This is Part II of what I think will be a three part series on Bielema's Wisconsin history versus hurry-up no-huddle teams. Last week, we broke down his Badger teams when they played Chip Kelly's Ducks in the Rose Bowl and their three games against Rich Rodriguez's Michigan teams, which you can read here.
For this installment, we reached out to Mike Fiammetta, editor of SB Nation's Wisconsin site, Bucky's 5th Quarter, which is a great source of information on the last few years of Bielema's tenure at Wisconsin (as well, of course, as the current Badgers).
I'd also like to thank Mike for being willing to relive the 2012 Rose Bowl, which is like asking Razorback fans to relive the 2011 Sugar Bowl. His insight is very much appreciated.
DH: Bielema is making quite a name for himself this summer for opposing the current rules relating to the hurry-up offense, and we know he hates it philosophically as well. That's obviously not a type of offense the Big Ten is known for, but Bielema did see variations of it at Wisconsin. At any point do you remember Bielema making statements regarding difficulty in preparing against any of those teams? Were there any other games against noted hurry-up/spread teams?
B5Q: No specific statements cross my mind, though that’s largely because Bielema was always known for his blustery “we’ll play anyone, and we’ll play our style” coachspeak. The quote you included in your piece Friday is a perfect example of this; there’s the statement of “what we do isn’t pretty,” the frowning at what other programs do and the grand absolute saying his teams would never do that.
The Rose Bowl vs. Oregon is the most notable game vs. a hurry-up or spread-based team, and as you also laid out, Wisconsin very nearly won that one. Of course, the presence of Russell Wilson on that team had very much to do with that; for all of the success the Badgers enjoyed on offense in that game, there was a sense the Ducks’ speed and high pace would eventually prove too much to overcome. The Badgers came as close as they could to matching them, but those turnovers -- namely the Jared Abbrederis fumble and Wilson’s interception – prevented anything more from happening.
DH: Bielema's case against the hurry-up has mostly been based on player safety. Did Wisconsin ever suffer any injuries that may be attributed to playing against a different type of offense?
B5Q: I can’t recall Wisconsin suffering any injuries that might be attributed to playing against a different system. I think of exhaustion-related injuries as the ones you’d say could be a result of facing a fast-paced team, and those aren’t exactly rare injuries. In terms of Wisconsin’s injuries over the last couple of years, I think of the concussions Montee Ball suffered vs. Michigan State and Jared Abbrederis suffered vs. Oregon State and Penn State.
As a result, I think that’s why Bielema’s crusade on this topic has been so surprising. It’s admirable, and personally, I can buy some of his arguments. I, like many others, just believe that not much will change and that his timing is sort of odd. I would venture that this shouldn’t be a major storyline entering his first season at Arkansas, but Bielema’s always shown he’ll speak his mind. Unless I’m overlooking something, I can’t recall any injury or incident at Wisconsin that would explain his stance in this situation.
DH: Did the Badgers do anything unique to prepare to play against those types of offenses?
B5Q: The Rose Bowl was an interesting preparation considering how much more time both teams had than usual. Leading up to the game, the major Wisconsin storylines centered on stopping Oregon on defense and matching them on offense -- I recall most of the Badgers’ responses being along the lines of, “Well I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we’ll have to find a way.”
In practice, you’d have some receivers and skill players playing out of position on the scout team to simulate Oregon’s offense. In the gameplan, the premier strategy was to do what Wisconsin does best -- chew up the clock and own time of possession. In that respect, somewhat ironically, the Badgers really just had to do what they were best at.
DH: Did the fans ever worry about playing against those types of teams? In general, how do you feel the Badgers' defense performed in those games?
B5Q: I think fans, at least the rational ones, were generally apprehensive about playing Oregon. Those RichRod Michigan teams weren’t really intimidating, and as you laid out in your Friday piece, Wisconsin generally handled them well. As you also detailed, the Badgers’ defense didn’t turn in a necessarily weak effort against the Ducks. I think Wisconsin played Oregon as well as it could have -- the defense even managed to contribute its own touchdown via a fumble recovery in the second quarter, and the offensive miscues could very well be the main reasons the Badgers didn’t pull out the win.
DH: Did Wisconsin make an effort to try to have as many drawn-out drives as possible to keep the opposing offense off the field or did Bielema prefer to just try and score as much and as quickly as possible regardless of the opponent?
B5Q: I think Bielema’s “we’ll just keep playing our style of football” mantra actually held true here, as I mentioned a few questions earlier. In the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin won the time-of-possession battle, 35:42 to 24:18. I can’t imagine a slimmer margin of victory there doing the Badgers any good.
Remember, too, that Wilson still managed to drive Wisconsin into scoring position on that last drive. With just 16 seconds remaining, two big pass plays to Abbrederis and Nick Toon put the Badgers at the 25-yard line before Wilson’s arguably ill-advised attempt to spike the ball backfired and let the clock run out.
Who knows what happens without those two turnovers or with one more chance at the end zone. But I do think Wisconsin’s gameplan on both sides of the ball was sound, and the execution was nearly enough to pull off a narrow win.
DH: In the Rose Bowl, do you feel like the Wisconsin defense performed well? Obviously, no team likes to give up 48 points but that was right at Oregon's season average. Do Badger fans feel like they would have won if not for the two 4th quarter turnovers? Do fans feel the defense let the team down?
B5Q: Perhaps a small portion of fairweather fans saw that 45-point total and felt the defense was a letdown, but as you alluded to, Oregon averaged 46.1 points per game that season. That, in every sense of the notion, is not a bad defensive performance.
The rational perspective, albeit one that’s inevitably tinged with some amount of bitterness, is those two turnovers were critical and extremely unfortunate. That Wilson interception came on a poor throw, but that Abbrederis fumble was like 70 percent bad luck and 30 percent a nice play by the Oregon defensive back to poke the ball loose. It’s aggravating to relive them and realize they very likely cost Wisconsin the game, but it’s also a silver lining if there ever was one. Wisconsin, in one of the most natural David vs. Goliath match-ups we’ve seen in recent college football, was just 25 yards short of the upset. It wasn’t a win, but it also wasn’t a defensive letdown as much as it was a painful case of close-but-not-quite-enough.