Simply the Best?

Camp Randall was a scene of celebration on Saturday
The No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers couldn't have been more dominant.  They couldn't have had a better showing on Senior Day and the couldn'y have dismantled a team more thoroughly then they did the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday afternoon.

Led by the indomitable J.J. Watt the Badgers scored points and style points on their way to their first Big Ten title since 1999.  Watt forced two fumbles, blocked an extra point and hurried Northwestern's QB on two of the Badger's interceptions.  With four Montee Ball rushing touchdowns and Aaron Henry's pick six and you have a Wisconsin team that nobody would want to face.

Just how good have the Badgers been this year?  Take a look inside some of the numbers:

- Senior Quarterback Scott Tolzien is the NCAA's fourth rated passer, behind only Boise State's Kellen Moore, Heisman front-runner Cam Newton and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas.

- Tolzien also has the highest completion percentage of any D. 1 passer.

- Ball, a third string running back, ran for 17 touchdowns - fourth in the NCAA.

- Bucky's offense was the fourth highest scoring in the nation.  In their last two home games Wisconsin scored 153 points.

- How efficient has the offense been?  Wisconsin punted only 35 times this year - less than three times a game.  Only one major conference team punted less, Stanford with 29.

- Lance Kendricks, the Badgers current in a long line of impressive tight ends, is the third highest receiving tight end in the country.

- The Badgers had 46 rushing touchdowns this season, only one team had more (Nevada, 47).

Best Bucky ever though?  Could it really be possible?  Many would point to the 1999 Badgers as the best, a team that featured a Heisman Trophy winner in Ron Dayne.  They were also the last Big Ten team to win back-to-back Rose Bowls.  That team featured a star running back, a breakout quarterback (Brooks Bollinger), an offensive line flanked by NFL draft picks Chris McIntosh and Mark Tauscher a shutdown corner in Jamar Fletcher.  That team was good, so good they finished the season ranked No. 4.

Others would point to the 1962 team, led by Wisconsin legend Pat Richter.  The Badgers lost the Rose Bowl that year in a 42-37 decision against Southern California.  That game marked the first time that the No. 1 team and No. 2 team faced each other in a bowl game.  That season Bucky beat Notre Dame, No. 5 Minnesota, No. 1 Northwestern and saw quarterback Ron Vander Kellen lead the team to 23 fourth quarter points in their Rose Bowl appearance to nearly topple the nations top team.

The 1993 team is another that deserves mention with this group.  Those Badgers were a win against Minnesota away from a possible National Title.  When Bucky lost at the Metrodome that year it was their first and only all season.  That team had the best quarterback in Wisconsin history in Darrell Bevell and a pair of star running backs in Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher.  Despite finishing the season with a 9-1-1 record and Rose Bowl win they ranked only seventh in the nation.

So where does this year's squad rank in the pantheon of great Badger teams?  Are they the best? No, at least not yet.  This is one of the most prolific teams that the Badgers have ever had and with a win in a BCS Bowl game, especially if it is over an undefeated TCU team, could change that.  There is no team in the Nation that the Badgers wouldn't match up well against.  Depending on the outcome of the Civil War (Oregon-Oregon State) and the SEC Championship (Auburn-South Carolina) next weekend the Badgers could see themselves vaulted into a National Title appearance.

Although that outcome is very unlikely, what we do know is the Badgers could find themselves in nearly uncharted territory.  A big win in a BCS game will seal the legacy of this team.  But will it be as the best or just another heartbreaker that fell just short?  Time will tell.

But if I were an opposing coach, I wouldn't want to face Wisconsin.


Are Woodson & Co. for real?

Prior to this season, the Packers were a popular pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. When explaining why they could win it all, there were two reasons people would point to: the offense's scoring capabilities and the defensive front seven. But those who doubted Green Bay's chances pointed to the secondary as the team's fatal flaw. Last year the unit was ravaged by injuries, and even Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson couldn't prevent complete meltdowns versus Pittsburgh and Arizona in the playoffs. What will happen when this team meets Tom Brady, and should they make the playoffs, how could the defensive backs hold up against Drew Brees?

Fast forward to today. The Packers have rattled off 4 wins in a row, and that once maligned group has provided many of the highlights. Each individual member of the current starting four have made their mark:

Charles Woodson: After starting the season a bit slow, some were wondering if age had caught up to Woodson. But he's been all over the field lately, pounding and ripping at the ball, jumping routes, rushing the passer, and playing the run as fiercely as ever. No corner in the NFL is asked to do as much as he does, and because Woodson plays the game like no other, I'm suddenly wondering: has he reached Hall of Fame status yet? No title ring hurts him, but that DPY award is some nice hardware to have in your trophy case, and he's such a unique player that I think I would give him the nod.

