By Tim Gutowski Published Nov 30, 2004 at 5:18 AM

{image1} No Wisconsin coach, fan or player was happy with the season's final two games. Hammered in East Lansing, suffocated in Iowa City, UW let its fourth Rose Bowl trip of the Barry Alvarez era slip through its grasp -- not to mention a possible shot (though probably out of the question, in retrospect) at a national title game.

It's OK to be disappointed, even angry, if that's the way you channel things. But the 2004 season still was successful, even if UW stumbled and failed to reach its ultimate goal. Based on general fan reaction, that sentiment is both foolhardy and unpopular, but I believe it's true.

The Badgers still have a chance to make a statement on Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl. Likely to play Georgia, Tennessee or LSU (roughly in that order), Alvarez's squad can regain local and national respect by beating a quality team from the nation's best league -- the Southeastern Conference.

We'll know the final opponent at some point after the SEC title game between Auburn and Tennessee, but with a little distance from the final two weekends' combined disappointment, let's assess the regular season.

Rushing Offense: The Badgers finished fourth in the conference with 170.1 ypg rushing, behind Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern. While that's not a bad rank, they only averaged 3.8 ypc, which doesn't cut it in a run-first system. Anthony Davis was second-team All-Conference behind Laurence Maroney, but AD's injury problems limited him to just 894 yards, the second straight year the team failed to field a 1,000-yard rusher. Booker Stanley averaged just 3.0 ypc in relief duty, though Matt Bernstein averaged 3.6 ypc, blocked well and had a career game toting the rock against Penn State. Guards Dan Buenning (first team) and Jonathan Clinkscale (second team) earned All-Conference honors, but the line was far from dominating. UW's inability to convert on four downs inside the 2-yard line in the critical pre-halftime possession at Michigan State typified that fact.

Grade: B-

Passing Offense: John Stocco took a lot of grief for his final two performances, but people seem to forget how well he played the week before against Minnesota. Stocco was 19-of-27 for 297 yards and a TD in that game, but his inability to lead scoring drives against MSU and Iowa are what people will remember. It's too bad they won't recall the game-saving TD drive in the fourth quarter against Purdue (which cut a 10-point deficit to three) or his leadership skills on the road at Ohio State after UW fell behind by 10. Yes, Stocco must get more accurate as a junior (53.4 completion percentage), and he can't run like Brooks Bollinger when the pocket collapses. But the numbers that count for a QB are wins and losses; Stocco went 9-2 in his first season.

Receivers Brandon Williams (39 catches) and Owen Daniels (23 catches) were Stocco's main targets, but no one gained even 500 receiving yards. This reflects a major problem with the offense -- the lack of a downfield threat to offset defenses packed in the box. This was part Stocco, part offensive philosophy, and part personnel.

Grade: C-

Rushing Defense: It's hard to believe after watching the MSU game, but UW had the third-stingiest rush D in the conference (117.5 ypg). But the 430-yard debacle against the Spartans will linger in the memory banks of UW fans. Anttaj Hawthorne was a first-team All-Conference selection and linebacker Dontez Sanders earned an honorable mention. Injuries to Jonathan Welsh and Erasmus James also affected the rushing D, which may have been exposed a week earlier had not UW's offense forced Minnesota to abandon the run. Overall, the linebacking corps of Sanders, Mark Zalewski and Reggie Cribbs, a junior and two sophomores, acquitted itself well, especially considering the question marks surrounding them in August.

None of the prospective SEC opponents has a signature running game, but any of the threesome will provide a stern rushing test.

Grade: B-

Passing Defense: The only negative about UW's pass defense this year was its competition. Other than Purdue, a team that was flying high at the time, the Badgers didn't take on an accomplished passing team all year. They allowed just 158.5 ypg, best in the conference, and also led the league with 33 sacks, eight by Big Ten defender of the year James. Jim Leonhard capped his amazing career with two interceptions against Iowa in the first quarter, giving him 21 overall. Safety Robert Brooks had the hit of the year against Kyle Orton in October, and Scott Starks' subsequent TD return will be remembered for a long time in Madison and West Lafayette. Starks and Brett Bell were solid in coverage and run support, and Starks also excelled on special teams. Brooks, along with everyone else, stunk against MSU, but coordinator Bret Bielema has every reason to be proud of the improvement here.

Grade: A

Special Teams: Where have all the kickers gone? Mike Allen's inconsistency (10-of-18 FG, 26-of-28 PAT) provided little comfort in pressure situations. His biggest kick remains his game-winner in the 2002 Alamo Bowl, though he did make a 23-yarder to beat Arizona in September. Frosh punter Ken DeBauche (50 punts, 41.1 gross) was a big improvement over R.J. Morse, but the block he allowed against MSU was an ominous tone-setter. As mentioned, Starks was brilliant in coverage, but the kickoff unit, though solid overall, suffered key letdowns. Kickoff specialist Taylor Mehlhaff seems to have the leg to force a touchback every time, so why not do so?

Grade: C+

Coaching: There are two common whipping boys here -- Barry Alvarez and offensive coordinator Brian White. All Alvarez did was guide a team expected to finish in the middle of the Big Ten pack to a 9-2 season, not to mention one good half of football from the Rose Bowl. Yes, the season-ending losses were disappointing and unfathomable, but Alvarez didn't get enough credit when the team was 9-0, either. He also hired defensive coordinator Bret Bielema, who returned the defense to its dominating status of the late '90s after the nadir of the previous two seasons. White is and has been White -- he's often accused of lacking imagination, but the Badgers are built to run. If AD didn't miss nearly five games, White would look a lot smarter. He also must be credited with the emergence of Daniels, a converted quarterback, at tight end, as well as some of Stocco's cool demeanor, if not his accuracy. Does UW need to open up the passing game at times? Probably. Especially when you consider the type of aerial attacks that Iowa, Michigan and Purdue routinely possess.

But because the coaching staff couldn't help stem the tide in the two biggest games of the year, they must accept equal blame with the players for the late-season collapse.

Grade: B

Overall: I'm still not sure why things fell apart like they did in the last two weeks. Were the No. 4 Badgers overrated? Sure they were. But teams like Purdue, Minnesota and Ohio State had "down years" because UW helped derail their seasons, not simply because they stunk. UW went 9-2 and will meet a high-profile SEC program on Jan. 1. If they win, they'll earn an A- for the season. If not, I still give them a solid B, albeit with a terribly disappointing final quarter.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.