The Badgers looked to open the season with a bang Saturday against lowly Northern Iowa. The 26-21 final score created sounds the athletic department did not intend when this supposed cupcake was scheduled: gasps from a disbelieving crowd in attendance, uncomfortable silence from those watching at home, and a loud thud from a team making critical failures on all sides of the ball.
Wisconsin is fortunate the season opened against a mediocre opponent as a better team would have easily ended the Badger’s home winning streak. Although it wasn’t all bad there was plenty to dislike; let’s look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
The clear star of the season opener was Danny O’Brien. The much-hyped replacement for Russell Wilson showed poise in his Badger debut. O’Brien demonstrated the ability to work through his progression and, with the exception of an early completion to Jordan Fredrick, shied away from risky passes.
He had four incompletions all day; three of them could have been caught. His first was a low but catchable ball to Brian Wozniak. Kenzel Doe slipped and fell trying to catch a pass from the scrambling O’Brien for the second. Derek Watt had the most egregious error when he dropped a ball that hit him right in the numbers.
O’Brien’s stat line understates the importance to the offense Saturday given the inconsistency of the ground attack. O’Brien moved the chains on several key 3rd downs (most notably a strike to Jacob Pedersen on a 3rd and 22) and kept his eyes downfield even as he moved away from pressure. He distributed the ball well finding seven different receivers.
One of those seven players was Kenzel Doe, who emerged as an early target for O’Brien. Doe was able to convert two 3rd down receptions with his feet after catching the ball short of the first down marker. His stats were skewed by a well defended screen that went for negative yards late in the game (a fault of the playcall and blocking downfield more than anything) but Doe could make meaningful contributions this season. It’s still to be determined if he can be as impactful against top tier defenses with his size disadvantage but he looked the part this past weekend.
One player who leaves no doubt as to his ability to compete at the highest level is Chris Borland. Borland was moved around the field extensively and looking more like the player who burst onto the scene in 2009 than he did last year planted at middle linebacker. Borland looked quick and ferocious on the pass rush, pressuring the quarterback as a hybrid DE/LB in passing downs and on the blitz in standard personnel packages.
A question mark coming into the season, the defensive line looked strong in the season opener. Despite only getting to the quarterback once the defensive front looked solid in their debut. Brendan Kelly and Beau Allen provided consistent pressure on the quarterback forcing quick decisions. Kelly looks to have made strides from last season making plays all over the field. He just missed a sack of his own early on and helped downfield on a bubble screen making a play out in space. Allen looks like a real threat as an inside rusher and could be the jewel of the defensive line this season. His pressure on the quarterback, and Ethan Hemer's batted pass, sealed the Badger victory late in the 4th quarter. It exemplified the pressure the tackels brought up the middle all afternoon.
A 5-point win against an FCS opponent is a lot of bad. Most notably was the offensive line. While not awful by any stretch, the group as a whole did not look like the platoon of Panzers rolling through the French countryside fans are accustomed to in recent seasons. Pulling guards missed blocks on several plays and blown assignments resulted in too many negative plays knocking the offense off schedule. The Badgers would have scored more than 26 points had they avoided the negative plays so frequently.
Marcus Cromartie continues to underwhelm. Northern Iowa looked as though they were targeting him specifically with a lot of passes head in his direction. Cromartie looks best suited to a role as a nickel back or in a rotation in the defensive backfield. He struggles on an every down basis. UNI’s conversion to their tight end on 4th and 4 late in the 3rd quarter exposed his weakness in one-on-one coverage. Peniel Jean cannot return soon enough from injury; he will chip away at Cromartie’s hold on the starting position.
Another player who may be facing a challenge as a starter is Kyle French. Put aside the two short field goals he made in the first half and his day was unimpressive. He had an extra point blocked on a low kick and nearly put a kick out of bounds as it ran into the pylon in the end zone.
Coach Bielema had promised that both French and Jack Russell were going to see the field Saturday but that never materialized. It appears this is French’s job for the moment but performances like Saturday’s may open a window of opportunity for Russell.
2011 was one of the most successful seasons in recent memory. Despite this it was also the most painful season I’ve had rooting for a sport team on any level. The gut wrenching loss to Ohio State last season knocked the wind out of me for two days. I couldn’t talk about the game. I still cannot watch the replay. Last season’s exceptional play was marred by a few mental lapses on the field.
There are signs that those types of mental lapses are still present. Two blown coverages ended in 14 points for UNI. They both came on the same play and the defense blew the same read. Twice. Going into those last few drives the defense looked solid if unspectacular. The Panthers were able to move the ball here and there but the Badger defense had eliminated big plays and forced an inferior team to try and sustain long drives. It was a great formula for success. Then came the blown coverages on those wheel routes and the air was knocked out of the stadium. I want to believe these were opening week errors that will be ironed out as the season progresses but part of me says it all looks too familiar. If I can steal a line from Jeff Potrykus as he articulated my fears very succinctly (hence he gets paid to do this and I don’t)
“Mental errors by defenders resulted in some big scoring plays last season, and we saw more examples Saturday. If that trend continues, UW will lose at least one game this season it should win. Book it.”
Those moments and those feelings are not fun ones to revisit. Let’s hope week one focuses this team on where it’s performance falls short of a championship team’s rather than as a portent of issues that will haunt them all season.