Two bitter losses lead to Bielema questions

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Michael Hunt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bret Bielema talked this week about how the Rose Bowl was still attainable for Wisconsin. He talked about it in vague and distant terms. He talked about how itís not exactly a front-burner issue for his players.

ďI understand itóand know thereís a lot of scenarios out thereóbut I think itís something thatís on their radar but not something we openly discuss,Ē Bielema said.

But after the eighth game of this particular season, the Wisconsin coach should not be mentioning the Rose Bowl as if it were a comet.

And that, more than any reason, is why weíre right back to the annual Bret Bielema discussion.

You know, the yearly tiresome debate on whether Bielema is the right long-term coach for Wisconsin football.

Of course, the fact it is so constantly revisited by an otherwise forgiving UW community tells you something right there.

There are a lot of reasons why a coach with 55-18 record at a place like Wisconsin never seems to escape scrutiny. But only one reason matters.

More than halfway into Bielemaís sixth season, the Badgers made the same game-turning mistakes in consecutive losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. Whenever a season of great expectations suddenly goes sideways in a way that evokes bad memories of years past, itís on the head coach.

It seemed as if Bielema finally was beyond that sort of reproach last season, when the Badgers took their annual beating at Michigan State and went on to the Rose Bowl. TCU was just better, but not by much. Had a pass reached its target a fraction of a second earlier, itís a 12-1 year.

This time last season, no one was more of an advocate for Bielema than me. The Badgers were no longer the sloppy, undisciplined group that characterized some of the early Bielema years, when the immaturity of a young, inexperienced coach was reflected in the players. A program and a coach had seemingly grown up together. The sheer weight of the evidenceóthe statistics, the results, the on-field behaviorówas compelling.

Thatís why I didnít see coaching mistakes, including blocked punts and wasted timeouts and ridiculous Hail Marys and such in consecutive losses, costing this team a chance at greatness. The national championship chatter was likely never realistic because of the way the BCS conducts business, but thereís no reason for the Badgers to be talking about season salvaging at this point in their highly favorable schedule.

Winning the last four against Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Penn State isnít redeeming anything in a year in which the first Big Ten championship game is far too accessible to most members of a weak conference.

Realistic expectations werenít set up for a November recovery project.

Nor should expectations ever be so extreme at Wisconsin that it becomes Ohio State, where Earle Bruce had won 81 of 108 games by the time he was let go.

At the same time, Wisconsin should not be making the same mistakes in consecutive losses after 73 games with Bielema. That is unacceptable for a reasonable fan base that doesnít expect the BCS every season. It just wants smart players to be coached in a smart, disciplined fashion. For such a regressive issue to be resurrected during consecutive weeks in this particular season is alarming.

So, as usual, weíre back to the question of whether Bielema is the right guy at Wisconsin.

Itís pretty simple. If the Badgers revert to intelligent football during whatever becomes of this season, the last two games plausibly could be written off as an unfortunate, ill-timed and coincidental blip on the road.

If nothing changes, it becomes a recurring trend that finally would make everything self-evident.

Last updated: 7:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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