first_imgWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It’s been said that No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan have separated themselves so far away from the rest of the league that their conference is now being referred to “the Big Two and the Little Nine,” and it’s not the first time this euphemism has been used.Well, Badger fans may argue, why isn’t it the Big Three and Little Eight? Or Big Four and Little Seven, to throw Iowa in there (despite two straight losses)?Are Ohio State and Michigan that much better than Wisconsin? The rankings may suggest so, but look at the stats; Wisconsin has scored more points than any other team in the Big Ten, and the defense is second-best in the conference, playing airtight for the majority of the season.Yes, the Badgers’ schedule has been softer than a pillow factory, but for the most part, UW plays the same cellar-dwellers as Ohio State and Michigan. The Buckeyes and Wolverines have registered huge wins over No. 5 Texas and No. 10 Notre Dame, respectively, while Wisconsin’s last win over Purdue should be considered its toughest of 2006 to this point. But those are each individual games; the season is two-thirds of the way finished, things even out.So, again, are Ohio State and Michigan that much better than Wisconsin? For the time being, well, yes — for one simple reason.As good as the Badgers have looked at times, there is still one more piece of the puzzle missing: eliminating costly mistakes.For sure, when a team runs the ball like UW has with P.J. Hill, maintains steady play from quarterback John Stocco, gets spot contributions in the passing game from Travis Beckum, Paul Hubbard et al, and plays defense the way it has, said team is bound to beat most of its opponents, as the Badgers have done. But if Wisconsin were to play Ohio State tomorrow or get a rematch with Michigan (which would be quite an interesting Round 2), the lack of mistake-free play would likely haunt the Badgers in the end.One mark of a great team is when the opponent commits a dumb penalty, or fumbles away a ball that shouldn’t be fumbled, or gives up any sort of slack, that team makes the opponent pay. Ohio State and Michigan have done just that, along with other programs in the top 10 around the country. And yes, the Badgers have done the same in certain situations as well.But the point is that Wisconsin just hasn’t played these types of teams. When John Stocco threw just his third interception of the season at Purdue, trying to dump the ball off but instead getting picked by Ryan Baker, the Boilermakers couldn’t do anything with it. For that matter, Wisconsin opponents have scored just 30 points off turnovers in eight games this season. The only team to hit double-digits in this category is Western Illinois, back when the Badgers were really struggling.It goes without saying that the Badger defense, stout as it has been, would have much more trouble fighting off Troy Smith or Chad Henne in good field position after a turnover.With dropped balls earlier in the year, some missed tackles here and there, and a season-long headache for UW head coach Bret Bielema on special teams, it’s clear that Wisconsin has not played perfect ball, or even close to it, and the players and coaches would be the first to tell you this.It’s become a common theme after ballgames, when Bielema speaks about his team or when Stocco talks about the offense that the constant answer is, “We still haven’t performed to our full potential,” or, “There’s still a lot we can clean up.” Certainly, it’s encouraging to know Wisconsin can still play better, even while riding the four-game winning streak. But with a young ball club comes inexperience, and with inexperience comes bad mistakes that — luckily for the Badgers — haven’t come back to haunt Bielema’s club yet.But bear in mind, in two weeks comes a home game against floundering yet dangerous Penn State, which won the Big Ten title last year. The next week brings a trip to Kinnick Stadium and a date with Iowa, which could potentially be Wisconsin’s chance to claim third place in the conference — or even second, if Michigan suffers a surprising setback to Northwestern or at Indiana.Neither Penn State nor Iowa, frankly, are nearly as likely to allow Wisconsin off the hook with bad errors as previous competitors have been.So what’s the good news for the Badgers? Bielema seems to have a fantastic hold on his players and their mental attitude right now. Nothing against former coaching great Barry Alvarez, but if that “inevitable midseason bad loss” is going to happen in 2006, it’s up to Illinois, next week at Camp Randall.And unless the Fighting Illini somehow take greater advantage of UW’s mistakes than the past four competitors have, it’s going to be a fifth-straight victory for the Badgers.But Wisconsin, sadly, won’t be placed in conversation along with OSU or UM until the mistakes are cleaned up. Then maybe, just maybe, “the Big Three” would make a little more sense.last_img


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *