Week 3: Utah State The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - Rich's Take

The Badgers came into their Week 3 game with the Utah State Aggies amidst a firestorm of controversy.  Bret Bielema made the unconventional decision to fire new offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games.  The Badger offensive line had been anemic, the offense dreadful as a result.  Fans looking for a sudden snap back to 2010-11 levels of dominance were disappointed; but there were glimmers of hope.

As I mentioned in Adjusting Expectations this team needs to be viewed through a different lens than the one we used in July and August.  Wisconsin is no longer reloading an offensive juggernaut, hard charging at another conference title and a berth in Pasadena; as fans we are seeing an offensive unit as it’s reshaped forged from the ground up.  It’s going to take time to work through this chaos.  With that in mind let’s get to it:

THE GOOD

Solid play all night earned Devon Smith defensive MVP.

Solid play all night earned Devon Smith defensive MVP.

For a second week in a row the defense was the star of the show.  Saturday’s game was arguably their best showing so far.  Historically the Badgers have had issues with mobile quarterbacks but Keeton was contained for most of the day.  Aside from a touchdown given up after a Danny O’Brien fumble (more later – stay tuned) and yet another Mike Talyor wheel route issue – no longer just an issue, it’s a major issue – the defense was stout all evening.  I worry that the unit will be exposed against better competition but so far the defense has won games for Bucky.

The offensive line looked marginally improved this week in Bart Miller’s coaching debut.  For the first time this year the Badgers ran a good 8-10 plays that looked like vintage (if you can call 9 months ago vintage) Wisconsin football with the line creating holes and 2nd level defenders being driven downfield.  Ball’s 3rd quarter touchdown was vintage Wisconsin; Ball escaped the first level of defenders behind a wall of blockers scoring after a key block downfield from Jordan Fredrick on the safety.  Not to understate the lingering problems as there were plenty of problems still (we’ll get to that).  This unit is far from what is expected of a Wisconsin offensive line but there were signs of improvement.  Incremental improvement is all that can be asked for or expected; cohesive blocking –sprinkled in between a lotta ugly - is a good sign that things are at least going in the right direction. 

Montee Ball showed he is more than able to carry the load for the offense since the quarterbacks decided to take the week off.  Without Ball’s 35+ touches what was an ugly win would have been an even uglier loss.  Ball will end the season with numbers dwarfed by his 2011 campaign but has been more valuable to the team thus far than he was in season’s past.  He’s the only offensive weapon they have so far. 

Transient

Am I really going to talk about the punter?  Yes, sadly I am.  With an offense that can’t score Drew Meyer has gone a long way mitigating field position issues for the defense.  Despite a 25 yard clunker Meyer has proven to be a solid replacement for Brad Nortman in the first 3 games.  He needs to keep this up to give the defense a chance against better opponents.

THE BAD

Joel Stave was given the reins in the second half and was unimpressive coming off the bench.  His performance (2 for 6, 15 yards) was nearly invisible and won’t cut it as starter.  He shouldn’t be written off completely as he has time to develop into a more polished player but on Saturday he locked on receivers with defenders draped all over them.  Also, while I’m no expert on quarterback mechanics, something in his motion looked off.  He appeared to be on his front foot with his back leg in the air before the ball even started forward in his motion; it needs to be sorted out before he sees significant time going forward.  Stave is more of an option for the future than the present as he needs time to grow into the game at the collegiate level.

When discussing poor fundamentals the penalty situation on Saturday cannot be overlooked.  The Badger offensive line was obviously nervous defending a shifting Aggie defensive front but putting a weak offense even further behind the 8 ball – at home no less – is difficult to stomach.  The false starts have to eliminated before this team goes anywhere.

There were painful mistakes on special teams as well.  Melvin Gordon returned two kickoffs that he had no business bringing out of the end zone.  Instead of starting on the 25 yard line twice the Badgers started inside their own 20. Despite his punt return that swung the game in the Badgers favor, Kenzel Doe fair caught a punt at his own 3.  Both mistakes need to be righted by the coaching staff as this team does not have the luxury of giving up yards.

Their offense cannot be put in the hole as the receiving corps has shown itself to be forgettable outside of Abbrederis.   Playmakers don’t appear ready to step up.  Reggie Love had the best catch of the day but with limited experience it’s unclear how much he can be expected to contribute without being a liability in other ways.  James White looks like their best #2 and Melvin Gordon may see more use out wide to supplement the group.

THE UGLY

Danny O’Brien has gotten progressively worse with each game.  He was fortunate that a terrible interception was negated by a Utah State personal foul as he made a horrendous throw across his body on the run into double coverage.  Couple that poor decision with a bad fumble leading to Utah State’s 2nd touchdown and enough was enough for Bielema. 

Wisconsin is a team that stresses ball security – Montee Ball has never lost a fumble in his UW career – and quarterbacks who give the ball to the other team too often are not tolerated.  Bielema may have opened Pandora’s Box with the benching of O’Brien and the inevitable whispering and doubts that come along with it.  Stave did not look good at all as his replacement so another variable added to a team that is already looking for identity is not the best recipe for improvement.  The move may have been a necessary wake up call for O’Brien but it laid bare the lack of viable options at quarterback should he not regain his form.

Despite improvement there is still much to be done to improve the Badger offensive line

Despite improvement there is still much to be done to improve the Badger offensive line

Despite praise for the offensive line earlier, short yardage plays are ugly and frustrating.  Teams have long stuffed the box on the Badgers in these situations but there seems to be no answer this season.  Ball’s substandard rushing average is largely due to negative plays in short yardage.  The Badgers aren’t able to move the ball in large chunks consistently; these short yardage issues will cost the Badgers games if not rectified quickly. 

While O’Brien took the heat this week, a player who should be looking over his should is Kyle French.  French snuck under the radar against Northern Iowa in week 1 despite a missed extra point and a kickoff that caught a pylon.  French was downright awful Saturday.  French shanked a mid range field goal that never had a chance.  He followed that with a line drive kickoff out of bounds later in the game.  He finished off his game with another blocked extra point that should have cost the Badgers the game had the Aggies kicker not been as bad as him.  The competition was supposedly close with Jack Russell during camp; Russell probably deserves a second look.

LOOKING AHEAD

The Badgers have found the formula for success: run an anemic offense that cannot pass, commits penalties, turn the ball over, play horrible special teams, and wait for your opponent to shank a last second game winning field goal.  I think they’ve hit on something.

In all seriousness this team still looks shaky.  The defense will be able to carry them over one more non-conference patsy but beyond that the offense needs to improve significantly and do it quickly.  UTEP should be another Badger win simply due to the talent differential between the teams.  The Badgers need to take advantage of that to sort out their issues to have any chance of keep the game close in Lincoln.