Commentary: Stocco for MVP

Wisconsin quarterback finished record-setting season with 301-yard passing day Monday

ORLANDO, Fla. — The clock read 8:58 remaining. The Capital One Bowl MVP ballot to my right had three of four lines filled in: MVP's School, Voter Name, Outlet Affiliation. One line remained open.

I felt like I was being asked to choose between cheeseburgers and pizza, between Jennifer and Angelina, between commercial daredevil Ted Ferguson and Celebrity Jeopardy creation Turd Ferguson. Okay, that last one might be a stretch.

John Stocco and Brian Calhoun both had put together game-changing performances on the biggest stage of their respective careers. Calhoun finished with 213 rushing yards and a touchdown on 30 carries. Stocco passed for 301 yards and two more scores.

At halftime Stocco seemed the unanimous pick should the Badgers go on to victory, but Calhoun had just piled up too many yards to possibly ignore. He had been the surprise of the season, the one-time Heisman candidate, the recipient of the most eerie and intimidating low moan known to the Upper Midwest. Brii-an, Cal-hooooooooun.

Roughly three minutes remained and I had a decision to make. By air or by ground? I figured I had only one possession left to make up my mind.

The first play was designed to go deep to wide receiver Brandon Williams, but the Tigers were prepared. On second down Wisconsin gave it to Calhoun, who managed three yards up the middle. Then came the play that sealed my vote.

Dropping back into the end zone, with a man all but wrapped around his entire body, Stocco got the ball off just in time and ripped a bullet up the middle to Williams for a 36-yard gain that Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said "iced the game."

Did Stocco go on to win the MVP award? No, Calhoun did. I have no gripe with the fact that he did. Calhoun certainly had a worthy performance. But where's the love for Johnny?

"He happens to play the toughest position in sports," Alvarez said. "Everybody wants the backup to play and if you don't complete a pass there's something wrong with you."

Exactly. When Stocco was shaky at times last season, fans were calling for his head. Sure we had our love affair for a while, after a rocky start. The Badgers were 9-0 and all was well for the time being. My friends and I were calling Stocco "Johnny Future", face-to-face. (A conversation which may or may not have ended with the phrase "the future is now.")

Well, the future is now, so to speak. The bandwagon dumped Stocco at the side of the road when Wisconsin dropped its final three last season. Stock in Stocco was running at a discount. But look at him now.

On Monday John Stocco played the best game of his life at the most opportune moment. Have I always been a Stocco rube because he went to a neighboring high school? Of course. But now I have some evidence to back up my claims.

Just look at the gameplan co-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst whipped up for our new punching bag turned golden boy. By my gauge, the Badgers more often than not set up the run with the pass, not vice-versa, Monday.

This is Wisconsin football we are talking about here. Setting up the run with the pass would be like trying to promote Brett Favre for Congress in Green Bay by pointing out that he once played with Doug Pederson. Yet, that was exactly what the Badgers did.

On six of 11 offensive possessions, the Badgers completed a pass before attempting a run. On the aforementioned final drive UW attempted to go aerial first but gained a small amount on the ground prior to that big connection with Williams.

The passing game was not resigned to short completions either. There was the 27-yard completion to Williams on the Badgers' first play from scrimmage. There was the deep wide open look to receiver Jonathan Orr for 45 yards down the sideline. There was the 43-yard completion two drives later to Williams. I could go on but you get the point.

The fact is that in a game everyone expected the Badgers to only win if they could set up the pass with the run first, it was the deep threat that allowed seams to open in the running game. The offensive line did its work and Calhoun was often left with one man to beat.

Not to take anything away from Calhoun. His moves dazzled as they did for the majority of the season, in all but the Badgers' final two losses. But on a day when everyone wondered what Stocco could do at this level, against this type of team, he never flinched — not once.

"John Stocco is tough," Alvarez said. "He's a competitor… The stage, the magnitude of the game, the quality of the opposition, and how well he performed today should squelch any criticism, any further criticism. I thought he was fantastic."

Has Stocco faced more pressure before? Yes, probably so. The Penn State game this season would serve as a good indication. But Monday the junior responded with poise to deliver balls on target with men about to take him down.

Williams predicted it back in August, saying he saw no reason Stocco couldn't buck the Bucky trend and go for 3,000 yards this season — a somewhat laughable statement at the time. Well, 13 games and 10 wins later Williams has finished his senior season with 1,000 receiving yards while Stocco just barely missed that coveted 3,000 plateau.

His 2,920 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns and 197 completions were all good for single-season Wisconsin records. For his career, Stocco rolled past the 5,000 mark, finishing the season with 5,042 passing yards. That's good for third all-time at UW.

Were Stocco to repeat his 2005 performance next year, he would rank first all-time in career passing yards and second in completions, touchdowns, and completion percentage to Darrell Bevell. That's not too bad for a kid that people described as "serviceable", now is it?

Looking at all the numbers, though, perhaps this stat is now the most impressive: Stocco is 19-6 (.760) in his career as a starter. That is something a lot of the other names atop the Badger quarterback record books cannot boast.

Alas, the Barry era has been defined in Rose Bowls, and Bevell, Mike Samuel and Brooks Bollinger all won Rose Bowl titles to accompany their impressive stats. Forget the fact that Bevell had four seasons to compile his numbers while Stocco will have to try to pass him in three. Nobody will measure Stocco above the others without a Big Ten title or a BCS victory, plain and simple.

I guess that makes sense, but all I am asking is that Stocco get the praise he deserves, considering the blame he inherited when things weren't going his way. Like Alvarez said, he may play the toughest position in sports. While that might not make him Johnny Dangerfield, at least give the man a little respect. (At the very least, admit he's not the danger on-the-field the cynics once made him out to be.)

From the people I talked to after the game, from Owen Daniels to Paul Chryst, everyone expressed how proud they were with Stocco's season. Fans should be too.

The future is now? Give him any nickname or tagline you want. Just make it a good one. He deserves it.

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