Tramon Williams: Williams opened the season as the team's most integral player, and he's exceeded expectations. While serving as the team's punt-returner, Williams has very quietly added shut down corner to his resume, and has made several quarterbacks pay for testing him this season with interceptions. His 18 passes defensed is second in the league. Normally a CB performing at his level wouldn't see many passes in his direction, but with Woodson on the other side and him drawing the opposition's top WR on most downs, he'll continue to get chances to build his reputation.

Nick Collins: - Collins has had a rough year in the media. His spat with a Bears fan was well publicized, and he also drew some bad press for his helmet-to-helmet tackle of Cowboys receiver Roy Williams. But on the field he's come up with some big plays in the clutch. With the score 28-24 in the 4th quarter of the first Vikings game, he made a spectacular pick of Brett Favre over the top of Percy Harvin. He also recovered the fumble for a TD on the kickoff against Dallas, and came up with a big tackle in the 2nd win over the Vikings to prevent an AP TD, detailed here by Tom Silverstein.

Charlie Peprah: - The Packers injury bug has been especially hard on the strong safety. Morgan Burnett and Derrick Martin are out for the season, while Atari Bigby and Anthony Smith have been regulars on the injury report since their arrivals. Enter Charlie Peprah, who has played well in this four game stretch, most notably against the Jets. He delivered two perfectly timed hits on Jerricho Cotchery at key situations to prevent first downs. Peprah is by no means flashy, but he gets it done, and you could do a lot worse with your third stringer. (Take the time to read Jason Wilde's article on Peprah's background and what he has to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend. His backstory rivals Donald Driver's.)

And really, considering how often the defense plays in the nickel formation, rookie Sam Shields could be lumped into this group as well. His interception against Dallas was as good a catch as any Packer has made all year on either side of the ball. He's also been matched up with some tough assignments and performed quite well--so well that position coach Joe Whitt has proclaimed Shields will be one of the top CBs in the NFL within 2 years. That's high praise for an undrafted rookie.

If you haven't noticed, the passing game has never been more successful in the NFL. For example, a record 13 quarterbacks threw for over 300 yards in week 10, a week in which Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers were on a bye. With 5 games to go, 3 players have surpassed 3,000 yards. And yet, in this pass-happy climate, the Packers have allowed a mere 9 TDs by air, good for 3rd best in the NFL. Quarterbacks have a combined completion percentage of 55.9%, 3rd lowest in the NFL, and a combined rating of 66.5, 2nd lowest in the league by 1/10th of a point.

Unfortunately, all this success comes with a big asterisk: the QBs Green Bay has faced this year haven't exactly been top notch. Aside from a partial game against Vick, not a single quarterback they've faced is even rated among the top 15 in the NFL. Last year's meltdowns were against top-tier QBs in Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner, and the secondary really hasn't been tested yet.

That ends this week against Matt Ryan. It will be interesting to see how the secondary fares against Ryan and the Falcons, who boast the league's top wideout in Roddy White. If they stand up and perform as well as they have in recent weeks, perhaps beating Tom Brady and his Patriots in week 15 isn't out of the question. And neither is the Super Bowl.


The Quintessential Packer

Though behind the scenes, Edgar Bennett has been involved in perhaps the biggest question mark of Green Bay's season thus far: who will fill Ryan Grant's shoes? The question has yet to be emphatically answered by any of the backs on the roster, which means the recent arrival of James Starks from the PUP list has everyone asking the question: can he be the guy? Watching film of him in college suggests he could be, but the nearly two years of football he's missed due to injury casts a rather large shadow over his potential. He has a lot of catching up to do if he's going to contribute at all this season, and it all starts with fundamentals: pad level, pass blocking, and holding onto the football. Thankfully, Edgar Bennett is the running backs coach, and there's no one better to teach him.

Bennett holds a special place in Green Bay Packer history. After Terdell Middleton crossed the 1,000 yard plateau in 1978, there was a rather long stretch where no Packers running back achieved that feat. Bennett broke the floodgates open, and over the past 15 years the Packers have only missed the mark four times.

Bennett was never pretty. He was part of Ron Wolf's first draft class, a fourth-round fullback out of Florida State in 1992, and even after being converted to halfback his running style often reflected his roots. But Bennett's fundamentals were strong. Each season he earned more touches, until 1995 when he gained 1,067 yards. And he did it averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry.

