Archive | August, 2011

What To Watch For: Wisconsin vs. UNLV

31 Aug

After an eventful off-season, to say the least, the 2011 college football season is less than 24 hours away. And, your No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers have the honor of hosting ESPN’s first college football broadcast of the new season when the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels come to town Thursday evening. Although by most experts’ predictions, the Badgers should have no trouble disposing of one of the cellar-dwellers in the Mountain West, this game will still be very interesting from a Badger fan’s perspective. Here are a couple things to look out for when Wisconsin takes the field tomorrow night.

Russell Wilson: By far the most high-profile acquisition in the country this off-season, ex-N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson turned Wisconsin into an instant Big Ten favorite, if not national title contender, when he decided to take his talents to Madison in late June. And, while reports coming out of practice have been nothing but positive, Thursday night will be the first chance for many Badgers fans to see Wilson in the Wisconsin offense.

By no means does UNLV represent the kind of defense Wisconsin will face in the Big Ten, but the opening game should still go a long way in determining what kind of season Wilson will have. If he can make accurate throws, anticipate routes and interact well with his receivers, it won’t matter the talent that he’s facing. At this point, we all know Wilson can compete against anyone. Whether he’s adjusted to the Badger system is the only question mark remaining.

The James White/Montee Ball combo: With the loss of John Clay, it’s a two-man show for the Wisconsin running game. Yes, backups Melvin Gordon and Jeffrey Lewis are predicted to get some carries, but the majority will be taken by either White or Ball. Now, we know this tag team was, and is one of the best in the country. But, it will still be interesting to see how the two split carries. Who will start? Will they switch off each series? Will one go until the defense figures out how to stop him and then will the other come in? Now, UNLV won’t provide the kind of defensive resistance to answer these questions permanently, but it will still be very interesting to watch how Bielema handles the situation.

Jared Abbrederis: As the No. 2 wide receiver and No. 1 punt returner this season, sophomore Jared Abbrederis will have his chance to shine this year after seeing limited action last season. And, as many of my fellow UW friends know, I don’t think he’ll disappoint. He’s got good speed, great hands and is an all-around player. If No. 1 wideout Nick Toon gets injured once again (God forbid), Abbrederis could turn into Wilson’s favorite target downfield.

Replacing J.J. Watt: Simply, you can’t. Watt was one of the greatest defensive lineman in Wisconsin history and there’s no way to duplicate what he did up front. But, Louis Nzegwu has shown flashes over the past few years and could develop into a good pass rusher with his quickness off the edge. David Gilbert has also played solidly when he’s gotten the chance. Although he won’t be a starter, Beau Allen will be a sophomore with a year’s experience under his belt this season and we could see the former four-star recruit take off.

The return of Chris Borland: Arguably one of the most dynamic linebackers in the Big Ten, if not the country, 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Chris Borland makes his return after missing most of last season following shoulder surgery. However, instead of playing outside linebacker, where his passing rush skills could be utilized to their full potential, Borland will be moved inside this season. It will be interesting to see if he makes the adjustment well. As a natural athlete, I have no doubt he will, but it will be a shame not to see him come off the edge a la Clay Matthews.

Now, these are all issues that won’t be answered completely against UNLV. Because, after all, it’s UNLV. But it should still give us Badger fans a good look into how this season may play out.

-Sam Oleson

Players to Watch

30 Aug

We’re rolling out a new weekly feature here at the Red Zone. Each week we’ll  be high-lighting who we think the key offensive and defensive players will be for the upcoming game. These players will either be men who need to stand out for the Badgers, or who we think will make some serious waves for the Badgers. Let’s get her cracking.

Offensive Player to Watch: Jacob Pederson (TE)

All eyes will be on the quarterback come Thursday night. Russell Wilson is the big unknown with the big upside who has been constantly in the media’s spotlight. While all indications from fellow players and coaches point to Wilson as a player who can handle the pressure of leading a nationally ranked football team. But let’s not kid ourselves; as much as Wilson says he’s not nervous, it’s only human for him to have some pre-Camp Randall butterflies.

The cure to those butterflies? A good, reliable tight end.

But, “wait,” you say, “We lost Lance Kendricks to the NFL. We don’t have any tight ends.” Oh, how wrong you are. Bielema has sung Pederson’s abilities this summer saying he possess the size, physical blocking tools, and play-making ability to make Pederson just as good, if not better, than Kendricks. Those are some pretty lofty expectations.

