The Badgers’ non-conference home winning streak is still alive…barely. It went down to the wire against Utah State at Camp Randall and frankly the Badgers probably didn’t deserve to come out victorious. Defensively they were very strong, outside of one or two bad plays. But offensively…what a clusterbleep.
Of course you have to start with the offensive line. That is still a big problem just a few days out from Mike Markuson’s firing. Bart Miller has a big job getting that right and it was probably not realistic to expect a huge improvement in the first game. The lack of push in the run game wasn’t the only alarming thing, there were also the penatlies. A team that seldom gets called for a false start or a hold was getting flagged all over the place and that’s as much a sign of the unsettled situation as the un-Badger-like blocking.
The lack of consistent run production can’t just be put on the offensive line though. At some point you have to pass the ball semi-effectively to keep the defense honest. Utah State clearly had no respect for the Badgers’ pass game and spent the night running up their safeties and clogging everything up. So where was the answer from Danny O’Brien and the receivers? It never came. In fact O’Brien played so badly in the first half, Bret Bielema yanked him in favor of Joel Stave. O’Brien simply looked lost out there. He committed another fumble – unforgivable – and once again showed a tendency to break the pocket too quickly and run around hopelessly.
Stave didn’t do much better than O’Brien, but at least he stood in and tried to deliver passes. Unfortunately Stave got little help from his receivers. There were at least two flat-out drops on balls that were well-delivered by Stave and should’ve been caught. The receiver issue right now is almost as big a deal as the QB and offensive line issue. Until someone steps up, teams are going to continue selling out to stop the run.
All these problems feed into each other. The run game needs help from the pass game, but the QB situation is a total mess and with Jared Abbrederis out there isn’t a single reliable receiver on the field. I’m glad I’m not Matt Canada because I don’t know how you solve this. Hope Abbrederis can come back and hope O’Brien can get it figured out in practice. Or hope the offensive line can shore things up in a hurry and start mauling people?
Enough about that brutal offense, let’s talk about the defense. It played very well under tough circumstances. Mike Taylor had a monster game, running around everywhere making plays. The coverage was solid, for the most part. The defensive line got good penetration. Utah State never really got on-track offensively for any long stretch. They did burn the Badgers on a wheel route early – will they ever learn how to defend that play? – scoring a 39-yard TD. Their last score of the game came late in the second on a TD catch that could have easily been called a push-off on the receiver.
In the second half, the Badgers locked down defensively. They got their first TD of the game on an 82-yard punt return by Kenzel Doe, then scored again when Montee Ball finally got some room to run and barreled for a 17-yard touchdown. Kyle French then proceeded to kick the extra point t0o low and get it blocked. The precarious two point lead held all the way till late in the fourth, when Utah State got one more chance. A huge sideline pass from Chuckie Keeton to Cameron Webb set them up deep in Badger territory needing only a field goal to win, but a big 15-yard interference penalty pushed them back. It finally came down to a 37-yard field goal attempt by Josh Thompson. He missed the kick wide right, giving the Badgers a nerve-wracking win.
Bret Bielema will do the old “a win’s a win” routine in the wake of this game but he can’t be happy. The offense still looks terrible and there were still too many mistakes in key situations. Blocked extra points can’t happen in tight games. Too many penalties. The defense had a couple breakdowns even though it played well overall. This still doesn’t look like a very good team. They’ve got one more winnable non-conference game, next week against UTEP, before the Big 10 schedule begins in Lincoln. They’d better have some answers by then or…ugliness.