But Edgar's strength was never running for long yardage--it was in all the other things a back has to do. His trademark play was the screen, and he caught 61 balls in '95, making him the second leading receiver on the team. Even after Dorsey Levens emerged as the team's lead back in 1996, Bennett remained the 3rd down back thanks to his strong skills as a blocker. Though he was never the fastest on the field, he was a sure-footed, square-shouldered, north-south runner, which always came in handy when the field got sloppy late in the season. And he rarely fumbled.

Perhaps his best game came in the '96 season against the 49ers. The scene was Green Bay in the playoffs, and it was unseasonably warm and rainy for January. The field was a mud pit. Bennett shied away from his "mudder" moniker, but after he ran 17 times in the rain for 80 yards and 2 TDs in a literal mud pit at Lambeau Field that day, his reputation was sealed. And though that was the last game he really starred in, his career in Green Bay turned out to be far from over.

Coaches are rarely stars--they're usually the try-hard guys who alway studied the game to make up for their lack of natural ability. That's why Bennett is a natural coach, and when Mike McCarthy came to Green Bay with his mission statement of bringing in "Packer People," it was no surprise that Edgar Bennett was one of the few coaches he retained from Mike Sherman's staff.

Since Bennett returned in 2001, the running game has thrived. Ahman Green and Ryan Grant were each acquired in trades for low round draft picks, and each emerged into something special under his tutelage. Perhaps James Starks can be Bennett's next star pupil. The team obviously thought enough of Starks to send Al Harris packing--its hard to look at it any other way--so you have to figure they think he can contribute this season, and if the team continues on their current pace, he could emerge late to give this team a spark going into the playoffs. (*knock on wood*)

But let's take a minute to appreciate Edgar Bennett. Workhorse. Fundamentally sound. Not flashy yet effective. Thrived in bad weather. And he came home to coach. Plenty of stars have come and gone since Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren turned the Packers back into a winning franchise--from Brett Favre and Reggie White to Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson--and all of them are more recognizable than Edgar. But I don't think any of them represent Packer Football better than he does.


When did Ted turn the corner?

After the Packers let Al Harris go, it was reasonable to expect a backlash. Al was a fan favorite, a role sealed in the Packers-Seahawks playoff game after picking off overly-confident Matt Hasselbeck and taking it to the house for a win, so the fans heavy on tradition would take issue. The anti-Ted Thompson crowd is a vocal and observant group--every move he makes is scrutinized by this sect of Packers fans, especially since the Favre situation. There are also a few depth-related question marks in the secondary, and the season has been so plagued by injury it would seem veteran depth is something the team would welcome.

Yet the backlash has been minimal. ESPN's resident Packers reporter Jason Wilde has been very clear in his opposition to the move in his radio spots, but largely the fans have let the move slide. This begs the question: when did Ted win over the fan base, and how?

There's no easy answer to this question, but its safe to assume it came after week 5, when Ted was berated for missing out on Marshawn Lynch. As with most things, the change in the weather was the product of many factors, and I have some theories. Among them:

Lynch didn't pan out: Let me preface this by saying that its not really fair to judge Lynch's potential based on his stats thus far. The Seahawks are not the Packers, so its impossible to tell whether he would have fared better in Green Bay. That being said, he certainly hasn't done anything to make Ted regret passing on him. In 4 games as a Seahawk, Lynch has 61 carries for 188 yards, just over 3 yards per carry, and one touchdown. When you compare that to Brandon Jackson's 53 carries for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns in the same span, and consider that Lynch has been nonexistant in the passing game while Jackson has 12 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown, its hard to argue against Thompson's decision to pass on Lynch.

Ted has the Rx for the injury bug: A popular theory was that Hawk would be the trade bait to bring Lynch in, and I certainly bought into that. But with the subsequent injuries to the linebacking corps, Thompson would undoubtedly have been lambasted by the media for being shortsighted in trading away Barnett's replacement for a band-aid. Hawk has responded to his additional responsibilities by turning in his best year as a pro yet. He's on pace to break his personal best of 121 tackles in a season, and his 2 interceptions this year match his season high.

Other than the loss of Barnett, the Packers have also lost the likes of Jermichael Finley, Brad Jones, Ryan Grant, Mike Neal, and Morgan Burnett, all of whom were expected to be major contributors this year. Yet in stepped Tom Crabtree, Frank Zombo, John Kuhn, CJ Wilson and Charlie Peprah--unheralded borderline practice-squad players who have filled in admirably in the absence of those injured starters. Though Mike McCarthy and his staff deserve credit for preparing these players, it was Ted who brought them in.

