Badgers take a pass

Wisconsin's 2004 edition draws comparisons to most recent UW Rose Bowl champs

Barry Alvarez does not want to hear about it, nor do the rest of Wisconsin's coaches or the Badger players.

"I really like our record at this time," Alvarez said following the Badgers' 24-7 win over Illinois Saturday. The victory hoisted Wisconsin to 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since 1998, when it went on to win the conference and the Rose Bowl.

"I certainly don't want to make any of those comparisons," offensive coordinator Brian White said.

Certainly, such statistics can seem a tad trite but there are legitimate parallels between this Badger team and the last two Wisconsin outfits that danced in Pasadena. Just like in '98 and '99, the Badgers have a stellar running game (at least when Anthony Davis is healthy), a phenomenal defense, good special teams, and a middling passing game with the sole purpose of avoiding a loss and, the Badgers hope, making plays when it absolutely must.

Davis' return rekindled a running game that, even when it is not spectacular, as it was Saturday, will control the tempo and time of possession, dictating the course of a college football afternoon. Even with Davis out of the lineup for three-and-a-half games, the Badgers' average time of possession (34:28) leads the Big Ten. In '98 and '99, the Ron Dayne led UW squads led the conference in rushing and typically dominated time of possession.

Wisconsin's defense has been remarkable. Illinois put 30 points on the board against a Purdue team that has otherwise outscored its opponents 151-23. The Illini managed only a fourth-quarter touchdown versus the Badgers, which, incidentally, tied for the most points UW has given up in an entire game all season. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring defense (5.2 points per game) and total defense (193.2 yards per game). In '98 and '99 they led the Big Ten in scoring defense and were among the nation's best.

Wisconsin's passing game, however, has been far from successful. Thus far the Badgers have been able to live with an aerial attack that ranks last in the Big Ten in yards per game (133.2), efficiency (99.0), completion percentage (47.9) and touchdowns (3). Sophomore first-year starter John Stocco typically makes good decisions with the football but has struggled measurably with his accuracy, particularly on passes down field.

"I think in certain times he's tried to be too perfect or aim the ball too much," quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton said last week. "And that's natural because we coach that into him all week. We coach not making mistakes here but yet there comes a point in time when you have to trust what you see, trust in yourself and be able to just cut it loose. That's a maturation process that every player goes through."

Stocco has thrown just three interceptions—to the joy of Wisconsin's coaching staff. Also to his credit Stocco has done a good job of keeping a variety of receivers involved and his heady play with the ball has helped Wisconsin allow only three sacks.

"One of the reasons why we've been able to minimize lost yardage plays, particularly in the sack department, is because of John's awareness of protections and what we're doing," offensive coordinator Brian White said Saturday. "He's just going to keep getting better."

"I think he's played solid for us," Horton insisted. "I think he has done a good job of really going through his reads. When was the last time tight ends or running backs were leading the team in receptions? It shows he knows where his check downs are… He understands the pass."

Wisconsin has moved the ball, averaging about 19 first downs per game, but has struggled to consistently score points. Having Davis back in the lineup will obviously help but eventually Wisconsin's passing game will need to play better than it has up to this point.

On the other hand the Badgers may be able to live with a paltry passing game as long as the defense and special teams continue to thrive and a healthy Davis is putting points on the board. After all, Wisconsin averaged just 141.8 yards per game passing in '99 and a meager 113.6 in '98.

"[Stocco's] 5-0 as a starter, which is pretty good," White said.

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