Here are five big questions leading up to Wisconsin’s game against UTEP.
1. Can the Badgers re-establish their physical dominance?
The answer to this is simple: No, they can’t. As Bret Bielema himself asserted earlier in the week, this Badger team is simply too young and too lacking in physical maturity to play like the Badger team of 2011. They’re just not going to be able to consistently push people around with this unit. So what’s the best we can hope for? Certainly the offensive line can perform better than it did last week. The issues last week weren’t only physical, they were mental. Chalk it up to the disarray caused by Mike Markuson’s departure if you want, but the penalties and blocking lapses clearly showed the Badgers didn’t have their heads in the game. That has to change and I think it will change. I think we’ll see a more focused group on Saturday against UTEP. That doesn’t mean they’ll just run over UTEP but it does mean they will be better. Now, can they get push in those short yardage situations? That’s the real issue. You don’t need to maul people on every play but there are certain situations where you do have to assert yourself physically. Third-and-one needs to be almost automatic if this team is going to succeed. It’s not just that they’re failing in those situations, they’re failing badly. Defenses can’t be making tackles two yards in the backfield against your power run personnel. Ever.
2. Can Joel Stave play any better than Danny O’Brien?
With the Badgers no longer imposing their will on other teams via the run game, more pressure falls on the quarterback to move the team downfield. Danny O’Brien wasn’t doing it enough plus he was coughing up the ball so the Badgers are going to Joel Stave at quarterback. What does Stave bring to the table that O’Brien doesn’t? He certainly can’t match O’Brien in game experience. But he’s reportedly a smart guy and his arm might be a little stronger than O’Brien’s. Let’s be honest though: this isn’t about physical talent or even experience in the offense. This is about Bret Bielema being irked by the way O’Brien was playing. O’Brien was just making too many mistakes. The two fumbles hurt him bad. And he’s been way too eager to break the pocket and run around, often capping his useless scrambles with boneheaded attempts at passing the ball downfield. The Badgers didn’t bring in O’Brien so he could be Russell Wilson, they brought him in so he could be John Stocco. He failed and now it’s Joel Stave’s turn to try out for the role. Whoever proves he can protect the ball and make enough plays downfield to keep the defense honest will win the job for the long haul.
3. Is Montee Ball going to bust out finally? Or does James White need to get the ball more?
Montee Ball’s pedestrian numbers are widely seen as a symptom of the diminished blocking, but let’s not be too quick to hang it all on the guys doing the dirty work. Ball himself bears some of the blame. Yes, the holes haven’t been as big as in the past, but if you’re an alleged top-flight running back you shouldn’t always need big holes. And when you get to the second level you’ve got to either run somebody’s butt over or put a move on somebody and make them miss. That kind of stuff hasn’t been happening enough and it’s a bit frustrating. Last year I thought Ball showed a good combination of skills including some shimmy, but maybe I was just seeing things. Maybe Ball really was just a product of an overwhelmingly good offensive line. If that’s truly the case and Ball is after all just another okay college running back? Then I see no reason to give him such a large majority of the snaps. Give James White more work and even mix in Melvin Gordon. The Heisman thing is a pipe dream at this point anyway.
4. Can the defense keep it going?
On paper there’s really nothing to fear in UTEP’s offensive attack. They haven’t run the ball for crap – though the return of Nathan Jeffery should help that a little bit – and their passing attack has been inconsistent. QB Nick Lamaison did have a big game in their win over New Mexico State, throwing for 300 yards and 4 TDs, but he came nowhere near posting those numbers in their blow-out losses to Oklahoma and Ole Miss. That said, this is a spread offense and we know how the Badgers’ defense has occasionally struggled against a spread attack. Tackling will be at a premium with all the short, quick spread plays. The Badgers handled Utah State’s spread pretty well for the most part but UTEP has more talent and should be a tougher test. As long as the Badgers handle the wheel route they should be all right. I liked what I saw from the front four against Utah State and hopefully we’ll see more of that this week.
5. How will the special teams screw up this week?
The Badgers had a special teams highlight last week with Kenzel Doe’s punt return TD. But they also had a lowlight with Kyle French’s missed extra point. Every week it seems like there’s one glaring screw-up in that unit, whether it be giving up a blocked punt or missing an easy kick or whatever. Thankfully we haven’t seen the breakdowns in the kick return coverage yet this year. Emphasis on yet. With all these close games, it’s even more important to execute perfectly on the special teams side. Clean snaps, clean holds, clean kicks. Come on guys. It ain’t that hard.
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