Wisconsin grapples for Big Ten title

By Derek Barichello

It has been a dream season thus far for No. 15 Wisconsin. They want to send out their long-time head coach Barry Alvarez, who is retiring at the conclusion of the season, with a Big Ten title.

The Badgers are on track. They are tied for first place in the conference with No. 11 Penn State with a 4-1 record.

The Badgers’ only blemish came in a 51-48 loss at Northwestern, in which the Wildcats scored in the last minute to take the game.

Along the way, it has taken some last-second magic to put the Badgers where they are today. In their Big Ten opener against then-No. 14 Michigan, the Badgers scored with only 24 seconds left on a touchdown pass for the 23-20 victory.

Then, in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s ax against then-No. 22 Minnesota, the Badgers pulled off a miracle. They scored a touchdown and blocked a punt for a touchdown in the final two minutes to come from behind and keep the ax, 38-34.

And when Wisconsin travels to Champaign, they will be looking to keep the dream season alive.

“We play for four quarters every game,” Alvarez said. “And we feel like we do have some playmakers. And whether it be the special teams being a factor in helping win a game or the defense, as they did this past week, or the offense, as they’ve done in the past, you have a number of guys.”

For Wisconsin, most of its success can be attributed to its offense, which has shown it can score at will. The Badgers average 39.5 points a game, with a balanced attack. They average 180.4 yards per game on the ground and 210.2 yards per game in the air.

The running game is led by Heisman candidate Brian Calhoun, who is the seventh-ranked running back in the country. He poses a triple threat for the Illini defense, averaging 177.9 yards per game in all-purpose yardage – 127.6 of them coming on the ground – and has excellent awareness in pass protection.

“He’s a dangerous running back,” Zook said. “When they’re in one-back formation, they don’t have to worry about substituting him, because he can do all the protections and so forth.”

Complementing Calhoun on the offense is quarterback John Stocco. He has thrown for 1,633 yards and 14 touchdowns, with 10 of them coming in the last four games.

“Well, I think he recognizes things much better this year than he has in the past,” Alvarez said. “He knows who to go to. I think he understands the offense. And you have to understand protection also, when we should have enough guys in there to protect all the people coming.”

If Stocco does a good job recognizing the Illini blitz, it could be another long day for the Illini defense. In the Penn State game, Nittany Lions’ quarterback, Michael Robinson, noted it was his recognition of Illinois’ blitz that made his day easy.

On the defensive side of the ball for the Badgers, they are at short strength. The team has been bothered by injuries all season and has given up significant points over the past three weeks.

“Well, I’m very concerned about the bye week,” Alvarez said. “I’ve altered practice again this week to try to help our guys. I’m sensitive to the length of the season and how beat up a lot of our people are.”

But it was still the defense that came through with five takeaways against Purdue to lead Wisconsin.

“We talk about sparks; (the defensive plays) were sparks in the game,” Alvarez said. “One that changed the entire momentum of the game, going from being behind in the game to taking a lead and sustaining the lead, and the other one to ice the game.”