In this week's edition of the Badgers mailbag, topics include the border battle with Minnesota, analysis of Melvin Gordon's superb season and a peak ahead to the heart of basketball season.
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Another edition of the Badgers mailbag brings even more fantastic questions. In this week’s version, we ponder these life-altering queries: Is Melvin Gordon really Football Jesus? What do we know about Minnesota’s football team? What would a "super Badger" look like? And since basketball season has arrived, a mailbag wouldn’t be complete without someone questioning the talent of point guard Traevon Jackson.
Many thanks to those of you that submitted a question. Look for a link to next week’s mailbag following Wisconsin’s game on Saturday against Minnesota, a winner-take-all contest for the Big Ten West division. We’ll either talk about Wisconsin’s appearance in the Big Ten title game next week or the crushing disappointment of losing to the rival Gophers for the first time in 11 games. Either way, there’s always something to discuss.
And now, on to the questions:
Q: Let’s play mad scientist for a minute. You are UW coach Gary Andersen. You can assemble a football player by taking different body parts of anyone on the team (no one gets hurt in this hypothetical). Which player parts do you take, and what position do you put this "super Badger" at? — Blaine, Wauwatosa
A: What a great question. I think any discussion on this subject has to start with Melvin Gordon because he’s the type of athlete and talent you rarely see. So, let’s take Gordon’s feet and legs and also his eyes since his vision is so incredible.
I would take the part of right guard Kyle Costigan’s brain that can tolerate pain because he is as tough as they come. Remember in 2012 when he played most of the Nebraska game in Lincoln with a dislocated kneecap? All trainers did was tape the knee up, and he missed just two plays. Somehow, I’d want to fuse Vince Biegel’s brain in there as well because of the manic way in which he plays (Good thing we’re not asking an actual doctor to try this, by the way).
If looking for a set of hands, you can’t go wrong with tight end Sam Arneson, who has shown an ability to come up with critical catches on third down. And let’s just add in Bart Houston’s arms, since he’s got a cannon and we never really get to see it in action during games.
I know there are other body parts we’re missing, but here are a couple of traits any super Badger should have. Let’s throw in the instincts of Marcus Trotter, one of the most intelligent players on the team, and the athleticism and grit of Michael Caputo, too.
What position do we have? I’m not sure. But with this guy, I think he could be an all-American, two-way player. The last full-time NFL two-way player was Chuck Bednarik, and he retired in 1962. It’s safe to say we’d have a once in a lifetime talent.
Q: Since the holidays take part during the football and basketball seasons, are there any cool team traditions? Do the players and coaches get together to have their own Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner? — Jeremy Hanson, Hudson
A: It’s generally pretty customary for teammates to hang out with other teammates on these types of days. Usually, the guys from out of state that would have a difficult time making it back home for 24 hours will spend time with the families of in-state guys. Gary Andersen generally holds an early practice the morning of Thanksgiving and then encourages players to spend the day in a family environment. But it’s tough to keep the focus off the regular season finale this year against Minnesota with so much at stake, and players will return by Friday afternoon.
As for the basketball team, I’d imagine players will earn a few days off over Christmas. Wisconsin plays at Cal on Dec. 22 and then does not play a game until Dec. 28 at home against Buffalo.
Q: How does Trae Jackson get a starting role on this exquisite basketball team? He isn’t any more talented or confident than his last two years, and boy does he do some foolish things with the basketball? I know Bo has pulled the trigger on him more and more each year, but Bronson Koenig is so much better. Trae is our potential and only weak link and makes me wonder when, not if, he will cost us as big as the Kentucky game last year. — B. Gailbreath, Madison
A: Wow. I’m not sure I even know where to start. First of all, to suggest that Jackson "cost" Wisconsin the Kentucky game last year is utterly ridiculous. He scored 12 points in that game on 4-of-9 shooting with four rebounds, three assists and two turnovers. Did he miss a free throw? Yep. Did he miss the final contested shot as the buzzer sounded while a Kentucky defender appeared to grab his arm? Yep. He also averaged 12.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in five NCAA tournament games with 21 assists to 11 turnovers. And his steady play was a big reason the Badgers made it to the Final Four.
