Instant Analysis: Capital One Bowl

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 1, 2007

Arkansas and Wisconsin proved to be physical equals in a punishing gridiron war that left quarterbacks battered and linemen exhausted. But when it was all said and done, the Big Ten bested the SEC thanks to field goal kicking.

It's not a sexy way to analyze this game, and it's likely that a lot of talking heads and media personalities will look past it in the aftermath of this grueling game in Orlando, but field goal kicking--from the first quarter, no less--decided this affair.

On a day when two defensive lines pushed their physical limits in jawdropping displays of endurance and willpower, the Badgers edged the Razorbacks on the strength of two kicks in the game's opening stanza. Arkansas placekicker Jeremy Davis missed a 30-yard field goal, while Wisconsin's Taylor Mehlhaff nailed a 52-yarder on the following possession. The two plays represented a six-point swing in a game decided by three points. Just as tellingly, they showed why Arkansas' advantage in yards gained meant nothing on the scoreboard. Throughout the afternoon but especially with respect to the kicking game, Wisconsin made more clutch plays and maximized more of its opportunities.

Field goals aside, though, Wisconsin proved to be the better-coached team in this game, a crucial difference on an afternoon when there was little separation between two rosters of college football players. It was clear that Badger head coach Bret Bielema, all of 36 years old, did his homework in schooling Houston Nutt and the rest of Arkansas' coaching staff. While Nutt, the ninth-year Razorback coach, tried a piecemeal approach and shuttled his two passing quarterbacks (Mitch Mustain and Casey Dick) in and out of the lineup, Bielema knew that stopping Arkansas' running quarterback--Darren McFadden--was the key to victory.

On 99 percent of the snaps when it was utilized, the vaunted "Wildcat" formation that terrorized SEC defenses in 2006 was rendered impotent by a Badger defense that read McFadden's mind. Red-shirted Wisconsin defenders seemed to know the Hogs' playbook better than any Arkansas player. On fake handoffs, screens and flat passes--anything that explored the edges of the field--Wisconsin had multiple defenders staying home, waiting to make easy tackles on McFadden and Felix Jones. As a result, the Badgers--while allowing a couple of big gainers--essentially shut down an offense that was perfectly dissected in film studies over the past month.

While Bielema and his staff excelled by any reasonable measure, Nutt and his braintrust struggled to find answers. They'll uniformly deny it in the Arkansas locker room, but it would be hard to think--after this uneven and sloppy performance--that the December drama involving the antics of Pig(skin) parents in the Razorback football family didn't have something to do with the way Houston Nutt juggled his players in this game. Had Mitch Mustain's mom not exerted a rather considerable amount of public pressure on Nutt, it would have been hard to imagine Mustain getting as many reps as he did in the Capital One Bowl. And given Mustain's crippling third-quarter interception deep in Wisconsin territory, it's fair to say that the freshman quarterback's ambitions far exceeded his level of competence. With more consistent quarterbacking--and, oh yes, better placekicking--the story of this game could have been different.

But couldas, shouldas and wouldas are the refuge of losers. Wisconsin drew up better pass routes, had a tremendous defensive scheme, avoided backbreaking penalties, kicked a long field goal, and did the other little things that translate to victory in a matchup of relative equals. Bret Bielema stamped himself as a coach who can stand on his own, free from the shadow of Barry Alvarez. Most importantly, the Badgers validated their record and ranking, giving the Big Ten a second scalp on New Year's Day in head-to-head competition against the SEC.

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