On New Year's Day when the Green Bay Packers defeated the Detroit Lions to finish the regular season at 15-1, it was almost beginning to seem too good to be true. Say what you will, but not too many Packer fans expected a team almost completely composed of backups to knock off a team that was playing for the five seed and a chance not to play the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs. Early on, it appeared this wasn't going to happen, mostly due to the incompetency of Pat Lee to return a kickoff, and it was 9-0 Detroit. From there on, we all know what happened, and on an afternoon where a state filled with thousands of hungover Packer fans laid down on their couches to watch a meaningless, stress-free football game, Matt Flynn did the impossible. A franchise record in touchdowns (six) and passing yardage (480) was still barely enough to send the Lions home with the six seed in a thrilling 45-41 victory. And what a game it was...but have you noticed how the other Wisconsin sports teams have performed since we brought in the New Year?
Let's begin with the two major Division I college basketball programs, the Marquette Warriors and the Wisconsin Badgers. Both teams, as usual, have fairly hefty expectations and at the very least are expected to reach the NCAA Tournament held at the end of each college basketball season. Well, at this point, it's looking more likely these teams make a trip to the NIT rather than March Madness. Not really...I think. The two teams have a combined two conference wins. They've played a combined seven conference games. The Badgers stand at 12-5. The Warriors stand at 12-4. There are distinguishable reasons as to why each team has hit a proverbial brick wall here in early January just as conference play has picked up. First of all, the Badgers. A team that was at one point ranked in the top six before falling at Chapel Hill to the Tar Heels. Since then, Wisconsin has fallen AT HOME to Marquette, Michigan State, and most embarrassing of all, Iowa. Back in 2009, the Badgers had a pretty rough stretch such as this one when they dropped six games in a row, and they still managed to make the tournament (only to get blown out of the water by Arizona). In Wisconsin's defense, the schedule this season in Big Ten conference play is lethal, likely only second in difficulty to the Big East...and even between those two it's close. There are four schools in the Big Ten ranked in the top 13, which is ridiculous. The Big East? Only two.
Along with the difficult schedule, the Badgers have been struggling from the field, and I mean struggling. For some reason, this team, specifically Jordan Taylor, decides to wait until the final five minutes of the game to show up and make shots. We've all seen this before, but this season it hasn't been enough. Against Michigan State last Tuesday, the Badgers rallied to force overtime and then once again rallied to nearly force another overtime, only to have a banked-in three as time expired from Ryan Evans waved off. I'll get to Wisconsin's athletic teams inability to get plays off in time in a moment. What it comes down to is this: Jordan Taylor hasn't been who he was expected to be this season, this team consists of a bunch of role players and the schedule has been difficult. Will they still make the tournament? I would assume so. Does the schedule start to get a little easier? It would appear that way. But Taylor simply needs to play better because as far as star-power is concerned, he's all the Badgers have got.
The struggles for Marquette are much more understandable, in my opinion. I'll start with the Chris Otule injury. Otule is now confirmed to be out for the season after suffering an ACL injury during non-conference play against Washington. It might be drastic to say this, but this might be the dagger in Marquette's season as far as a potential Big East championship and deep run in the NCAA Tournament is concerned. Now the biggest man on the Warriors' roster is Davante Gardner, who is 6'8" but a load of a man. Otule gave this team the man down low it needed, and he had worked so hard to get where he was in his college career. It just piles on to the depressing news as of late. Moving past Otule, this team still has some depth, plenty of athleticism, and a lot of heart. However, there is still plenty of growing up to do. Aside from seniors Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, the Warriors are young. They also got thrown right into the Big East gauntlet with games on the road against Georgetown and Syracuse. Marquette had a huge second half collapse against the Hoyas and made a comeback of their own against the Orange, but MU came up just short in each contest. Despite the tough losses, there is plenty to be optimistic about...unlike the Badgers. Besides a game at home against a struggling Louisville team, Marquette doesn't face a ranked opponent until Feb. 18. Barring any sort of letdown, MU should string together some wins here to get back on track.
Getting back to the clock issues. Have you ever seen anything like what happened considering the circumstances at the end of the Rose Bowl and the Michigan State game at the Kohl Center? It's almost comical. Almost. I really have no desire to relive the final "play" of the Rose Bowl game against Oregon, but I kind of lost my cool after what happened and entered a bit of a Twitter debate about whether or not it was the right move to try and spike the football as time expired. First things first, it was terrible execution by Russell Wilson and Peter Konz, who apparently couldn't get the football snapped in two seconds. Whether or not you want to argue that the clock operator was a little too quick on the trigger with starting the clock or if it is solely on Wilson and Konz for not getting the football snapped (I'm still not sure on this one), the Badgers were facing an uphill battle, still 30 yards away from the end zone and down by seven. The game ended 45-38 in favor of Oregon in a game that played out much like many expected. But here's why it was the right decision to try and spike the ball with :02 seconds remaining.