Sideshow Brett: One of the biggest reasons people were anti-Ted Thompson had to do with his handling of the Brett Favre situation during the 07-08 off-season. But 2 1/2 years later we've watched Brett deteriorate into a freakshow. Its now clear that the man who wanted to retire on his own terms is unable to recognize the signs of age, and with each passing game he looks more and more like Kevin Costner's Roy "Tin-Cup" McAvoy, trying to clear a water hazard over and over until he hits the green just because he knows he can. And while he's refusing to quit, Aaron Rodgers has worked his way into the top-5 QB discussion.

Al Harris isn't Brett Favre on a number of levels, but look at the bare bones of how this scenario played out: older player pushed out in favor of younger player, younger player develops while older player declines elsewhere. Ted Thompson has lived and died by this principle, and though it hasn't always worked out, he does have a wealth of home grown talent who are products of this method. With the release of Harris, Ted seems to have tagged Sam Shields as the next budding star.

Each of these occurrences have helped Teddy's case, but the biggest factor is...

Winning: The NFL focuses more and more on "what have you done for me lately?" with each passing year, and because of this winning shuts people up with the quickness. The Packers are 3-2 since missing out on Lynch, including 3 in a row over the likes of the Vikings, the Jets, and the Cowboys: two hated teams and a top AFC franchise. During this 5-game stretch Green Bay has outscored it's opponents 115 - 70. On top of that, they are owners of the highest point differential in the NFL with +78. The offense is scoring, the defense has tightened despite injuries, and the Packers sit atop the NFC North. Given all that, its hard to be overly upset about the release of a 35 year old cornerback coming off of major knee surgery.

We'll get a better idea in the coming weeks whether the move was the right one to make, but for now let us just say farewell to a surefire Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer. Al, thanks for the memories.


Do you Fear Deer?

I'm not saying deer aren't vicious creatures that haunt me in my dreams, but I've compiled a list of 29 other things that I fear more:

Raptors - As far as fear goes, I am pretty certain I would straight shit myself if I ever came face to face with a Velociraptor. Sure, they're long extinct, but that doesn't mean they aren't to be feared.

Grizzlies - I think this is self explanatory. Have you ever seen these killing machines? The best you could hope for if you piss one off, is to have it kill you in one swift hit of its paw.

Timberwolves - We want to think they are every bit as nice as our pet chihuahuas, but we all know they aren't. Just one wolf could easily kill a human, but these guys can travel in packs, so, good luck with that backpack filled with jerky.

Hornets - Allergic or not, we all get that uneasy feeling whenever a hornet is flying nearby.

Bulls - Ask the guy in the picture what his thoughts are on Bulls.

Hawks - A bird of prey that at any moment could attack you from an aerial assault, that's scary shit.

Bobcats - They might look cute, but they are mean little kitties.

Heat - A lot of people die every year from heat exhaustion.

Suns - People die from heat exhaustion primarily due to the sun. It should be feared.

Lake(r)s - Lakes also claim many lives every year. Drowning has to be one of the worst ways to die.

Magic - Magic could do, well, about anything. Sure it could heal me, or help me fly, but it can also kill me, or turn me into a frog.

Wizards - Who do you think can create the aforementioned magic?

Mavericks - Here are just some Mavericks to think about: 1) a careless flyboy with a fighter jet. 2) A carefree poker player with a loaded gun at all times 3) A former vice presidential candidate who thinks humans lived with dinosaurs (I bet they were terrified of raptors). The first two are scary enough, but that 3rd Maverick scares the living hell out of me!

Rockets - Rockets can take people into space, but they can also have warheads attached to them. You can hide under your desk, but do you really think it'll help?

Thunder - With thunder comes lightning and often it'll come with damaging high winds. I'm just saying, when you see a deer, do you hide in your basement?

Celtics - When you see a drunk Irishman, you know there is a good chance a fight breaks out and your face could be the target of his drunken rage.

Cavaliers - I'm not sure what exactly this means, but it makes me think of a 1800's US Army Calvary coming for me.

Warriors - The people that would be most terrified of an 1800's US Army Calvary, but they didn't back down. That kind of bravery and honor deserves my respect and fear.

Pistons - OH GREAT! My Detroit manufactured car blew a piston and now I need to spend thousands of dollars, that I don't have, on a new one!

Kings - Off with my head if I don't obey.

76ers - There is nothing I respect more than an American Revolutionary Patriot. But, an army and a people, that were able to conquer the world's most powerful military, is fearsome indeed.

Clippers - I think we all can relate to having a bad haircut. One wrong move with a clippers, and it's buzz time on your large noggin.

Pacers - Why is that man pacing back and forth? What is on that man's mind? He seems rather unpredictable, and frankly, I don't like it.