Either way, I expect Paul Chryst to get the tight end involved early and often to help Wilson find his groove before asking the quarterback to stretch the ball further down the field. Look for a healthy dose of short passes to Pederson to start the game and don’t be surprised when Pederson walks away from Thursday with some “Kendricks-esque” numbers.

Defensive Player to Watch: Louis Nzegwu (DE)

If you’re JJ Watt, life is good. If you’re Louis Nzegwu, life is good, too. Coming into last season fans were concerned about filling the void that O’Brien Schofield left. After all, there was no sure-fire DE to come in and dominate the way Schofield had: enter JJ Watt. Currently the Badgers once again asking themselves who will be the next defensive end to step up and contribute to the Badger defense. If you ask me, that player will be Louis Nzegwu. Nzegwu is a worker, like JJ. And while he may not have the “motor” that JJ possessed (OK, to be fair, nobody in the country has a motor that matches JJ’s) Nzegwu has the physical abilities to dominate and be the “next guy” in the line of great Badger defensive ends. He finished second on the team in quarterback sacks and hurries last year and will be the guy who helps make up the lost production of JJ Watt.

With plenty of experience, the Platteville WI native should come into this season as one of the leaders on the defensive side of the ball. Look for Nzegwu to apply plenty of pressure to UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring (who is making his first career start). I expect the Badgers to dial up plenty of pressure from the start and challenge Herring to prove himself against the secondary. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to Nzegwu come up big with consistent pressure on the Rebel quarterback and be a big disruptive force in Wisconsin’s defensive scheme this week.

On Wisconsin.

-Mitch Larson

Cautious Optimism

30 Aug

The bar has been set very high for the Wisconsin Badgers this year; and with good reason. They return an extremely talented backfield, a more-than-capable offensive line, an accolade-laden quarterback, and an exciting defense lead by Chris Borland. There are a load of reasons why the Badgers will succeed in 2011. And while I’m an eternal optimist when it comes to UW sports, I’m going to play the role of devils advocate and rattle off the Badger’s biggest areas for pitfalls this up-coming season.

Injuries– The Badgers will be relying heavily on two players (one on each side of the ball) coming off injuries. If anything happens to either Borland’s shoulder or Toon’s foot (especially with the depth behind each of these play-makers lacking) , the chances of the Badgers running the table takes a huge hit. If the Badgers can stay healthy, they should be legit contenders, but I always hesitate to put too much of the load upon the shoulders (no pun intended, Chris) of oft-injured players.

Quarterback Play– Russell Wilson is an athlete, and a damned good one at that. In my eyes, he was the perfect pickup for the Wisconsin Badgers this past season. He’s an experienced player with a “Wisconsin”-mentality. He has a proven track record at NC State and brings a boat-load of experience to an otherwise rookie quarterback class. That being said, he’s still unproven at Wisconsin. Even as a smart kid, picking up an entirely new offense, nomenclature, and playbook is a challenging task. If Wilson struggles against some sub-par teams, Wisconsin’s depth in the backfield should be enough to lead the Badgers to victory. But if Russell Wilson struggles against some marquee opponents,  there will be trouble, trouble in Badger City. As the Badgers move into the challenging stretches of its season, the Badgers will go as Russell Wilson goes. Our only hope is that it’s for the better.

Away Game Blues–Despite the storm clouds hanging low over Columbus, Ohio, by no means will the 2011 Buckeyes roll over. For the first time in a while the Buckeyes enter the year as underdogs–with something to prove. This mentality, along with a revenge-driven team aiming to repay the Badgers for their lone 2010 blunder, makes the Wisconsin trip to the Horseshoe look awfully menacing.  And on top of that, the Badgers get to head back to East Lansing again to take on the Michigan State Spartans; not an easy task. We all know the Badgers usually are a much-improved football team in the friendly confines, but to achieve greatness this year the Badgers will face an uphill battle in winning in these two tough environments–and this is  without mentioning a tricky trip to Illinois. While I like the Badgers chances, the Badgers season will ultimately be decided by their performance in these away games. Something I’m not ready to promise, yet.

Pressure-Cooker– I don’t like putting labels on programs. For example, I think it’s incredibly dumb when people say, “Iowa only does well in years when they’re under the radar.” That’s just stupid. Each season features a different roster made up of players who handle different situations, well…differently. But even with that being said,  I remember the 2007 Badgers who were ranked #5 in the country before plummeting into irrelevance, all too well. This year’s Badger squad also features a similar type of “buzz” the 2007 team had. How they handle that pressure, especially with the national spot-light on them for games with Nebraska and Ohio State, will tell us a lot about this year’s versions of the Wisconsin Badgers. Playing with a target on your back is never easy. It’s up to the Badgers to prove they can do it.

