Things didn’t go so well for the Beavers the last time they faced Wisconsin. In the second game of 2011, Oregon State ventured to Camp Randall Stadium and got their heads handed to them 35-0. Russell Wilson threw for 3 TDs in that contest and Montee Ball ran for 2 more while racking up 118 rush yards. The game was pretty much over by halftime, with the Badgers ringing up a 21-0 lead. The Beaver offense was able to put up 261 passing yards in the game but they only managed 23 on the ground. Despite this, Oregon State won the time of possession battle by a little over 2 minutes. This was less a sign of Oregon State’s offensive proficiency and more a sign of Wisconsin’s ability to accumulate yards in chunks, shortening their possessions. In all, Wisconsin produced 17 plays that went for 10 yards or more. That many productive plays will dishearten any defense, whether they come on the ground or through the air.
Things will be different when the two teams meet again this Saturday however. For one, the game is being played at Reser Stadium, so the Beavers won’t have to face Camp Randall and all that comes with it. Wisconsin has had a dominating team at home in recent years but they have only been average away from Madison. Also, the won’t have Russell Wilson this year making plays with his legs as well as his arm. Instead they have Danny O’Brien, who is much more of a standard pocket passer than Wilson, and presumably therefore easier to defend. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, that Wisconsin defense is looking like a huge question mark after one game. The breakdowns late in the Northern Iowa contest were alarming, and overall there are major concerns about the front four and the secondary.
The Badger defense wasn’t great in 2011 but it was largely able to hold up. They certainly had no trouble handling Oregon State. But if the D has taken a step back as it appears, then this weekend’s game could be more of a work-out than anticipated. Oregon State should have a solid passing attack with second-year starter Sean Mannion at the helm, and talented wide-outs Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks providing him targets. If the Badgers struggle to get pressure with their front four like they did against Northern Iowa, these guys are good enough to exploit it. The secondary needs to play better as well after letting Northern Iowa crank up the pass game in the second half. Needless to say, there can’t be anymore major breakdowns like the ones that allowed David Johnson to score two long TDs on wheel routes. Oregon State is soft on the offensive line and not loaded with talent at running back but we thought the same about NIU and they still burned the Badgers D way too much in the second half.
The big advantage for Wisconsin should be in the ground game against what has lately been a very bad Beaver run defense. The allegedly dominating Badger o-line looked anything but last week against an aggressive NIU run defense, but with another week of practice under their belts, hopefully they’ll have some more of the kinks worked out. Montee Ball ended up with over a hundred yards last week but that was on 36 carries and his only TD was a short one. The lack of long, demoralizing runs by Ball spoke to his rustiness after missing some practice time, but it also spoke to the blocking deficiencies and also to NIU’s selling-out-against-the-run defensive approach.
On paper, this should be a good week for Wisconsin to get their ground mojo back. But if they struggle early again, look for Matt Canada to give Danny O’Brien some shots downfield. O’Brien was held back early last week but really played well once he was unleashed. Now that O’Brien has the trust of his coaches, they should be more willing to put the game in his hands if the running game happens not to get off.
Between the concerns about the defense and the small concerns about the running game, plus the absence of Russell Wilson, this looks like a somewhat weaker Wisconsin team than the one that rolled up the Beavers 35-zilch last year. With the game at home, the Beavers have to feel like revenge is within their grasp. If I were them I would try to light it up early in the pass game. Put pressure on that Wisconsin secondary. See if that Wisconsin front four can get any push. This is a vulnerable defense. The problem for Oregon State is, even if they do get out to a lead, Wisconsin should be able to answer both on the ground and through the air. It could end up being a bit of a shoot-out, which is fine as long as the Badgers come out on top.