Spurs - If I even hear the sound of spurs walking into a room, I'm imagining a showdown is about to take place and I'm dodging behind the bar as quickly as possible.

Knickerbockers - Oh god, are these pants too tight? I can't believe I'm out in public wearing these pants! Everyone is making fun of me for them, and what if I rip them? ... Can you imagine that scenario, it's a little scary isn't it?

Nets - How do you capture animals? With a net. So, by that logic, nets are more scary than deer.

Trail Blazers - These are people that march to the tune of their own drum. That sort of unpredictability can make me feel a little uneasy.

Nuggets - Sure, you might be happy to have struck gold, but you won't be happy when your trail blazing friend chucks a gold nugget at your head.

Jazz - Yes, the music sounds soothing, but when I think of Jazz, I think of New Orleans. I also think of voodoo when I think of New Orleans. Jazz = Voodoo = scary. It was such a scary thought, they had to move the New Orleans Jazz to Utah to make them seem more safe. (The same happened with the Lakers moving from Minnesota to Los Angeles, where there are no lakes, so the fans could safely attend games without being overly frightened).

Now that I've gone over all those terrifying things, I should point out that I'm not anti Bucks. I always cheer for them to win (though I care little about the NBA as a whole), but I am anti-"Fear the Deer" slogan. Something about it, really rubs me wrong.

Now go on, say it with me like a normal fan base would: "LET'S GO BUCKS"

On second thought, this video does seem extremely frightening, and I know this man would disagree that deer are not to be feared.

This is not the view of The Wisconsin Sports Tap staff as a whole, merely @diddy05's


A Rare Performance

Adam Sandler once sang about the Lonesome Kicker, but the kicker has nothing on the punter. As far as fans are concerned, the punter is the offensive lineman of special teams--as long as you don't hear his name, you're happy. When he takes the field, that means your offense failed. The closest a punter gets to points is when he has the privilege of holding the ball for the kicker, and nobody mobs the holder after the game winning field goal.

Yet last Sunday Green Bay punter Tim Masthay was the MVP of the game. And I don't think its debatable.

Field position played a huge factor in the upset victory over the Jets--so huge that Masthay won the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award, a rarity for the position. After the Packers' offense sputtered time and time again, Masthay was there to save the day, kicking the ball eight times without a single shank and giving the Jets offense more field than it could handle. And its been a long time since the Packers could rely on a punter to do that.

Jeremy Kapinos. Derrick Frost. Jon Ryan. BJ Sander. Bryan Barker. Josh Bidwell. These are the names of the 4th down drop-kick specialists over the past 10 years, and those who didn't have a noodle leg generally treated the area past the 20 yard line as a launching pad for the endzone. Sander stands out as the worst, being an enormous bust as a 3rd round pick who actually sat out his first year and was gone after his sophomore season. On the other end of the spectrum, Ryan was the best of the bunch, if only because he had the strength and athleticism to tackle the returner after he outkicked his coverage.

Wrap your head around this stat: No Green Bay punter has pinned more than 2o punts inside the opponent's 20 yard line since Bidwell in 2002. To put this in perspective, we're at the halfway mark in the season and three punters have 19. Unless your offense rivals the 2007 Patriots, your team punts enough that the punter should be able to crest 20 inside the 20 annually.

But Sunday was a sight for sore eyes. Masthay dropped 5 kicks inside the 20, doubling his season total, and had a punt not caromed off gunner Brett Swain's leg, it could have been 6. His hang-time was stellar and he kicked for distance when it was needed, which combined to help keep the Jets from gaining a single yard in punt-returns. All this while the wind blew heavily throughout the game.

Shawn Slocum credits the breakout game to Masthays newfound consistency with his "Aussie-style kicking." If you have no clue what that means, I was with you, but its discussed a bit in this article. To summarize, its a quick-kick where you connect more with the tip of the ball, causing it to go end under end instead of spiraling. The distance is shorter with a higher hangtime, so it's ideal for punts from around the 50 yard line. Masthay apparently did this four times, including on the final crucial punt, with much success.

After the game, praise showered in on the normally unheralded punter. Fellow kicker Mason Crosby gushed over the performance, stating Masthay "changed the field like I haven't seen in a long time." Defensive leader Charles Woodson also publicly thanked him for giving the defense plenty of field to work with.

But amid all this praise for his leg work, his second job as holder was overlooked. On a bad snap Masthay dug the ball out of the dirt and got the hold up for Crosby to hit the first field goal, which turned out to be all the points the team needed. Its a detail that went largely unnoticed. As punter, Masthay is used to that.