If the Badgers continue to put on more performances like Saturday's, the national respect they lost last season and now crave more than ever will almost surely come. Nearly every unit made positive contributions to Wisconsin's 38-30 victory over Michigan State, which was essentially over within the first few seconds of the fourth quarter. While the Spartans certainly came into this season overhyped, few would have predicted a 1-3 start, much less that a Wisconsin offense with several new faces would hang 38 points on a Mark Dantonio defense.
As a result, the Badgers head into a tough two-week road stretch a perfect 4-0 and with infinitely more confidence and optimism than they had just a month ago. Victories at Minnesota and Ohio State will not come easily, but if you're someone who's watched the first four games and still thinks Wisconsin does not have a legitimate shot at winning both road contests...then you're just what this under-appreciated team feeds off of.
Let's go to the highlights.
Scott Tolzien - It is becoming a broken record, but it is impossible to understate how the first-year starter's performance at the quarterback position has propelled the Badgers to 4-0. After methodically dissecting some questionable defenses during the non-conference schedule, many were wondering how Tolzien would fare against a Big Ten opponent. He silenced the doubters and then some, throwing for 243 yards and four touchdowns against the Spartans. Most importantly, he did not throw an interception for the third consecutive game. It has been a long time since the Badgers have been able to call the quarterback position a strength, but Tolzien has proven he can play with the big boys.
John Clay - It had been a rough season for Clay up until Saturday. Decidedly the most talented running back on Wisconsin's roster, he was surprisingly listed second on the depth chart heading into the opener, after Zach Brown had a better summer. Then, when he did get his chance to start last week against Wofford, he jeopardized his tenuous hold on the position by fumbling three times. Clay's breakout performance against Michigan State showed that maybe he really is ready to be the featured back. He carried 32 times for 142 yards and scored a touchdown. While he was busy averaging 4.4 yards per carry, Brown lost a fumble, had trouble finding the holes and only managed a 1.6-yard average. Despite Scott Tolzien's solid start, the Badgers will need Clay to produce for the 2009 campaign to be a success.
Chris Borland - We talked about the tight ends last week and, while Garrett Graham and Lance Kendricks continue to impress, catching nine of the Badgers' 19 pass completions and scoring three touchdowns, the play of true freshman linebacker Chris Borland cannot be overlooked. Saturday, he tied for second on the team with five tackles and came up with a huge sack and a pass breakup. Most importantly, he kept the pressure on Michigan State quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, hitting them four times. Borland also caught an onside kick attempt by the Spartans, his second great play on special-teams in as many weeks.
David Gilreath - Gilreath seems to have faded off into the sunset. While he was the number one receiver a year ago, the coaches and quarterbacks seem to be more interested in throwing to Isaac Anderson, Nick Toon and the tight ends so far this season. Gilreath caught only two balls for a pedestrian 21 yards Saturday. Even the wide-receiver reverse play - Gilreath's trademark in 2008 - has been going to Anderson lately. He still has yet to make a really big play in the return game as well. It will be interesting to track his progress as the season goes along. He appears to have regressed and/or fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
Secondary - A week after holding Wofford without a passing yard for the entire first half, the secondary broke down against Michigan State, particularly late in the game. The Spartans' quarterbacks combined to throw for 396 yards and four touchdowns. Chris Maragos' two picks were nice but the play of the cornerbacks simply must improve. Aaron Henry is a good cover guy who has been having trouble making plays on the ball, while Devin Smith and Niles Brinkley are just getting beaten.
No more home cooking - Tough to find three legitimately bad areas of play after a convincing Big Ten win. The bad news for the Badgers, though, is they now have to hit the road. Wisconsin is 4-8 away from Camp Randall Stadium since 2007. That figure includes wins over UNLV, Minnesota, Fresno State and Indiana, as well as two losses at neutral sites in bowl games. While going 4-0 to start the season is certainly impressive, do not underestimate the importance of playing those contests in a stadium where the Badgers are 36-3 since 2004. These next two weeks of competition in hostile and unfamiliar environmentswill demonstrate just how good Wisconsin really is.