by Maxwell Brusky
The Badgers’ loss to Ohio State didn’t disappoint in the dramatics department from the national perspective – it wound up being a close game with lots of big plays, an underdog that never gave up, and late comeback that fell short. The game went down as the 11th consecutive loss for UW by a touchdown or less and afterwards, we do now know a little bit more about UW, Ohio State and the 2013 Big Ten race.
In order to spring the upset, UW needed a top game from quarterback Joel Stave and its passing game. Stave delivered with what was surely his best game in a Badger uniform. His game wasn’t completely mistake-free, and he did sputter during UW’s failed final drive to tie the game (90 yards in 90 seconds with no timeouts in any event), but he had a career night in just his 11th start. His final numbers, 20 of 34, for 295 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception were a career best. His performance should answer much of the criticism he’s taken to this point and should – yes, really should – silence most of his doubters and detractors.
Stave, of course, was aided by an absolutely brilliant performance by receiver Jared Abbrederis, who exploded for 207 yards on 10 catches. It was the first 200 plus receiving game by a UW player since Lee Evans in 2003. The talk before the game (and even UW’s opening possession) was about All-American/NFL prospect corner Bradley Roby, who would be covering Abbrederis all night. Over and over Abbrederis broke loose – and Stave was able to get the ball to him. This connection, combined with the “normal” UW ground attack, should be lethal against lesser competition for the remainder of the season.
On defense and special teams, however, the good must be sought out. Although he was beaten a few times and most of those by offensive play design, Chris Borland turned in all-league performance with 16 tackles. He was all over the field all night long, but his most emblematic and emphatic plays were his two monster stops of the bruising Carlos Hyde on short yardage. Reserve nose tackle Warren Herring and defensive end Pat Muldoon deserve mention, but it was yet again Borland stood out on the big stage.
Despite his crucial drop of a sure interception just before the 40-yard touchdown bomb to end the first half, failing to mention true freshman corner Sojourn Shelton would be remiss. He shows so much potential and other than that drop and the touchdown on OSU’s first drive, he rose to the challenge again and again after being thrown into the fire of a night game against Ohio State in the Horseshoe. He’ll make more mistakes because he’s a freshman who plays aggressively, but he is definitely a bright spot going forward and on into the future.
UW’s effort, perseverance and sheer will in hanging on to the bitter end is also worthy of mention. Even though the Badgers made too many mistakes against a team this good, Ohio State should consider itself lucky to walk away with a win as the direct beneficiary of those mistakes. When it looked like the Buckeyes would dominate at several points, UW always came back. That they were in a position to tie the game in the last minute and a half is a tesament to their mental toughness. When UW starts winning these close games instead of losing them, they will go from a well-respected and good team to a great one.
It is those very mistakes, gaffes, penalties, and the surrender of big plays that make up most of the bad from Saturday. More generally, the primary “bad” was that these miscues simply caused UW to miss this golden opportunity to score a major road upset and take control of their 2013 destiny. The Badgers were in a position to beat a “better” team on the road, but their own mistakes cost them a chance at victory.
The penalties on the offense were killers. Ryan Groy and Sam Arneson had two false starts each. A big catch by Abbrederis to end the first quarter was followed on the next play by another procedural miscue by Kyle Costigan. The lost yardage was costly when UW failed to convert the third down inside the OSU 20 and Kyle French missed the ensuing field goal from 32 yards. A hold by left tackle Tyler Marz nullified a third-down conversion later in the second quarter. That drive culminated with the illegal formation by the punt team.
The penalties aside, UW’s offensive line was spotty in general. Infrequently opening the holes they had to this point in the season, the offense totaled a mere 104 yards rushing. Take nothing away from Ohio State’s young but talented front seven and their defensive backs, who were excellent in run support, but much more was expected of UW’s front line. Curiously, though, the pass protection wasn’t that bad – but for the interception, on which Stave was hit while he threw, he usually had time to locate and throw a strike to a receiver (Abbrederis, mostly), and was sacked just twice.
Gary Andersen admitted on Monday that the defense didn’t play all that well and it’s difficult to disagree other than the few star turns mentioned above. In addition to the riddled pass defense, Dave Aranda’s schemes (and the execution of them) weren’t able to stop the Buckeyes’ running game either. When the opponent is able to rush for 192 yards collectively, it says that its ground game was able to do most of what it set out to do. Improvement is needed against the Badgers’ next two foes, Northwestern and Illinois.
The ugliest specific moments were the failure of the offense (and then French, from 32 freakin' yards!) to capitalize on Abbrederis’ long catch/run of the game, the easy touchdown passes for Miller, especially the third one, and the hard-to-watch mess at the end of the game (at least UW didn’t lose an all-league starting safety like OSU did – that was ugly).
The discombobulated final drive was at least a little strange considering that Stave and the offense had done the roughly comparable before, including recently against Arizona State, and 58:30 of game had already been played to that point. Even the television commentators pointed out the lack of urgency, the odd play-calls, and the failed execution. A tall task to be sure, but UW’s attempt to tackle it turned out to be woeful.
The average starting field position for each team qualifies also as ugly. UW started mostly inside its 20 and 7 of its 13 drives began inside its 17 yard line. Ohio State began just two of its drives inside its 20 and on average, began on its own 30. Whether this can be put down to punting, kicking or coverage units, the field was generally tilted 10 yards in Ohio State’s favor. That kind of margin is difficult to overcome against any team in any environment.
UW’s lost chances in this game are what they have to live with during the bye. Last season, they entered the bye week on a tough loss (Michigan State, at home, in overtime, Stave lost for the season) and came out with a dominant win (Indiana, to clinch the watered-down Leaders Division title). This time, they’ll come out against Northwestern, who’s considered by many to be on a par with UW as the Big Ten’s second best team. The Wildcats may or may not be riding high after this weekend’s primetime tilt with Ohio State, but they are surely one of the toughest teams remaining on UW’s schedule.
Although Gordon was lost for the duration against Ohio State in the early fourth quarter, he should be back to speed against Northwestern. Kenzel Doe and Jacob Pedersen look to be back as well after missing Ohio State completely. The only outstanding question is Jordan Fredrick, who left Saturday with a “head injury.” Injury-wise, Wisconsin is not bad off.
Andersen said on Monday that the two prime areas of focus for the bye are increased attention to the development of younger players and recruiting – that does not sound like a coach who’s terribly worried about his team’s injury situation. It also doesn’t sound like a coach who’s worried about his team’s psyche off a significant loss (his 20 plus texts from players before he woke up on Sunday assuaged his concerns in that area as well).
A prediction as to the result against Northwestern will obviously have to wait, but we should expect the Badgers to take the field refreshed and ready to play to at least the level we’re used to seeing – there should be plenty of moments to come in 2013.