After Braxton Miller’s deep pass to Devin Smith to give the Badgers a second consecutive late loss on Hail Mary-type plays, it will be easy — painfully so, should any Wisconsin fans have the heart to turn on ESPN at any time in the next month — to lament the Badgers’ inability to win close games. But when it comes to close games, the question is less “Why does this team lose so many close games?” as it is “Why are they in these close games in the first place?”
The problems present on this year’s instance of Badger Football were there throughout last year’s Rose Bowl run. Special teams mistakes? Arizona State was five yards away from taking two kicks back for touchdowns in a disturbingly close home game at Camp Randall Stadium in the second game of the year, as just a single example. The secondary was a big problem as well, allowing nearly seven yards per passing attempt and a touchdown-and-a-half per game. This is, as it were, Wisconsin Football under Bret Bielema.
Some of the great teams, or at least, the “great winners,” win because they avoid these ridiculous mistakes like blocked punts and no-chance game-winning passes. Others win because they never give them a chance to matter, and, in my opinion, the Badgers had the chance to do just that Saturday night. Russell Wilson torched the Ohio State offense with regularity, putting up 224 yards even after accounting for sacks, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt (again, adjusted for sacks), passing for three touchdowns, and succeeding on 48% of plays.
The run game? Not so much. In 25 plays, the Badgers picked up 113 yards, for a respectable 4.5 yards per rush. But the Badgers were stuffed on so many occasions, picking up two or fewer yards on a shocking 14 of 27 rushes. There was just nothing in the rushing game until the Buckeyes stopped looking during the 4th quarter comeback, in which Montee Ball picked up 47 yards on two carries. Prior to that? The Badgers had 66 yards on 23 carries, for 2.9 yards per rush.
When I interviewed ESPN’s Desmond Howard prior to the Nebraska game, I asked him if he thought the presence of an elite passing quarterback like Wilson could change the idea of Wisconsin Football — the undying reliance on the running game that has defined the program from the Alan Ameche days through the days of Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill, John Clay, and Montee Ball.
But here the Badgers were, watching the game slip away in the third quarter, continuing to run the ball and run the ball and run again as three-and-outs piled up. Meanwhile, a heinously mediocre (5.2 yards per play) was simply given too many chance, and a few big plays (the Dan Herron 57-yard run, the blocked punt) allowed Ohio State to get just enough points to keep it interesting.
There are two similarly favorable arguments to be made about the Badgers play calling. The Badgers could shift from the outside runs — like the unfathomably stupid pitch to Ball on 4th and 2 with eight minutes to go — in which the backs were never able to turn a corner and instead call more inside runs, the plays with which Ball gashed the Michigan State defense last week. Or, the Badgers could go to the plays which worked all season and for most of the game — pass the ball. Nick Toon, Jared Abbrederis, and Jacob Pederson are too much to be stopped for an entire game, much less an entire drive in many cases. Even when pass plays break down, there is still room for success, as Wilson’s runs out of trouble have shown. And, simply put, it’s better to gain seven yards per play instead of two or three, even if there are a couple incomplete passes sprinkled in.
But Bielema stuck to his guns, and as a result, the Badgers trailed 10-7, and then 17-7, and then 26-14. And then the pass plays almost saved Bielma and the Badgers. But the window was open, and as the Badgers have made painfully clear, no matter how unlikely, when the window is open, there is always a chance.
The secondary was awful, particularly on the last play. The special teams made an inexcusable mistake, again. These things hurt, and without them, it’s possible Bielema wouldn’t have paid for his stubbornness. But these are institutional problems, and not issues with decision making — not things that, in most cases, can be altered over the course of 60 minutes. Poor play-calling can be changed with a snap of the fingers, a word into a microphone. Bielema’s inability to adjust until the last second is just as inexcusable as number 64’s inability to block and the entire secondary’s inability to cover a trailing wide receiver with 20 seconds to go.
We will never truly know if Bret Bielema and the coaching staff’s stubbornness cost the Badgers the chance at a comfortable win. But this game did not have to be close, and as much as the on-field mistakes contributed, the off-field management deserves a good deal of the blame as well. For once, the Badgers’ passing game is fantastic. Use it.