That was a stressful experience. Wisconsin rallied to beat Illinois 30 to 24 yesterday, in a game that was surprisingly close (according to the Vegas oddsmakers). I was told that the spread yesterday was around 20 points, which seems a bit absurd. I know we had been spanking people score-wise, but the Illinoise had played a bunch of close games, and had just statistically dominated Penn State in the Valley of Happiness. The spread shouldn't have been more than 14. And boy, oh boy, did we look asleep in the first twenty or so minutes. I went to use one of the heads underneath the new luxury boxes when it was 21-3, both to wazz and to take a moment to mentally prepare myself for a loss to the frickin' Zookster. Thankfully, we stoned them in the second half (we've done that to Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Whale's Vagina State), and scored just enough to squeak out a win. The last two Illinois possessions were not pleasant to watch, by the way. That Williams kid has a strong arm, and the illegal motion call at the end looked a bit suspect. So, phew.
A couple of thoughts.
First, P.J. Hill is dramatically better than any of our other backs. Although the general theory this year is that Hill is good, and that our O-Line is much improved over last season, I'm starting to wonder if the line is just ok, and Hill makes them look good. Consider the following. Hill gained 50 yards on 12 carries. Smith gained 46 yards on 21 carries. Rowan gained 0 yards on 5 carries. So Hill averaged about 4.6 yards per carry. Our other backs, less than 2. From my seat, it looked like Smith is a bit afraid of contact. He does a lot of lateral running, trying to turn the mythical corner, something he was probably able to do in high school, but is not fast enough to do at this level. So he'd end up dancing around and would get tackled for a minimal gain on a play where Hill would likely pound ahead and get three or four yards. Rowan looked completely hesitant. Maybe he's rusty. The point is, Hill is a damn fine back, and our offense suffers when he's not on the field on a regular basis. The hits that put him out the game were pretty rough. The first was a solid play, a guy running from the side and hitting him hard across the shoulders, while somebody was grabbing at his legs. That hit seemed to catch him by surprise, knocking him right over, his back slamming into the ground. But the second one was pretty cheap. He was already wrapped up by several players, was in the midst of going down and this Illinois safety came up rammed his shoulder into Hill's head. You could see his neck snap back from the stands. Lets hope he recovers in time for the Penn State game. The fact that he was sitting on the bench for the rest of the game, and not in the locker room being treated, gives me some hope. We'll need him.
Second, Illinois is actually a pretty good team, despite their crap record. While they are coached by Ron Zook, aka the Zookster, who everyone thinks is a good recruiter but not a good game coach, there's a fair amount of talent on that team, and their defense is solid. (Zookster must be a quacktastic recruiter if he can get kids to come to Champaign-Urbana, hereafter known as Shampoo-Banana, because it's easily the grimmest Big Ten town I've seen). I bet they flirt with a winning record next season. This Illinois fan in the stands seemed to think they'd be so improved that they'd "beat us in Champaign next year." Yeah, that should not happen. While they're the youngest team in the Big Ten (3 senior starters), we're the second youngest (5 senior starters), and we're better.
I see the Packers won today, running for a load of yards, averaging over 5 yards a carry, and holding the Cardinals to just around 200 yards of total offense. That's excellent. I wish I had seen that, but they refuse to cut away from the Bear games here, even when their up, oh, I don't know, 41 to nothing. Bastards. Yes, I could have gone to a sports bar, but I have no money, and all my trickable or interested friends are either out of town or working. Who wants to be the solo guy at the sports bar, reading the paper during commercial breaks? I've been that guy before, and it's an uncomfortably weird way to spend a Sunday. The bartender/waitperson always looks at you with a mix of pity and suspicion, like you're either a loser with no friends or a potential danger to everyone within a ten yard radius. Plus, the NFL keeps showing our games at the same time as Bears games. This means at game time the bars are full of colossally boorish Bear fans who angrily shout when the other team converts a third down, even with the Bears up by 20 plus points. Get a grip, jackasses. Bear fans are terrible winners. This also means that I can't watch the game at the house of the one guy I know who lives nearby and has Sunday Ticket, because, yes, he's a Bears fan. Hopefully, NFL network will show the Packer game in one of their abbreviated replays this week, and I'll actually be able to make knowledgeable comments. Poop again.
As far as the game goes toward our overall success for the season, just looking at the stats and reading the Journal-Sentinel's game blog, I think being able to run the ball against a pretty decent defense is an excellent sign that the team is improving, which reflects well on the coaching staff, and the improvement of the offensive line. But don't get too excited. The Cardinals just lost to the Raiders, for god's sake. Our recent two game winning streak has come against two teams that will be fighting for the top draft pick. As annoying as I find Bill Simmons, his commentary on the Packers in his last NFL rankings was probably right on. Lets wait to get excited until we're competitive against a good team.