My favorite part of the game on Saturday was the beginning of the fourth quarter, when ESPN dedicated a few minutes to Wisconsin’s odd-but-enjoyable tradition of playing "Jump Around" and going absolutely bonkers. The camera lingered for a second on USF’s sideline, which, faced with a 10-point deficit, was making like the Badgers fans and jumping up and down to the music. Call it cheekiness, call it confidence, call it just being a bunch of goofballs, but I loved it. It was anything but being intimidated— the right kind of attitude and emotion a team needs to mount a double digit comeback against a top 20 team on the road.
They followed that with a beautiful, beautiful playcall. Mike White faked a handoff to Darius Tice while Rodney Adams, who had just burned the Badgers for a long touchdown run, came flying through the backfield. The Wisconsin D paused for a full one-Mississippi, enough for redshirt freshman fullback Kennard Swanson to sneak behind the linebackers and get himself wide open down the sideline. White threw a perfect ball, and Swanson rumbled 52 yards down the field.
Then he lowered his head, and put the ball in his goddang inside arm because this is still an obnoxiously young football team, and obnoxiously young football teams tend to do obnoxiously young things.
There are two points I’m trying to make here: First, I will physically attack anyone speaking ill of Swanson, because did you see that shot of him on the sideline? That young man was devastated, much more devastated than you and I were, and he deserves our wholehearted support for having the game of his life rather than vitriol for making a single mistake. Second, football is a game of inches, and the Bulls were a few inches away from a real chance to win this game.
Some of those were their own fault, some weren’t. If Deonte Welch hauls in Mike White’s pass on 3rd and 17, the Bulls could’ve grabbed an early lead. If Rodney Adams makes the catch on White’s beautiful toss down the left sideline (or the Badgers were flagged for interference), they likely add a few more points. If Swanson hangs on to the ball, the Bulls are in business in the red zone. On the very next possession, if Tanner McEvoy’s knee skims the turf instead of rolling over a USF defender, the Bulls get the ball back with great field position. If, if, if, if.
Here I revert back to the opening paragraph. That team—taking their opponent’s storied tradition and using it to fire themselves up— wasn’t a team that deals in ifs. We’re beyond moral victories now. We said it after the Houston game last season, and the Maryland game this season: this progress means nothing if they can’t build on it next week. They haven’t been able to do that yet.
Here’s your adversity, Willie. Make this game a turning point. You've got two weeks.
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Stray observations from Jumping Around:
- Mike White had another fine game. We'll have more on this later, but his strengths and weaknesses as a passer are pretty clear at this point: he's more than effective when he has time to throw, and extremely inaccurate when he's flushed out of the pocket. If he's the best we've got right now, the playcalling has to reflect that-- the rollout throws were not working at all.
- Not enough words can be said about the USF defense's performance in the first half. I don't think many teams this season are going to handle Wisconsin's running game the way the Bulls did-- they were fast, decisive, and didn't miss many tackles. As the game wore on, the D got a little gassed and some of those big hits turned into arm tackles, which turned into long Melvin Gordon runs. That's totally fine. The Bulls aren't going to face another rushing attack like the Badgers' for the rest of the season, and they passed this test with flying colors. Now they need to replicate that effort.
- Getting Rodney Adams in space has led to good things, and the Bulls did a nice job of feeding him the ball on screens and jet sweeps. He's doing a fine job as a corner, but wouldn't Chris Dunkley be valuable in a similar role now and then? I don't think anyone on the Bulls roster right now has more game-breaking ability than Dunkley, and it seems a shame not to occasionally use it on offense.
- The much-maligned USF offensive line is starting to put it together. They've done a really nice job in pass protection for White the last two games, and although their run blocking still leaves something to be desired, it was tough to gauge their efforts against a talented Badgers front. It'll be interesting to see if the Bulls revert to the ground-and-pound against an iffy East Carolina defense.
- You can start to see the pieces of this team forming, can't you? White has strung together back-to-back decent performances, the offensive line is progressing, there are a handful of exciting skill position players, and the defense played out of their minds for much of Saturday afternoon. There's still a long way to go, of course, and part of the pain of having a young team is that things don't--and won't--move linearly, but the progress is undeniable.