For the fun of it: Let's start with the team.
As Albert Finney's character in Miller's Crossing noted: "the moping around here is killing my joy de veever." Last year there was some undoubted moping on the team, especially as Big Ten play wore on. And it killed the joie de vivre.
This year, led by Bradie Ewing, Dan Moore and the team captains, Schofield, Graham, Turner and Maragos, there is a team building exercise before the warm ups. Sounds basic, and maybe hokey. But football requires the sometimes contradictory human impulses of emotion and concentration. Watching the blood and guts of this team, O'Brien Schofield, get his teammates ready for the day you realize that such leadership is necessary, but not always present.
No doubt part of the increased enjoyment comes from increased playing time. The rotation on the defensive side of the ball (as noted in previous installments of this blog) is succeeding in keeping the troops happy and ready. The example for this weekend: Minnesota native Matthew Groff not only made the traveling squad but also got on the field. The linebacker's name was called during a tackle or two. (Though the stat sheet does not list a tackle, more on that later.)
Several weeks ago a Milwaukee columnist suggested John Clay might not enjoy playing football. The effort needed and the punishment sustained in the pursuit of amateur football made the claim spurious to begin with. But I think it can be assumed that running through Minnesota's defense increased John's enjoyment of the game.
Here's to hoping the joy of the veever is going strong after the trip to Columbus.
Never Trust the Stat Sheet: Or the participation report, for that matter. These tend to be wrong more often than the Faber College quiz bowl team. This week's notable example: Blake Sorensen caused the fumble that ended the game. By my count, the stat sheet doesn't even credit him with a tackle or QB hurry on the play.
Make it Clear: In the week two posting I noted that the coaching staff could do a better job in making the plan clear to the players: "All the same, this should be a lesson for the coaching staff as well. Make the plan clear to the players; the sideline huddles at the 2:20 mark were not models of clarity."
It is interesting to see the reporting from Tom Mulhern that coaches Paul Chryst and Charles Partridge are taking responsibility for two more instances against the Gophers. Potentially the most costly came as Partridge tried to adjust personnel in a goal line stand. Patrick Butrym couldn't get off the field in time and this resulted in a penalty, negating a huge interception by Mike Taylor.
A football sideline is a chaotic place. It is up to the coaches to make it less so. I could cite many areas where the coaching staff has demonstrated significant improvement over last year. But the control of the play calling and substitution patterns between the sideline and the huddle is not one of them.
Ski – U – Rah – Rah: Minnesota coach Tim Brewster has a very different approach to firing up his team. Most Big Ten teams leave the fiery sideline stuff to whichever coach or graduate assistant has direct responsibility for that unit. Brewster frequently jumps in to repeat a phrase, emphasize a point or yell some encouragement. My preference is for a Head Coach who controls the chaos rather than develop it.
In his post game press conference it was quite obvious that Brewster took the loss to heart, though he remained professional in his demeanor. His responses to specific questions about defensive strategy were disengaged.
Athletes: The athletic conditioning of Badger o-line and the Gopher o-line was a study in contrasts. Minnesota's o-line allowed for almost no line movement, they were simply too fat and too slow. UW's Gabe Carimi was the lead blocker on Scott Tolzien's pivotal bootleg. It is hard to imagine Minnesota attempting the same play.
The Specials: I have read some fan commentary suggesting that a possible solution to UW Special Team woes is to use starters. It is easy to understand the concern, for without costly penalties Minnesota would have several big returns.
My Answer: The technique matters more than the talent. Special Teams play remains a matter of position and discipline. I would also point out that more effective specialists in recent years have been players like Will Hartmann and Erik Prather. Neither was ever a starter. And some of the starting defensive backs on the 2009 are completely at sea when asked to cover kicks.
If you have a great gunner like Scott Starks, all the better. But the fundamentals of kick coverage and run blocking still are problems of coaching.
If you build it….? TCF Bank Stadium is a great place to watch a college football game. But you couldn't help but notice empty seats. If you can't absolutely pack the place for its Big Ten debut, it seems clear you never will guarantee a fully engaged fan base. My bet is that Iowa comes close to 50 percent next year and Wisconsin will do the same in 2011.
Wit-Less: My least-favorite Big Ten official, David Witvoet, had a poor day last Saturday. He wasn't quite sure of the rules regarding the clock running after a call of intentional grounding, a side judge had to remind him that a penalty could be enforced on the ensuing kickoff and he was indecisive about a potential roughing the passer call against the Badgers. He didn't call it, but he violated the cardinal rule of officials; If you start to reach for the flag, throw it. It will save you lots of grief from coaches. Bret Bielema was doing a good job trying to get explanations from Witvoet without antagonizing him.
That's all for now: I have a feeling Badger fans will be celebrating next week.