For Wisconsin sports fans, the month of October was filled with decisively more tricks than treats.
Sure, the Green Bay Packers continued to distance themselves from the rest of the NFL field with four straight victories against patsies both inside (St. Louis, Minnesota) and outside their conference (Denver).
The 7-0 Packers are playing so well that it is legitimately tough to figure out how they will lose to any of the teams left on their schedule. Chances are slim to none that they will go undefeated, but they’ll be favored in every one of their games going forward, with away games at the they-can’t-be-this-bad San Diego (this Sunday) and the inconsistent New York Giants (12/4) the most obvious traps.
But the Packers’ success in October was outweighed for many by the Brewers’ disappointing showing in the National League Championship Series (Shaun Marcum should probably not expect too many holiday cards from fans this year) and by the heartbreaking losses of the past two weeks by the Wisconsin Badgers’ previously-unstoppable football team.
It’s easy now to say that the hype on the Badgers was overdone, but it’s not as if they went out to Columbus or East Lansing and played like the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. The fact is that the Badgers are still a very good football team, and any worry about them slipping into some sort of freefall like they did in 2008 is ridiculous.
Having said that, though, the two crushing losses are a lot to bounce back from. But the smart money is on the Badgers doing just that.
In honor of the Badgers’ 15-spot drop in the AP rankings over the past two weeks, here are the 15 things to watch for on Saturday as Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) hosts Purdue (4-4, 2-2 Big Ten):
1. The Bounce Back. Simply put, now that any dreams of a national championship have been laid to rest with even a shot at the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game now unlikely, can the Badgers play with passion and focus?
2. Wakey-Wakey. The Badgers have gotten off to leads each of the past two weeks, only to go to sleep in the second and third quarters, getting outscored a total of 40-10 in that 30-minute span. That compares to a 72-14 advantage they enjoyed in those two quarters in their first two conference games. They need to have Purdue put away by halftime to ease the fears of the home fans.
3. Special Teams. A year after Brad Nortman’s stunning fake punt secured an upset win at Iowa, the Badgers’ special teams are suddenly anything but. After two game-changing blocked punts and a blocked field goal in the last two weeks, the Badgers need to limit their mistakes in the kicking game.
4. Protect The Quarterback. The Badgers gave up five sacks in the first six games. They then gave up five sacks in just the last two weeks. Not terrible, but pass protection needs to be improved.
5. Where’s The Two-Headed Monster? There’s no doubt that Montee Ball has been the Badgers’ most impressive runner this season, but when Wisconsin was playing its best football earlier in the season, the carries between Ball and James White were typically more evenly split. Last week against Ohio State, Ball had 17 rushes while White had only 5. White needs to be utilized more.
6. Secondary Woes? Obviously the Badgers’ secondary is under scrutiny after the late-game developments of the past two weeks. But outside of a big game by Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins (22-31, 290 yards), the Badgers’ pass defense has been solid, giving up the second-fewest yards per game in the Big Ten through the air, a remarkable feat considering how far behind most teams have been against Wisconsin. In short, too soon to panic over Bucky’s pass defense.
7. A Chance For Redemption. Look for the Badgers’ pass defense to be tested on Saturday, as Purdue’s rushing attack has gone cold as of late, bottoming out with a poor 89 yards total last week against Michigan.
8. Then Again . . . Wisconsin’s rush defense didn’t look so stellar last week, allowing 268 yards on the ground and a healthy 4.6 per carry. The Badgers are now ranked 53rd in the country in rush defense.
9. Go Big Or Go Home. It’s an understatement to say that Wisconsin has been burned by the big play over the last two weeks. They’d like to flip the switch on that, but until last week’s loss to Michigan, Purdue had been the best in the Big Ten at not allowing plays of 20 or more yards. Michigan alone totaled seven such big plays.
10. I Wish I Was Homeward Bound. The Badgers are certainly glad to be back in Madison, where they’ve won 14 straight and scored on average more than 50 points a game this season. Of course most of those games were against the likes of South Dakota and UNLV, but they also looked just as dominant against Nebraska, who have won three straight since getting embarrassed at Camp Randall.
11. The Long And Longer Road. Purdue on the other hand hasn’t won a game on the road this year, losing to Rice in Houston in September. That victory for the Owls was their first against a BCS opponent in ten years. Suffice it to say the Boilermakers struggle outside of West Lafayette.
12. Russell’s Ready To Bust Out. Purdue faced the closest QB the Big Ten has to Russell Wilson last week in Michigan’s Denard Robinson. That matchup didn’t work out so well for Purdue, as Robinson completed 64 percent of his passes and ran for 63 yards and a score. Problem for Purdue is that Wilson’s better. And after the last two weeks, he’s probably angry.
13. Mistakes A-Plenty. Purdue’s been one of the least-disciplined teams in the Big Ten, being on the receiving end of the second-most penalties in the league at 63. Think they’ll have a few false starts against a rowdy Camp Randall crowd?
14. Things Are Never As Bad As They Seem And Never As Good As They Seem. Any suggestion that Wisconsin is now on par with a team like Purdue because of their suddenly similar records is bollocks. Wisconsin is the better team here and they will prove it on Saturday.
15. Final Prediction: Wisconsin 48, Purdue 24.