October 02, 2011
Wisconsin 48, Nebraska 17.
Confession time: In the midst of the small media circus surrounding the Russell Wilson Derby this summer, I didn't get it. Really: How big a deal is the destination of a decent-to-good, six-foot-nothing quarterback whose athletic future is as an outfielder? How good could he be in new surroundings, with one year of eligibility and just two months of prep? After four full years at N.C. State, he was only second-team All-ACC.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if he'd asked me what I thought about cutting his minor league season short to enroll in grad school so he could serve as a cog in Wisconsin's power-running machine, I'd have told him to stick with baseball. Obviously, this is why nobody asks me anything.
It's easiest to recap Wilson's rise to the top of the early Heisman lists via statistical absurdity: After carving up the Cornhuskers Saturday night for 255 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 attempts, he ranks first nationally in yards per attempt and second in pass efficiency, with a number (216.9) more than 30 points above the NCAA's single-season record. He's completed upwards of 70 percent of his passes in all five games, with multiple touchdowns in each. He's on pace to obliterate single-season school records in every conceivable category, as is the offense as a whole, which leads the Big Ten by a mile in total yards and scoring.
More impressively, though — and maybe more relevantly — is just how little the context has changed for the offense as a whole. The transition has been seamless: The Badgers are running (and throwing) at a nearly identical rate as they did last year en route to the Rose Bowl, when they also led the conference in scoring after leaving the worst defenses in the league scattered in tiny pieces across the upper Midwest. The straight-ahead running game was so successful in its attempts to convert opposing defensive fronts into glass, even gangly, within-the-offense senior Scott Tolzien wound up among the most efficient passers in the nation. The formula has worked for 20 years with guys like Tolzien and Tyler Donovan and Jon Stocco playing the same role: Take what the defense gives you, make the easy throws off play-action, manage the huddle/clock/audibles at the line and woe unto your children if you turn the ball over.
Wilson is his predecessors' equal in all of those regards, and follows the same script about three-fourths of the time. But the options he gives the Badgers on the other 25 percent is like going from a potluck at church to a full-sized buffet — it's like an entirely new offense in itself. Suddenly Wisconsin has a guy who can consistently escape pressure, create on the run and burn run-focused secondaries downfield with his arm or his legs. Suddenly scouts are considering receiver Nick Toon a possible first-round draft pick. And suddenly the kind of grisly beatings that were reserved for the likes of Indiana and Northwestern in 2010 are being inflicted on the likes of Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers were supposed to be the biggest obstacle in the Badgers' path to the top of the Big Ten standings — or perhaps vice versa, depending on your preseason assumptions — but in fact offered about as much resistance as Oregon State. (Which remains winless on the year, for the record.) Looking over the rest of the schedule, the only remaining obstacle to the top of the BCS standings is the schedule: With the apparent collapse of Ohio State and Michigan nowhere to be found in the cross-division exchange, the only team ranked in the new AP poll that shows up over the last seven games is… Illinois on Nov. 19. When the greatest external threat to your perfection is Ron Zook, the enemy is thine self.