I know some Badgers fans complain that Jackson has a tendency to commit too many turnovers, but those judgments also are clouded by games that haven’t occurred recently. This season, Jackson has a team-high 14 assists and only four turnovers. He has 22.5 percent of the team’s assists and 13.3 percent of the team’s turnovers.
As for Jackson not being more talented or confident than the past two years, I find it hard to believe you could discern such information from the first four games. He spent the entire offseason working on his game and is shooting 50.0 percent from the field. Last year, he shot 40.8 percent, and the year before, he shot 37.2 percent. He worked out regularly with his trainer and mentor in Ohio, competed on a basketball team in the Philippines and was invited to the prestigious Chris Paul basketball camp. And, it should be noted, Sam Dekker said he believed Jackson was as confident this season as he’d ever been at Wisconsin.
Bronson Koenig is a talented player, and he’s going to be exciting to watch for the next three seasons. But he and Jackson are different types of players. Koenig will give you a better assists-to-turnovers ratio, and he is typically one of the team’s better shooters. But last year, he made 32.8 percent of 3-pointers, while Jackson made 38.2 percent on 3s. This year, Koenig is averaging 3.0 points in 20.3 minutes per game. Jackson is averaging 10.0 points in 26.0 minutes per game with a better overall shooting percentage and is much more likely to score points at the free-throw line (Jackson is 10 for 10 this season and Koenig has yet to attempt a foul shot).
At this stage of his career, Jackson also is more willing to take — and make — the important shots in clutch situations. How quickly some forget he has made four game-tying or game-winning shots in his Wisconsin career, including a shot to beat Minnesota two years ago and a bucket to beat Michigan State last season.
Q: After another performance like this from Melvin Gordon, can we start calling him Football Jesus? He’s saved this Badger team so many times so far this season. — Alex, Madison
A: If you want to start calling him Football Jesus, by all means, feel free. I can’t imagine that nickname catching on with the general public, but he has been a savior of sorts this season for sure. It’s difficult to speculate what Wisconsin’s record would be without him because the Badgers have won eight of nine games this season by double digits. But it’s safe to say Wisconsin would not have beaten Iowa. The Badgers won by two points in large part because Gordon rushed for 200 yards without having a backup tailback while Corey Clement sat out with an injury sustained earlier in the game.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing statistic to emerge this week is that Gordon would still lead the FBS in rushing yards without any of his fourth-quarter stats. He would have 1,915 rushing yards. Indiana’s Tevin Coleman would be second with 1,906 yards. Instead, Gordon has 2,109 rushing yards, which ties him with Ron Dayne for the program and Big Ten single-season record. He’ll almost assuredly break that mark in the first quarter against Minnesota.
Gordon became the fastest player to reach 2,000 yards this season, doing so on 241 carries — 10 carries faster than Penn State’s Larry Johnson achieved the feat in 2002. Wisconsin fans certainly should try and appreciate Gordon in his final games before he likely declares for the NFL Draft because, despite all the talented tailbacks to come through this program, he may be the very best.
Q: Don’t know a lot about Minnesota’s team. Give me a couple of strengths we will need to contend with and some weaknesses we can exploit. Thanks — Mike, Lake Geneva
A: Minnesota runs the ball on 72 percent of its offensive plays. That’s more than even Wisconsin runs the ball with a Heisman Trophy-worthy running back and a mobile, read-option backup quarterback. Wisconsin runs on 68.5 percent of plays.
That means two things: Minnesota relies extremely heavily on running back David Cobb, and the Gophers aren’t all that thrilled with having to consistently pass if a game is on the line. Cobb ranks eighth in the country in rushing yards this season (1,430), but his status for Saturday’s game is up in the air after he sustained a hamstring injury last week. Gophers coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday that Cobb was "very questionable."
Minnesota’s passing offense is the worst in the Big Ten and among the five worst in the country (134.7 yards passing per game). Wisconsin is at 141.7 passing yards per game, which isn’t much of a difference. But the Badgers’ defense is talented enough to make an opponent pay for having a one-dimensional offense.
It also will be interesting to note which team wins the turnover battle. Minnesota ranks second in the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus-11). Wisconsin hasn’t fared too well in that department and is minus-two in turnover margin. The only shot Minnesota has to win this game, in my mind, is to steal a couple of possessions.