Matt Canada’s plan for Northern Iowa was clear. Pound the crap out of them with Montee Ball and James White, and let Danny O’Brien ease himself into things. But as we know plans were made to be torn up and that’s what happened with Canada’s. UNI run blitzed relentlessly, went low to cut down blockers and generally frustrated the Wisconsin running attack. Montee Ball – who admitted to being rusty after missing practice time in the wake of his assault – ended up with decent stats but was unable to break off the long demoralizing runs we’ve come to expect. With the big plays not happening in the run game, the Badgers were forced to go to the air more than they probably wanted. Thankfully, new QB Danny O’Brien was up to the task.
Early on, it was obvious that Canada wanted to keep O’Brien’s load as light as possible. The QB threw only four times on the first series, while Ball and White combined for 9 runs. The biggest pass play was a 19-yarder to Jordan Fredrick on 1st-and-10. Unfortunately that drive stalled when Brian Wozniak was unable to haul in what should’ve been an easy 1st down reception over the middle, forcing the Badgers to settle for a field goal.
The second offensive series was even more run-heavy than the first. Montee Ball toted it four straight times, gaining small chunks. The first pass play was a poorly-blocked receiver screen to Jared Abbrederis that netted only one yard. The only other pass on that series was an incompletion to Kenzel Doe. The Badgers were forced to punt.
O’Brien did more passing in the third series but it was all of the short variety. His only completion to a receiver was a 7-yarder to Abbrederis. Otherwise it was passes to Ball and White and a check down to Derek Watt. Abbrederis ran it himself twice on the series, and White was able to break off one big run of 20 yards to set the Badgers up in UNI territory. Again the drive stalled out, this time when an O’Brien scramble came up well short of the first down. Kyle French’s second field goal of the game made it 6-0 Wisconsin.
It should’ve been evident by this time how much UNI was selling out to stop the run. It should also have been evident that the tight ends and receivers weren’t blocking well enough to spring big plays. Nevertheless, the offense remained conservative on the next offensive series. O’Brien threw to the fullback again, this time for 8 yards. A sack and a tackle-for-loss against Ball put the Badgers in a tough 3rd and 22 situation. Here’s where Canada finally put a little trust in O’Brien and let him make a play. Jacob Pederson got open on an out route down the field and O’Brien hit him perfectly for exactly 22 yards. This allowed the Badgers to continue the series. Several plays later, O’Brien hit a wide open Abbrederis in the back of the end zone after Abbrederis shook a defender with a nifty hip fake. O’Brien and the Badgers finally had their first TD of the game.
The Badgers would add a second TD early in the third quarter, the big play on that series being a 20-yard reception by Jordan Fredrick. With the score now 19-0 and Northern Iowa showing little offensive life, the Badgers went back to the ground, expecting to be able to grind the Panthers into the dust. But once again the Panthers were stout in the run defense and forced a somewhat shocking three-and-out…all three plays being run plays. Perhaps, in hindsight, Canada should’ve tried for the knock-out punch at 19-0 instead of handing it off three straight plays. I guess when you have a Heisman running back and a great reputation for punishing run blocking you sometimes lean on that too much. Then again, it wasn’t like UNI was killing it on offense. It was probably sound thinking for Canada to sit on the ball up 19-0 and trust in the defense. Probably.
Northern Iowa decided not to cooperate with the plan. Down 19-0, they put their trust in redshirt freshman QB Sawyer Kollmorgen and he started making plays for them. The Badger defense played back on their heels, and allowed UNI to march down and score their first TD. With the score now 19-7 and the defense apparently unraveling, the Badgers went for the dagger play they might’ve tried for on the previous series had the run game not gotten stuffed. After several runs and short passes, Canada dialed up a deep play action pass to Jared Abbrederis and it worked beautifully. Abbrederis burned the defense and O’Brien hit him perfectly for a 53-yard TD. It was O’Brien’s best throw of the day and it would prove to be the game-winning play for the Badgers.
As we know, the Badgers didn’t exactly do a good clean job of putting away UNI after that big TD pass. UNI scored two more touchdowns, aided by some glaring defensive breakdowns. But the defense wasn’t alone in failing to put UNI away. The offense was unable to get the momentum back in the face of UNI’s stunning surge – almost like everyone relaxed – and suffered a pair of three-and-outs down the stretch. The offense went very conservative again in those two series, and you have to wonder a little bit about Canada’s approach. It seemed he kept waiting for the run game to crank up, but it never quite did.
Maybe pressing the issue with the pass would’ve been a better move at that point, especially considering how efficient O’Brien was looking. When the Badgers elected to open up the pass game, they did so very effectively. The problem was, they probably didn’t open it up early enough, and didn’t leave it open long enough. Taking what the defense gives you is one of the most fundamental offensive concepts but it seems the Badgers forgot it during the course of the game. When they’re selling out to stop the run, the best option is to go to the air. Had the Badgers done so earlier, I think this game would’ve ended up a three-TD blow-out and today we wouldn’t be talking about the poor defense and less-than-impressive run game. Hopefully O’Brien’s strong performance convinced Matt Canada that he can trust his QB to make the plays in the future, and Canada will be more willing to air it out. He is a spread guy after all. He shouldn’t be shy about playing with the throttle open, even if this is Wisconsin.