by Maxwell Brusky
In Champaign Saturday night, although it might be difficult to believe (or maybe not, for some), the Badgers won their first night road game since rolling over UNLV in 2009’s lid-lifter, and won their first conference road night game since 2002(!). In doing so, the final score of 56-32 indicates a thoroughly dominating performance – and by and large it was – but still, there are some questions for what most regard as the Big Ten’s second best team. The questions are quite aside from those as to why UW didn’t crack the initial BCS rankings (that’s a whole ‘nother debate), but the issues raised by those questions may well continue to dog what is otherwise a pretty darn solid crew in the midst of a pretty darn solid season.
The generally dominating performance on the road at night was nice to see. I expected the Badgers to start fast and that’s just what they did, staking themselves to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Although Illinois was allowed to stay in the game until the end of the half, UW responded in the third quarter with two more touchdowns and held Illinois to no further points courtesy of a goal line stand that followed a 13-play, 74 yard drive. Overall, it’s hard to argue with six rushing touchdowns and eight total offensive touchdowns.
While quarterback Joel Stave continues to raise eyebrows, his performance by the numbers belongs firmly in the “good” column: 16-21 for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns. Aside from a few really bad misses (including a wind-beaten bomb attempt to a wide-open Jared Abbrederis early in the second quarter that might have ended the game right then) he was mostly on target on short and intermediate passes (though far from totally, even if the passes were completed). The misses looked worse in person – and perhaps it’s these unsightly misses that frustrate fan’s natural attempts to evaluate Stave’s play based on the “eye test.”
UW’s offensive line deserves mention on the good side of the ledger as well. Everyone knows that both James White and Melvin Gordon will exploit even the small seams available to them, but the holes still have to be there. When UW runs for 289 yards, even against Illinois’ decidedly poor rush defense, you know they were. In pass protection, Stave had a nice pocket from which to operate; the one sack allowed might have been on Stave, who didn’t move away from the pressure. For the year now, there have only been 9 sacks allowed, which is eminently respectable. The penalties weren’t awful in this game either.
The defense will get some mention in the next column, certainly, but it was reassuring to the see unit eventually calm down once all-world Chris Borland left the game with a hamstring issue. Backup Marcus Trotter took a fair share of the second quarter to get his sea legs (and had one really dumb out-of-bounds penalty after that time), but once he did, UW’s defense righted itself for the most part. Trotter himself finished with 9 tackles.
Even though it didn’t have Borland for the last three quarters, UW’s rush defense was effective; Illinois could only muster 72 yards on 29 attempts. Credit also goes to the defense for helping UW get the fast start that turned out to be so critical in the game.
1) Although kickoff specialist and true freshman Andrew Endicott didn’t take the placekicking job, we know the kid can tackle. He also changed his number to 37 – maybe a move to safety is in the offing?
2) Placekicker Jack Russell didn’t attempt any field goals but he didn’t miss any of his PATs either – that’s actually progress for him and the UW kicking game.
3) UW’s uniforms – haven’t seen the white jersey/red pants combo outside of Rose Bowls recently and the added black stripe to the helmet was a nice touch.
And we’re back to Stave – but only for the lack of progress he showed in targeting wide receivers besides Jared Abbrederis who finished with eights catches for 106 yards. The rest of the receiving corps failed to make a reception.
UW’s run game was effective and primary, and Abbrederis still was able to get open (my Illini friend sitting next to me at the game said, with great exasperation, “why is no. 4 ALWAYS wide open???”) so Stave’s almost singular focus really didn’t matter this time around, but one would have expected the success he had against Northwestern with other pass-catchers would have carried over. Iowa has a much better defense than Illinois; there needs to be improvement in this area.
When Borland went down just before the second quarter started, UW’s defense looked lost. Although the two touchdowns were set up by long pass plays surrendered by Wisconsin cornerbacks, the harried posture of UW’s front seven shouldn’t be overlooked.
Illinois was able to use a quick tempo to frustrate defensive substitutions (which looked like clown car skits at certain points) and UW’s defenders often looked out of position. Buckle down they did, and they should be better prepared if Borland is lost again, but for a little while during a key stretch of the game, the confident and quick UW defense was gone.
Negative comments on UW’s secondary must be tempered in light of the fact that the pass defense they lead gives up 197 yards per game, which is good for 17th nationally (on yards/completion, their 5.9 is 11th). However, Darius Hillary and Peniel Jean looked ugly on two long completions that led to Illinois touchdowns. The first of these, in which Illinois receiver Steve Hull beat Hillary from the slot down the right-side seam, set up a second-quarter touchdown that brought Illinois to within 21-10. The second, late in the first-half, set up a touchdown to make the score 28-17 going into the half.
Along with the general discombobulation on defense that without Borland, these deep balls nearly forfeited the advantage UW gained with its steamrolling first quarter performance. On the road against an offense that can score points like Illinois’, the situation could have been worse than it was; Wisconsin’s offense was too powerful against Illinois’ defense to let that happen this time. With games against better and more determined rivals set to occur at both Kinnick Stadium and TCF Bank Stadium, UW might not be so fortunate. We already know what these pass plays can do in road games against very good or great opponents, but yet it keeps happening.
UW now enters its second bye week with a few things to ponder. Borland appears to be on track to play against Iowa, and it has to be certain that head coach Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will be working with the defense to make potential losses of key personnel less disruptive. UW has been able to weather injuries this season; losing Borland against Illinois gave it its sternest test yet. Despite at least a little adversity, and with the help of an offense that’s rolling, the team was able to overcome.
At the risk of belaboring the loss of Borland, UW has been relatively fortunate as to injuries. The worst it’s been this season was against Ohio State - UW’s toughest opponent – in the toughest environment. Without Pedersen and Kenzel Doe for the game, and without Melvin Gordon for the fourth quarter, UW was still able to take the game to the final minute. UW has lost top receiver Abbrederis for most of a game and been able to move right along; same with Borland this past week. When compared with erstwhile national title contenders like Georgia or Florida fans should consider UW’s injury situation this season as more than acceptable.
Once off the bye and even more healthy, UW should also be favored in every game it plays – and by progressively stronger margins if they continue to win. Many have predicted UW will play in an at-large BCS game, but it has an imposing hill to climb based on the first BCS rankings and its lowly status in the relevant human polls.
If not for the hose job at Arizona State, and if UW had actually won that game, it would likely be in the middle teens in the BCS and needing “just” to win out for a major bowl – and a major bowl payout. As with tending to their slim chances for the Rose Bowl, knocking down the teams remaining on their schedule is all the Badgers can do now. If they do that, folks will be hard-pressed to say it wasn’t fun to watch.