These are my biggest potential pitfalls for the 2011 Badgers. Do you see something I missed? Don’t agree with something I wrote? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thought. On Wisconsin.

–Mitch Larson

Wisconsin’s Top Five Storylines Heading Into 2011

30 Aug

Recap 10-5

10) Nick Toon’s Health

9) Beat Sparty

8 ) The Russell Wilson Project

7) Nebraska vs Wisconsin

6) Paving the Way

OK, Let’s jump into it: the top five storylines for Wisconsin as Brett Beilema leads his squad into the 2011 football season.

5) Anchoring the Defense

Two years ago it was O’Brien Schofield. Last year it was #99 in JJ Watt. Who will it be this year? Well, if health stays in Wisconsin’s favor, it will be the returning Chris Borland. The 2009 Big Ten freshman of the Year, Borland was side-lined due to a nagging shoulder injury. 2011 is a different story. Finally back to full-strength, Borland has moved to inside middle linebacker and will assume the “quarterback of the defense” role. A stellar player with a guts, physical attributes, and instinct to spare, Borland is a special player–the type of player that can change games, or even seasons. Watching Borland step up and run the Wisconsin defense will be a huge storyline this year. We already know the Badgers will score, but watching Borland and company shut down opposing offenses could be just as sweet.

4) The Two-Headed Monster (+1)

Even before UW landed Russell Wilson, Wisconsin was labeled as having one of the most dynamic backfields in the country. Thunder and Lightning. Smash and Flash. Yards and Touchdowns. Montee Ball and James White form the perfect one-two punch lining up behind any quarterback. What makes it scary? They won’t be lining up behind just any quarterback. The trifecta perfecta lining up behind Peter Konz will be scary good. No knock on Scotty Tolzien (who was an amazing quarterback for the Badgers last year) but he didn’t come close to matching the athleticism that Wilson features. I know Wisconsin is traditionally a power running, between the tackles type of team, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paul Chryst throw a few wrinkles worth of quarterback draws and speed options into the Badger rushing attack.

3) Continued Momentum

“Swagger” is a word being thrown around loosely in sports, these days. Last year, though, Wisconsin embodied it. After the OSU show-down, Wisconsin proved to itself that they could win any game they played. They learned they could impose their will upon any opponent. But beating them wasn’t enough, punishment was the goal. Wisconsin walked into every game (except maybe the Rose Bowl) with the expectation to man-handle its way to victory. And as they did that, the media took notice. The entire aura surrounding the team changed. People began labeling Wisconsin as “sexy.” What’s exciting is that they achieved “sexiness” by playing mistake-free, pound-the-rock football. They weren’t gimmicky; they just lined up across their foes and rocked them. The success the 2010 Badgers had has given the 2011 Badgers a taste of success. The sting of the Rose Bowl to keep them hungry. Those are two dangerous things to give a football team. Now all that’s left to see is how they use those two aspects.

2) Bright Lights

Building off the mo-train of the 2010 crew and a nucleus of talented returning players, the media has graced the Badgers with prime-time spot after prime-time spot. The Nebraska game will, in my opinion, be the most hyped game of the year at the collegiate level. Traveling to the Horse-show to beat a revenge-driven Buckeyes is huge. Walking into Spartan Stadium to shut up Michigan State will be pivotal. If the Badgers want to achieve the things they set out to do, these games will have to be victories. It’s the only way to get to Indianapolis. And they will have to do that with a huge target on their back. Wisconsin has huge opportunities to continue and build upon their success from the previous year. There will be plenty of tests for the Badgers. And plenty of bright lights for the Badgers to shine under.

1) “1-0”, 13 times

Yes, Coach. We want to go 1-0 each Saturday. We know that. What we want, though, is to go 1-0 for 13 straight weeks. The expectations have been set high for this crew and it’s going to take  a lot of skill and a bit of luck for this team to navigate the Big Ten unscathed. And as old as it gets, they need to stay true to the “one game at a time” mantra. Wisconsin has come into seasons highly ranked before and stumbled along the way, so it’s up to the Badgers to avoid those footfalls. The Badgers have the skill and the coaching. I believe they have the right mentality. Now all that’s left is to put on the face paint, grab a cold one, and enjoy the 2011 Wisconsin football team. On Wisconsin.

