If you told a Badger fan yesterday that South Dakota would hold Wisconsin to 15 plays and under four minutes of possession time in a four-drive stretch today, they would’ve taken it as a bad sign.
And they would’ve been wrong.
In an incredible run stretching for the entire second quarter and into the third, Russell Wilson led Wisconsin to touchdowns on all four of those drives, averaging a ridiculous 3-4 plays, 76 yards, and 56 seconds per touchdown drive.
It gave Wisconsin 28 unanswered points, and showcased a devastating ability to shred a defense. It was James White taking the second play of the drive 49 yards into the endzone through a huge hole up the middle and a sideline dash. It was Nick Toon taking the third play of the drive, a quick screen, 59 yards down the sideline for another score. It was a 9-play two-minute drill capped off by a diving Toon catch in the back of the endzone. It was a 51-yard post to a wide open Jared Abbrederis on the first offensive play of the second half. It was beautiful to watch.
It was also a welcome display after an inauspicious beginning to the game. South Dakota held the Badgers to a three and out on their first series, and then responded to a missed 50-yard Kyle French field goal try with a 13 play, 7:43 minute scoring drive. The field goal that came out of it cut Wisconsin’s lead to 10-3 with just under seven minutes left in the second quarter.
Then the Badgers rattled off those 28 points in 15 plays, and added touchdowns on their next two drives to make it 42 unanswered points by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.
Facing a clearly overwhelmed South Dakota defense, Russell Wilson was almost unstoppable, connecting on 19 of 25 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns. Nearly every time he dropped back in the pocket he had what seemed like hours to find an open receiver, and nearly every single ball he threw was to a wide open man downfield. Case in point: Toon was able to amass 155 receiving yards and two TD’s in seven receptions, while Abbrederis caught five balls, including his touchdown, for a cool 101 yards.
On the ground, the Coyotes (preferably pronounced “kai-oats”) were able to hold off James White and Montee Ball initially, but soon were being torn apart by them. White carried nine times for 95 yards and his 49-yard TD run, while Ball racked up 53 yards and a touchdown in one third quarter drive alone.
The hiccups were few and far between for the Badgers today, but they were there. The scariest play of the game came midway through the third quarter, when Coyote linebacker Shea Williams had a clear path to Russell Wilson’s back. The crowd breathed in a collective, audible gasp, but thankfully Wilson held onto the ball and got up from the hit without a scratch.
It won’t be so easy to forget another aspect of the game though, one that has turned from one of the Badgers’ strengths into one of their biggest weaknesses–penalties. Another week, another six flags on Wisconsin for a total of 74 yards. When the season really begins against Nebraska next week, that could come back to haunt Bielema’s squad.
The most harmful penalty today came courtesy of backup DB Dezmen Southward, who negated a stunning Jared Abbrederis 85-yard punt return TD with a cheap block-in-the-back that was behind the play. A pass interference call (albeit with the second and third stringers in on defense in garbage time) also gave South Dakota its lone touchdown in the fourth quarter.
While penalties will certainly be something to be wary of moving forward, so will the defensive performance. Holding the Coyotes to 3 points is obviously nothing to be worried about, but the Badgers D showed flashes of what seems to be a bend-but-don’t-break identity. For every interception and great tackle for loss, a miscue here or there would result in huge gains for South Dakota every other drive or so. And this can’t totally be blamed on the blowout nature of the game: with Wisconsin only up by 10 in the second quarter while the Coyotes were driving, the stadium wave finished with perfect timing to allow the crowd to rise to its feet for a third and two. With the most energy that the defense received from the crowd all game behind them, South Dakota halfback Marcus Sims ran through a gaping hole and was being dragged down inside the Wisconsin ten 22 yards later.
It’s a small blemish to be sure, but it shouldn’t be glossed over just yet. Not with top-ten Nebraska coming into Camp Randall next Saturday. Sure, eviscerating an FCS opponent with surgical precision is fun, but looking forward to next week’s matchup is already more exciting–and nerve-wracking– than dwelling on this week’s victory.