Badgers in a bit, but first let's get to the toast of the town.
I'm starting to wonder if DJ Khalid plays for the Milwaukee Brewers. After every game the Crew wins at Miller Park, "All I Do Is Win" blares through the speakers. Hold on...let me rephrase that. After every game the Crew plays at Miller Park, "All I Do Is Win" blares through the speakers. I mean, c'mon, folks. This is getting flat out ridiculous. I understand that the Brewers have hit a rather smooth portion of the schedule, with the only team in the past three weeks or so giving the Beermakers any sort of trouble being the Cardinals. I'm also aware that you could argue the road woes aren't gone for good (although I think those days are behind us). And of course, 15 of the last 21 games have been at home against rather easy opponents, a stretch where the Brewers have gone an astounding 19-2. But hey...do I look like I care? Milwaukee is 73-51 (wow), seven games ahead of St. Louis in the Central (wow) and Zack Greinke has been making me say "wow" a lot over his last eight starts, basically all the starts he's made post-All-Star break. Just how much (and how quickly) has the man who has now earned back the nickname "Zack Attack" turned his performance around?
July 3: 7-3, 5.66 ERA
August 17: 12-4, 3.92 ERA
Holy Toledo. What changed for Greinke? You could look into various statistics to find out...or you could just use your own two eyes. Greinke just flat out isn't messing around anymore. He's keeping hitters off-balance a lot better than he did earlier in the season while nailing his spots. When he wants to make batters chase with two strikes, he buries his nasty curveball in the dirt. When he needs an out pitch, he doesn't just rifle a gopherball right down the kitchen sink...he still pinpoints it, and it isn't necessary always a fastball. Notice how Greinke has been giving up more walks lately? Early on, he had a ridiculous K/BB ratio, but he was too predictable...guys knew that he was always going to throw strikes, and even though Greinke has such great stuff, hitters were able to zero in every once in awhile and hit it out of the park. Now, he's willing to accept giving up bases on balls so that he doesn't have to watch as many balls fly over the wall. That, combined with his improved command, is why Greinke is in the state he is...just took a little longer than we would've preferred.
Aside from that, the offensive production seems to be down in part to not having Rickie Weeks in the lineup and facing some good pitching as of late, but when your pitching is this good, it don't matter. Everyone is getting it done...even Marco Estrada, even without a lefty in the 'pen. It's an incredible luxury to be able to burn either LaTroy Hawkins or Takashi Saito in the sixth and seventh inning. Lately, the Brewers haven't even had to do that because of how stellar the starting five has been. Even when the games are close in the later innings, you just have that feeling, especially at Miller Park, that someone will come up with a big hit. When the pitching can always be counted on to keep it close, it takes so much pressure off the offense. And that's about all I have to say about the stifling hot Milwaukee Brewers, but damn has it been fun.
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2010 Wisconsin Badgers: 11-2, Lost in Rose Bowl vs. TCU
We weren't left with a very good taste in our mouths the night of January 1, 2011, also known as the day that the Badgers fell to Texas Christian University in the Rose Bowl. To be fair, the Badgers lost to a quarterback who will be starting in the National Football League this season and a tank disguised as a football player went completely off (Tank Carder for those of you keeping track at home). In my opinion, the respect that the Badgers' defense gave Dalton and diverting from the run game cost the Badgers a Rose Bowl trophy. But that was seven and a half months ago and it's time to turn a new page.
The 2011 Wiscon - holy crap, a bat! That startled me a bit. That thing flew in here like a bat out of hell (sorry) - sin Badgers have lost a few key pieces from last season, but they've gained a few as well.
Key losses: DE J.J. Watt, RB John Clay, TE Lance Kendricks, QB Scott Tolzien, OT Gabe Carimi, OG John Moffitt, SS Jay Valai, LB Culmer St. Jean, WR/KR David Gilreath, Defensive Coordinator Dave Doeren.
Key gains: QB Russell Wilson, LB Chris Borland (injury)
It might not look good on paper as the Badgers lost a ton of talent from a year ago. In fact, they only return 11 starters total, although a few others have starting experience. Still, there are several players ready to step up this season and there simply isn't another team in the Big Ten that's in as good of shape as Wisconsin. Of course, the move that everyone has been talking about is the arrival of North Carolina State transfer Russell Wilson, a man who would've set numerous ACC passing records had he not tried to chase his dream to play baseball. Since Wilson realized baseball wasn't going to work...at least for now...he turned his attention to football and made the move to Madtown, much to the delight of the Grateful Red. So we know who will replace Scotty T, who is now in the San Diego Chargers' camp, but what about at the other positions that took a hit? On the offensive line, there is always another massive body ready to step in, and surprisingly enough, the Badgers return players with lots of experience - even at tackle and guard. Ricky Wagner will take over at left tackle for Gabe Carimi and even though Wagner can't be expected to have the same impact as Carimi, he had a helluva 2010 season in place of Josh Oglesby, who will try to hold on at right tackle yet again this year. Travis Fredrick will fill in for Moffitt, a 6'4" 330 lb sophomore who has seen some time and should fit in nicely between Wagner and center Peter Konz.
