Week 1: Northern Iowa The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - Sahil's Take

Starting 2012 off against FCS opponent Northern Iowa (UNI), fans figured this would be a warm-up to get the kinks worked out, relieve any jitters, and break in new QB Danny O’Brien. However, that clearly wasn’t the case after the Badgers won a close one 26-21. Even though they came away with a win, Badgers fans were left with more questions than answers in a head-scratcher against an FCS opponent.

Each week, we will talk about the positives and negatives from each game in a post we like to call “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” This week saw all three parts in all phases of the game. Here we go…

The Good:
Offensively, Badger fans should feel good about new transfer QB Danny O’Brien. He was efficient going 19-23 for 219 yards and 2 TDs. His 82.6% completion percentage should actually be higher if it weren’t for 2 drops by his receivers. O’Brien also spread the ball around pretty well, hitting 7 targets – Jared Abbrederis, Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak, Montee Ball, and Derek Watt.

Danny O'Brien had a strong day in the balanced Badger offense.

Danny O'Brien had a strong day in the balanced Badger offense.

Although O’Brien’s throws were mainly short passes, he managed to keep the chains moving, control the clock and not make any mistakes. It was good to see Abbrederis step into the #1 WR spot and still have big numbers. He ended the game with 6 catches for 84 yards and 2 TDs.

The offensive line looked good and bad throughout the game. The pass blocking was really good as O’Brien had ample time to hit his receivers. He took only 1 sack, but that was due to O’Brien holding onto the ball for too long.

Defensively, the Badgers were good in the first half and came away with some positives. They held the Panthers to only 15 offensive plays in the first half and didn’t cross the 50-yard line until well into the 3rd quarter.

LB Chris Borland also had success getting into the backfield, forcing a fumble for the 11th time in his career. The Badgers lined up in a 3-3-5 defense, a setup that would allow Borland to rush freely and what made him so good as a freshman in 2009. It was good to see him in that role again as that should prove to be beneficial as the season goes on.

The Bad:
Offensively, the offensive line had timing issues and could not get in sync to run block consistently to open up holes for the RBs. C Travis Frederick said that he felt the line played well but that they could certainly have played better. The line could not get the vertical push on the opposing defensive line to create gaps for the backs to run through.

The effect of the poor offensive run blocking play led to Ball’s unexpected play. Overall he had a great stat line – 120 yards rushing, 1TD and 31 yards receiving. But he carried the ball 32 times and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. In 2011, Ball averaged 5.5 yards per carry so this is a far cry away from what fans and even Ball himself expects to see every Saturday.

The Badgers did not convert on important 3rd downs that could have opened up the game and given the Badgers a comfortable lead. The opening drive, the Badgers needed 3 yards on 3rd down in the red zone, but Wozniak dropped a pass that hit him right in the numbers. The Badgers were forced to kick a field goal instead of pushing it in for a touchdown, an area where I’m sure Bielema will stress that the team needs to improve red zone efficiency and score touchdowns.

Defensively, the Badgers did get pressure on the QB, but not much in the 2nd half when it was needed. The defensive line gave a freshman QB too much time in the pocket to find open receivers, which leads back to concerns stemming from the 2011 team not generating enough pass rush. DE David Gilbert, someone I thought would be an impactful player right away, really did not make his presence felt when fans thought he would.

The Ugly:
The Badgers beat Northern Iowa 26-21?! Though we did not expect to see Russell Wilson out there, we did expect to see a score closer to 41-10, in favor of the Badgers of course. Though the Panthers looked fast and physical defensively, the Badgers are and should be BCS bowl contenders and should have pounded away against a lesser foe.

The first two drives that the Badgers were able to get close to scoring in the 1st half should have resulted in touchdowns. The Badgers have been known as of the last couple seasons to have one of the best red zone scoring percentages in the nation, especially against non-conference opponents. This should not have been any different. Adding a late 1st half TD reception by Abbrederis, the Badgers should have been up 21-0 at halftime.

Not only did Ball average 3.8 yards per carry but he only managed 1 TD the whole game. He averaged over 2 TDs per game last season, so this was almost a shock that he didn’t find the end zone multiple times. Granted the Panthers stuck 8-9 players in the box to control the run, it’s not something the Badgers haven’t seen before and completely dominated.

UNI’s 2 late TD passes came on identical plays – a wheel route – that the Badgers did not know how to defend. Even UNI’s RB said that the Badgers could not figure it out. That’s sad. It was blown coverage and something that needs to get fixed immediately. If UNI can burn the Badgers twice on that play, it’s scary to think what other B1G teams can do to this defense.

Though Borland recorded his 11th forced fumble of his career, UNI still managed to recover the ball. Other than that, no turnovers were forced by the Badgers defense, though LB Mike Taylor could have had a pick-6 early in the game but the ball went right through his hands. The Badgers did not turn the ball over on offense, but it’s a battle that the Badgers need to win each game to have success and win a conference title. The fact that they did not against an FCS opponent is almost mind-boggling.

I don't think he's smelling roses in his hand after the late Panther touchdown made it a five point game.

I don't think he's smelling roses in his hand after the late Panther touchdown made it a five point game.

Probably the “ugliest” part of the game came from what the coaches admitted to afterward: The defense showed up for only 42 minutes and lacked effort for 18 minutes. How could this possibly happen? Perhaps the team felt complacent against an FCS opponent, but the team should have quickly realized that UNI was not going away without a fight.

Overall:
I realize “The Ugly” section is a little long but a 26-21 victory (that was not solidified until only 2 minutes were left on the clock) against an FCS opponent definitely warrants some harsh criticism. This is a team that the Badgers should have manhandled, especially at home.

Give UNI credit for sticking to their game plan and executing defensively for 4 quarters, because the Badgers certainly did not. Either UNI is in fact this good (ranked #9 in the FCS) or the Badgers are in for a long season if they don’t correct their mistakes.

The Badgers are breaking in a new QB and 6 new assistant coaches – particularly new OC Matt Canada. He was conservative during the first half running the ball on several 3rd down plays, but did open the playbook up a bit in the 2nd half. Fans saw a few new wrinkles on offense with White and Ball on the field at the same time. If defensive lapses and offensive line woes are corrected immediately, the Badgers should improve greatly and Badger fans (I hope) should not have anything to worry about.