JDMill: I don't get you guys. You struggle with Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP, lose to Oregon State (which NOW looks like a good win) in the non-con schedule, then you play tough at Nebraska, and put the wood to Illinois & Purdue. What's the deal here? Are the Badgers any good?
Mike Fiammetta: That's been the million-dollar question around these parts, and for the sake of our collective sanity, Badgers would love to know what the deal is. But as you said, the close loss to Oregon State doesn't look bad at all now (as good as a loss could, I guess) and much could be said for the Nebraska loss. I and many other Wisconsin fans think -- no homerism here, either -- that the Badgers are just taking a while to come into their own. In hindsight, preseason expectations for the post-Russell Wilson, post-Paul Chryst offense might have been slightly too forgiving. After all, Wisconsin did have to replace six assistant coaches and a few offensive lineman, as well as, you know, find a quarterback. Now that the team has mostly settled into Stave and the offensive line seems to be recovering, things are looking bright. A trip to Indianapolis seems well within reach, and a win there gets us back to the Rose Bowl, just like we all expected earlier in the fall.
JD: 5th in the conference in rushing offense behind Northwestern? What the hell is wrong with you people?
MF: That question has yielded a few different schools of thought, mainly because I don't think anyone really knows. Montee Ball, between his offseason attack and the Week 4 win over UTEP, has undergone at least two concussions that we know of over the past year. There were many questions as to whether Ball was "the same guy," noting the obvious disparity in this season's play and his Heisman Trophy finalist performance in 2011.
I never really thought Ball looked that different, outside of his diminished numbers -- though it is important to note that Ball actually has more yards through seven games than he did at this point last season. He's 816 yards on 172 carries (4.7 yards per) and 11 rushing touchdowns. Through seven games in 2011, Ball had 768 yards on 125 carries (6.1 yards per) and 17 rushing touchdowns.
Anyway, I'd say the offensive line issues are more at play for the diminished rushing production. Aside from losing Peter Konz & co., offensive line coach/maven Bob Bostad departed for Pitt and then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his replacement, Mike Markuson, was canned after two weeks. We never got much of an explanation, though there were rumblings the sort of zone blocking scheme Markuson favored didn't jibe with what the line was accustomed to under the wildly successful Chryst/Bostad regime.
JD: There's a bit of a debate in these parts about who Gopher fans dislike more: Wisconsin or Iowa. It's pretty much split among the fan base as far as I can tell. Personally, I contend you people have some redeeming qualities like good beer, good cheese, proximity to major waterways and a reasonable highway system, while Minnesota's neighbors to the south have... well nothing. Anyway, what about you, Badger fans? Do you guys dislike Minnesota more than anyone else?
MF: The rivalry with Minnesota is classic, and I think that by virtue boosts the rivalry. Though I will say, and not in the means of talking smack, that Iowa's been a tiny bit better than Minnesota lately. So those recent games might've been more anticipated, which maybe you'd even understand. But when it comes to The Battle for the Axe, Badgers fans are always ready and eager.
JD: Montee Ball... the changing of the pronunciation of his first name? Frivolous?
MF: Yeah, that was something. Apparently Mon-tay Ball didn't want to speak up about the supposed mispronunciation of his name until he was a Heisman finalist running back...
[Editor's Note: When I become a Heisman finalist, I will be changing the pronunciation of my name to Jay-Day.)
JD: Montee Ball... scored 3 TD's in the entire non-conference schedule but has scored 8 TD's in the past 3 games. Trend or mirage?
MF: I will say trend, because of there's no way you can credit Ball without doing the same for the offensive line that has coalesced and is finally playing to its reputation. Plus, and you can call it cliché if you'd like, but Bret Bielema & co. were always going to pound the rock with Ball during Big Ten play. Many fans are beginning to say wide receiver Jared Abbrederis is the team's best player, and I wouldn't argue that. But an effective Ball is the team's most valuable player and it's most potent weapon. I don't expect that to change as long as he's able to find room to run.
JD: Seriously, level with me here. I won't tell anyone. Bret Bielema, outside of the fact that he's been pretty successful as far as winning games, you guys don't ACTUALLY like him, do you?
MF: Hoo boy, I don't know if I can give you a consensus. But as you said, winning games is the key, and he's done that. That is, at least in the regular season. Wisconsin fans, justifiably so, continue to gripe with the Badgers' performance in big games (e.g. the Rose Bowls, those two Hail Mary nightmares last season).
Personality-wise, does a football coach need to be likable? Sure, a Pat Fitzgerald or a Jerry Kill (just two random examples that came to mind) will probably help their cause by being likable and relatable for their players. But if you don't win games? I'm a New York Giants fan, and we'll keep Tom Coughlin no matter how grumpy he gets -- as long as he keeps winning.
Anyway, this is all my way of saying I think people perceive Bielema differently. Many fans are fine with the winning and don't think much about him either way. Others, including many blogger types and some reporters, question his approach with the media (never heard that before) and think he could be a little more personable. Then there are others who take it to a whole other level and like to imagine the @BeingBielema Twitter account being some twisted form of reality.
JD: So your D is pretty decent. Good run D, middle-of-the-conference pass D, and giving up less than 19 ppg. What's the weakness of this defense?
MF: I would say that all areas of the defense aside from the linebackers have been vulnerable. The secondary, even though Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie are experienced, has been picked on at times (especially Cromartie). Up front, several of our defensive ends have been injured (Brendan Kelly, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel) and there hasn't been much of a steady pass rush. Inside though, Beau Allen is emerging into a beast and Bielema thought several other lineman might've played their best games as a Badger against Purdue last weekend.
JD: Remember when you guys picked up Danny O'Brien in free agency and he was your starting QB? Yeah, nobody else really does either. Anyway... what happened to him? Is Stave better or is this a case of transitioning to the young guy because he can't be any worse?
MF: Long story short, Bielema & co. thought he was a little careless with the ball. Stave has also been generating a fair amount of hype for a redshirt freshman, and he's definitely impressed the coaching staff. O'Brien is still supposedly the "two-minute quarterback," which is why he entered at the end of the Nebraska game. Wisconsin hasn't been in a close game since, so we don't know if that's still the case -- that decision was met with some pretty heavy criticism, too. I don't think they've completely soured on O'Brien, but Stave found his opportunity and has mostly taken advantage of it.
JD: Prediction time? Who wins, by how much and why?
MF: Wisconsin 41, Minnesota 17. These two teams are clearly going in opposite directions, and it all could not come at a worse time for the Gophers. Add in the fact this game is being played at Camp Randall, and you have all the ingredients for a blowout.