The O-line continuing their success shouldn't come as a surprise, and neither should it at tailback. John Clay's loss doesn't even hurt the Badger offense. In fact, it might even help it. It will give junior Montee Ball and sophomore James White a lot more carries and even allow highly touted freshman Jeffrey Lewis to see the field a bit. I'm normally excited each and every season to see what the Badgers' backfield can do, but this season has me more excited than I can ever remember. And with the addition of Wilson at quarterback, teams will have to respect the pass, and Wilson's dual-threat ability, giving the backs even more of an advantage to go along with the beastly offensive line. But wait...there's more. The Badgers' receiving situation is in good hands with the return of a hopefully healthy Nick Toon and breakout freshman turned sophomore Jared Abberderis. Behind these two, there aren't any proven commodities, but once again, this is where Wilson should prove to be so valuable. Finally, the loss of Kendricks will be impossible to replace, but with tight end Jake Bryne as more of a blocking specialist, look for sophomore Jacob Pedersen to step up and make his mark - he could have some impressive numbers at year's end with only two proven targets at wide out.
That's the offense...now for the D. The Badgers' borderline prolific offense overshadowed what was a pretty good defensive unit...a unit that is hugely responsible for the Badgers' Rose Bowl appearance. For Wisconsin to once again to return to Pasadena (at least), they will need to find a way to continue rushing the passer without current Houston Texan J.J. Watt and scheme for opponents without Doeren, who left to coach Northern Illinois. Sure, the Badgers defense also lost guys like Blake Sorenson and Niles Brinkley, but these losses can be overcome...Watt simply cannot. Nor can Culmer St. Jean. But who's gonna try? Former track star Louis Nzegwu is certainly the guy most will look at, and there is also the man who will line up at the other end spot in place of Watt, David Gilbert. There will be a lot of pressure on these guys to live up to Watt's legacy and only time will tell if they are up to the task. Moving back the linebackers, Mike Taylor and a returning Borland should be absolute beasts for Wisconsin...it's just a matter of health. According to depth charts, the vacant spot left by St. Jean will be filled by senior Kevin Claxton, who at least has tenure on his side. In the secondary, I expect to see safety Aaron Henry have a big year and I'm intrigued to see who wins out in the battle for the strong safety position - Dezmen Southward or Shelton Johnson. Apparently, Johnson has the edge but I'm holding out hope that Southward gets the job...he has a sweet name. Devin Smith and Antonio Fenelus will hold down the cornerback slots and both have experience - Smith can be shaky at times, but I like what he brings to the table. I think for the Badger defense, it all comes down to what they can do upfront and where the pressure will come from. It could make-or-break Wisconsin's 2011 campaign (hey...I think I said the same exact thing last year. Defense wins championships, right?)
Special teams? Brad Nortman will punt yet again, and in no way is that depressing. There has been speculation that kicker Phillip Welch would lose his starting job to red-shirt freshman Kyle French, but I think a lot of that had to do with Welch's leg injury, so I expect to see Welch remain the starter and continue his successful career as a Badger. Losing return-man David Gilreath is definitely tough - everyone remember how that Ohio State game started out? - but I think Abbrederis and White, who saw time at kickoff and punt returning, can step into that full-time position and perform well, especially White. Head coach Bret Beilema coaches the special teams unit, so hopefully he knows what he's doing.
Chalk it up in the win column games:
vs UNLV, vs Northern Illinois (Soldier Field), vs South Dakota, vs Indiana, vs Purdue, @ Minnesota
Last year, I had seven games in this category - now we're down to six. This is probably more of a product of me becoming more realistic than a product of the Badgers not being as good as last year. It's always hard to put road games in this category, but Minnesota was a no-brainer. They are without question in rebuilding mode with a new coach and even though it's a rivalry game, Bucky should take care of business.
Should be a win but could present a problem games:
vs Oregon State, @ Ohio State, @ Illinois, vs Penn State
I recall placing a game versus a different Pac 10 (now 12) team in the chalk it up category last season, and the Badgers narrowly escaped with a victory. Thus, Oregon State is here (wink). Ohio State as a should be win? Well, they are in quite a bit of turmoil with all the NCAA infractions and the loss of star quarterback Terrell Pryor, so yes, I think Wisconsin should win. Illinois is a threat because they have a solid QB themselves and Penn State coming in on senior night should be a W, but you never know with JoePa at the helm.
This could be a tough one games:
vs Nebraska, @ Michigan State
The big showdown with Nebraska is marked on everyone's calendar. They are in this category for a few reasons. 1. The Cornhuskers are an unfamiliar opponent, not to mention dangerous. 2. This is the first true test of the season for the Badgers, a spot they faltered in last year (Michigan State). Speaking of Sparty, Michigan State handed Wisconsin their first loss last year, and this year they could do it again. It's the Badgers' first true road game - although they will have already been tested by Nebraska at this point in the schedule. If you're wondering why we have to travel to East Lansing two years in a row, it's because Nebraska messed everything up. Gee, thanks a lot.
Legends Division Winner: Nebraska
Leaders Division Winner: Wisconsin
Big 10 Conference Champion: Wisconsin
Regular Season Record: 11-1
I want to say National Title so bad...I really do. But I can't. A little voice in my head won't let me do it. There are still plenty of questions in Madison, especially at quarterback (can Wilson succeed like he did at NC State?) and in the front seven (replacing Watt, rushing the passer). This is why I fluctuated between nine wins and even twelve, but I think with the level of talent in the Big 10 right now and the determination and drive these players have after coming so close to a Rose Bowl trophy last season, they will get back to Pasadena...and then some. Feel free to blame the 8-4 season on this blog post.
Phew...longest post in history? Very possible. With the Crew playing so well, forcing me to talk about them...a lot...combined with a much better Badgers' preview compared to last year (my second blog post ever), this is what you get. And now I get some sleep.