-Mitch Larson

Fall Camp (Randall) Rewind

29 Aug

With Wisconsin putting the finishing touches on their preparation for UNLV, take an exclusive look into Wisconsin’s fall football camp. Want to know how Chris Borland is adjusting to middle linebacker? Want the inside scoop of who’s going to be the new face to make a difference for Bucky this fall? Want to know what it’s like to see the inside of one of Coach Beilema’s team meetings? Take a look at these excellent documentaries of Wisconsin’s fall football camp.

 

 

-Mitch Larson

Wisconsin’s Ten Biggest Storylines for 2011

29 Aug

Ready…Set…Football!

Well sports fans, it’s finally upon us. And after what seemed like an endless off-season of college football embarrassment, scandal, and overall craziness, the dawn of Wisconsin’s first kickoff is a welcomed sight. As a chorus of camera flashes signal the start of Wisconsin’s 2011 campaign, we as college football fans can finally put a tumultuous off-season behind us. And as Bucky begins its journey in the newest edition of the BIG TEN, let’s take a look at UW’s ten biggest upcoming story lines for the 2011 season:

10) Nick Toon’s Health

Nick Toon's health will be a key for Wisconsin's offensive clout. Toon will be tasked with keeping defenses honest and being Russell Wilson's go-to man.

We all know the 2010 Bullies of the Big Ten’s made their money through the running game–but let’s not forget the importance of the UW passing attack. The 2010 Badgers featured on of the most balanced offenses in the nation last year. Despite the parting of David Gilreath, Kyle Jefferson, and Lance Kendricks, I doubt Paul Chryst will deviate much from last year’s offensive blue print. Especially with the addition of an exceptional passer in Russell Wilson, Bucky needs a go-to target to keep defenses honest: enter Nick Toon. Toon is an NFL-caliber receiver with great size and athleticism but struggled with nagging injuries in 2010.  For the 2011 Badgers to continue their balanced offense, Toon will have to stay healthy and emerge into one of the leagues top-tier targets.

9) Beat Sparty

I don’t know about you, but Michigan State whining over being passed up for the 2010 Rose Bowl still weighs heavy in my memory. My dad taught me one thing: if you don’t like the cards you were dealt, go out and prove the haters wrong. Apparently daddy Dantonio’s version of that advice included getting curb-stomped 49-7 by Alabama in their bowl game. That surely doesn’t sound like a BCS team to me. Yet still, the Spartans claim they’re in the hunt for the Big Ten title. Bucky gets a shot to go back to East Lansing and end those dreams. Last year Sparty was lucky (numerous times) this year, they’ll get a heavy dose of reality. And it’s up to Wisconsin to make sure that reality hurts.

8 ) The Russell Wilson Project

This subject was much more intriguing and questionable before the start of camp. I know Coach Beilema always has preached about the character of Russell Wilson, but I was still reluctant to see how he gelled with the team. After listening to many interviews, player reactions to Wilson’s work ethic, and the sheer fact that his team-mates voted him as a captain tells me that he will be just fine wearing the Cardinal and White. The only thing that remains to be seen is how he adapts to a Big Ten style of football. While I’m optimistic, I (as well as many Badger fans out there) am extremely excited to see the energy and play-making ability Wilson brings to an already loaded Badger backfield.

7) Nebraska vs Wisconsin

We all remember the electricity of OSU last year. Now imagine it was OSU’s inaugural Big Ten game… The Badgers and Huskers will be in America’s spotlight; I get chills thinking about it already. If you’re not already jacked for this game, check your pulse because you might be dead–or a Gophers fan.

6) Paving the Way

Last year’s Wisconsin rushing attack was a beast. It’s that simple. While a lot of the credit falls on James White, Montee

Ball, and John Clay, college football pundits were quick to point out the hand that Wisconsin’s O-Line had in that rushing dominance. But even for a program known for producing NFL quality lineman, replacing the thrashing performances of two All-Americans in Gabe Carimi (Outland Trophy Winner) and John Moffit is a tall task to handle. I’m going to go out on a limb and say UW is one of the only football programs that can do just that. The Badgers move an experienced Ricky Wagner to left tackle, and bring back center Peter Konz and right guard Kevin Zeitler. They also return experienced players like Josh Oglesby and dark-horse players like Ryan Groy and Ray Ball. These Badgers may lack the star-power that last year’s squad had, but the certainly have the clout to punish Big Ten defenses and pave the way for another version of Wisconsin’s rushing attack.

So there you have it, Wisconsin’s 10 through six biggest story lines heading into the 2011 season. Tomorrow we will count down Bucky’s final five biggest storylines. So sleep tight; kickoff is just a few nights away!

-Mitch Larson