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'09 Badgers more disciplined, opportunistic

For the most misguidedly optimistic of Wisconsin football fans, here is a way to convince yourself that the Badgers have every reason to win big Saturday against Ohio State.

The Buckeyes lost to USC, who lost to Washington, who lost to Notre Dame, who lost to Michigan, who lost to Michigan State, who lost to Wisconsin. 

That such a chain of reasoning exists is more a testament to the unpredictable and illogical nature of college football, rather than any rational argument for a Wisconsin victory.

Still, there are three reasons the Wisconsin Badgers of 2009 head into Saturday's Big Ten showdown 5-0 and with a legitimate chance to upset the Buckeyes, while the 2008 version most likely would not have enjoyed such odds.

The first is that, as you might have heard, Wisconsin is getting better play at the quarterback position than it has in any season since 2006.  But the second and third factors are less tangible: discipline and opportunism.

Last year's team displayed a remarkable lack of discipline, which is unusual for any Wisconsin football team, but especially bizarre for a squad loaded with seniors.  By the time the Badgers lost to Michigan State on a last-second field goal November 1, they had already accumulated more penalties than any of Barry Alvarez's 16 teams from 1990 to 2005.

The undisciplined behavior a year ago extended to all areas of the team, from the defensive personnel's inability to follow their assignments when facing an option attack to the offense's perpetual problem with turnovers to unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and boneheaded clock management decisions by the coaching staff.

Aside from fumbling issues, the Badgers have been a much more disciplined team this season.  Not only has the frequency of the penalties decreased, but the nature of the Badgers' infractions has been much more palatable.  Didn't it seem like last year you were just waiting for Matt Shaughnessy to get called for roughing the passer in a key spot in the fourth quarter?  Or for a reversal of a missed field goal by the opposing team because Wisconsin ran 12 guys out onto the field?  Those types of costly errors have diminished.

This year's young Badger defense handled Wofford's option offense infinitely better than last year's veteran group did Cal Poly's last year, when it took three missed extra points and an overtime period just to put the Mustangs away.  And how refreshing to see methodical, efficient, high-percentage passes on come-from-behind drives against Fresno State a few weeks ago, as opposed to watching Allan Evridge literally throw the game away on the first play of a potential game-winning drive against Ohio State last October.

While there are still occasional breakdowns in the secondary and minor mistakes have been made by almost every unit, it has been easier to tolerate this season because this is a much more inexperienced team, the blunders have been less unintelligent and the team has atoned for its errors by making just as many significant positive plays to get off to a 5-0 start.  When Chris Maragos bats down a Northern Illinois pass on 4th-and-3 and then records interceptions against Fresno State and Michigan State to seal three victories, you can live with Devin Smith getting burned for a long touchdown.  When O'Brien Schofield and Chris Borland combine for a sack, forced fumble and recovery on Minnesota's potential game-winning drive, it makes Zach Brown's turnover that led to a Gopher touchdown a bit more bearable.

As long as Scott Tolzien continues to make good decisions and the rest of the team plays disciplined football and matches each mistake with a big play, fans will continue to enjoy watching this Wisconsin team.  And, oh yeah, the Badgers will continue to be in a position to win football games.