Talk about making a statement. Wisconsin rebounded from two tough losses against elite Big Ten teams by posting its first shutout in three years. The Badgers' 37-0 victory over Purdue Saturday was nothing short of dominant. Give Bret Bielema and his coaching staff credit for pushing the right buttons. The team looked hungry from kickoff onward, setting the tone early with an 80-yard touchdown drive and preserving the shutout late by refusing to surrender a point. This was the kind of game the Badgers of last year may have dropped or struggled to win. The inspired play Saturday, particularly from the underclassmen, reinforced the belief that there is still a lot at stake this season, and generated justifiable excitement about the future of the program.
Purdue, like many teams in the Big Ten this season, has been tough to figure. Still, it is safe to say the Boilermakers are good enough that beating them 37-0 is impressive. They are the only team in the conference that has defeated Ohio State. And they only lost by two points to an Oregon team that is perfect in Pac-10 play because of a missed extra point. Purdue had scored at least 20 points in each of its first eight games before playing the Badgers. Most importantly, this was a hot team, one that came into Madison fresh off of two Big Ten victories.
Many of us had been waiting for a Bielema-coached team to put together a truly complete game. The Badgers' first five victories of the season all ended up closer than they needed to be. Throughout Bielema's tenure at Wisconsin, the team has gotten off to its share of slow starts in games and has put its fans through plenty of well-documented collapses. On display Saturday were 60 quality minutes of football. It is an encouraging sign for a young team that has every reason to believe it can win its remaining four games, finish 10-2 and play in a very respectable bowl game.
Let's take a look at Saturday's highlights:
Running game - The Badgers piled up yardage on the ground. John Clay ran for 123 yards and three touchdowns and, once again, the team took full advantage of the end-around. Tight end Lance Kendricks accumulated 91 yards on the ground on such plays, including a 54-yard scamper down the sideline. Overall, the Badgers ran for 266 yards on an impressive 53 carries. It was nice to see Wisconsin set the tone for the game by committing to the ground attack early. The team's opening drive covered 80 yards, none of which came through the air, and resulted in a touchdown.
Freshmen - Wisconsin's freshmen continue to have a remarkably positive impact on this season. Erik Smith and Montee Ball received a combined 14 carries out of the backfield. Curt Phillips got into the game at quarterback, running four times and attempting six passes. Kraig Appleton recorded his first receptions of the season and looked good. David Gilbert blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown. Chris Borland forced and recovered yet another fumble. Gilbert and Borland, in particular, have been big-play guys on defense and on special teams throughout the year.
Secondary - We've been on their case all year, so we better give them the props they earned Saturday. The defensive backs played great football, holding Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott to 5-of-23 passing for 59 yards. Cornerback Devin Smith, who has been up and down this year, recorded a spectacular interception and got a foot down in bounds. He and Chris Maragos both broke up passes. The coverage was simply outstanding all day. Purdue's receivers had an extremely difficult time getting open.
Quarterbacks - Scott Tolzien was not asked to do much in this game, putting the ball up only 13 times. Still, he completed just six passes for 87 yards and did not throw a touchdown pass for the third consecutive game. Tolzien did not look nearly as sharp on his passes as he did during the early part of the season, and it's becoming a concern. Curt Phillips did not look much better in garbage time, throwing an interception and only rushing for three yards. While letting Clay and the run game dominate was clearly the right strategy against the second-worst rushing defense in the Big Ten, it does suggest a lack of confidence in the quarterbacks not to ask them to throw more, especially once the game was out of reach. Interestingly enough, one of last year's starters, Dustin Sherer, was a topic of conversation at Bielema's press conference Monday. Sherer is an Indiana native and the Badgers play in Bloomington this week. Bielema reiterated that he thought Sherer would have an opportunity to help Wisconsin win a game at some point this year. With Tolzien's stock plummeting recently and Phillips probably not quite ready, it wouldn't be a shock if Sherer saw action before the season ends.
David Gilreath - Gilreath simply needs to be replaced, or at least complemented, as the main return man. Simply put, he looks lost on the football field this year. He runs laterally way too often, and seems to have no idea whether to call for a fair catch on punts. Bielema said he would use Isaac Anderson at times, but we didn't see him in either role against Purdue. It is tough to single out one guy when the special teams unit has been poor all year, but Philip Welch, Brad Nortman and the coverage team all played adequately Saturday, and Gilreath still struggled.
No Sellout - It is tough to find three negatives after shutting out a Big Ten opponent, but it has to be considered a disappointment that Camp Randall was not sold out Saturday. Even after two losses, the Badgers came into this game 5-2 and Purdue was considered a decent team. Late-October Big Ten games in Madison should always sell out. Period. There are, of course, circumstances to consider, chiefly that many people want nothing to do with the chaos of Madison over Halloween weekend. And, of course, it is nice to know that Camp Randall will be packed to the brim for the Badgers' last home game of the season against Michigan, no matter how far the Wolverines continue to fall.