Let's go back to the previous play. I have nothing wrong with the route Nick Toon ran and how he was tackled in-bounds. In college, you can afford to run routes that won't get you out-of-bounds because of how the clock stops on first downs. Toon made the catch and was brought down instantly with two seconds to go in the fourth quarter. Now on the play, Toon was in obvious pain from the hit he took, but another receiver (Abbrederis I believe) helped him onto his feet because, I believe, he was just as confused as me when it came to injured players under two minutes. In the NFL, if a team doesn't have a timeout and time has to be stopped due to an injury with less than two minutes left in the game while the clock is still running, there is a 10-second run-off. There is no such penalty in college football, so Toon technically could have stayed down on the field, and officials would have had to stop play. This would have given the Badgers some time to draw up a play, although the clock would have been started on the referee's whistle just like it was last Monday night. I know what you're screaming at your computer screens right now...then why didn't Toon stay on the ground? Well, Abbrederis pulled him up, probably a natural reaction considering the intense hurry-up mode the Badgers were in, so there's that. Also, since Toon was obviously able to stand (he was up when Wilson was trying to get the ball snapped in time), he wasn't THAT hurt. If he stays down on purpose in order to get the clock stopped, consider these two aspects: first, by rule, he is unable to return for the following play. Who knows...maybe if the Badgers get that spike off, he is able to shake it off and stay in for the next play. There's no denying Toon is not only Wisconsin's finest receiver, but also an NFL-caliber wide-out. Second, can you imagine the outrage from people (especially Oregon fans) if Toon stays down? Toon is not the guy who's going to pull something like that. It challenges the integrity of the game. Sure, if Toon is hurt badly enough to not get up (which wasn't true), then he stays down, but even then there is going to be controversy considering the situation. To close out this extremely lengthy paragraph, consider this...can't there be an easier way to signal to the quarterback the start of play? The head referee is standing BEHIND Wilson, and even though he blows his whistle, it's incredibly loud and the motion he's making with his arm to signal the start of the game clock isn't in Wilson's line of sight. But man do those two seconds go by fast. I'll bet you Wilson thought he had more time to hike that ball. Would it kill football to use a decimal point in their clock when it goes under a minute? This moment brings up so much debate. Kray.
I know that it never should have come down to this had Bret Bielema not burned that stupid second timeout early in the second half because he wanted a challenge on something that didn't need to be challenged, and I know Bielema for some reason can't win the big game, but that's not what I'm arguing here and I think I make a pretty strong case for the Badgers spiking the ball in that situation. Of course, Wisconsin still faced a virtual Hail Mary to even TIE that game, but it would have made for a much more exciting ending and not left such a bitter taste in my mouth. Speaking of bitter tastes, how about that Badger defense? Maybe they should take lessons from the basketball team. Speaking of which, the very next night, the Badgers had to host red-hot Michigan State at the Kohl Center, making a furious comeback in overtime. The Spartans clanged two free throws while up 63-60 with little time remaining, so Taylor rushed the ball up the court, missing the game-tying three. With still a few seconds to go, Ryan Evans grabbed the rebound, stepped outside the three point line, and heaved a prayerrrrrrr...it banked in! Double overtime! Hold up. As is normal protocol with made shots at the buzzer, the referees reviewed the play to see of the shot was released in time. Go figure this was happening 24 hours after another controversial issue involving the Badgers and clocks. Now get this: the stadium clock showed .01 seconds remaining when the ball left Evans' hands, but the clock on the basket showed time had expired, and the red light on the backboard had lit up before Evans released his shot. The made basket was overturned, and on consecutive nights, the Wisconsin Badgers had lost in heartbreaking fashion. Bru. Tal.
To cap off what was a horrid week aside from the Packers in Wisconsin sports (a combined 2-10 record from Jan. 1 - Jan. 8 between GB, WISC, MARQ, MIL), the Bucks lost five games in a west coast road trip. Shocker. Then again, Andrew Bogut missed four of those games dealing with personal issues, so that hurt, but all in all, it's been a rough year thus far for Wisconsin sports. Let's hope the Pack can turn it around this Sunday against the New York Giants, a game I'll try and preview sometime this week. Until then, let's hope Win-sconsin is just taking a short vacation, because 2011 was way too fun.
On a serious note, please keep Joe Philbin and his family in your prayers for the unfortunate event that transpired this weekend in Oshkosh. The news of his son Michael's death is not only saddening, but untimely considering the Packers' preparation for the Giants game, but Joe and his family needs to take the necessary time to grieve their loss and if this means no Philbin on the sidelines this upcoming weekend, so be it. It's hopefully something where the Packer players can rally together for Philbin and play inspired, but first and foremost, let's keep him in our thoughts.