaining offensive balance with a 72-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter that gave Wisconsin its first lead.
Clay was also the go-to guy when the game mattered most, as he had the ball on eight of Wisconsin’s ten overtime offensive plays. A solid performance.
3. Special teams. Credit Philip Welch for overcoming a lousy start to his season (he took an 0-for on his first three field goal attempts, including a 47-yard miss in Saturday’s first quarter) to bounce back not only to nail that 57-yard bomb but also the game winner in overtime. Hey, the OT kick was only 22 yards, but try telling Fresno State kicker Kevin Goessling how easy it is to kick field goals. In the two games that the Bulldogs and the Badgers played in the last two years, Goessling hit just 2 of 6 attempts. In short, Fresno State could have won both games had Goessling been more reliable.
Credit for the victory also should go to Badger punter Brad Nortman and Bucky’s punt coverage team: On consecutive second-half drives, Fresno State had to start from their own 3 and their own 1 after Badger punts. This field position was crucial as the Badgers fought to maintain the game’s momentum. Not surprisingly, the Bulldogs came away from those two possessions with no points.
Next up, Wofford at home. The Terriers should give Bucky less trouble than the Bulldogs, but Wofford did beat up on Charleston Southern on Saturday 42-14. It’s doubtful that the 2009 Badgers will emulate last year’s team by following up a victory over Fresno State with a four-game losing streak. Having Tolzien instead of Allan Evridge alone would seem to guarantee that.