by Richard Branch
There's something hiding in this game analysis that you can't see. It's the the 400 lb. gorilla that was the last 18 seconds of this game that had Badger fans screaming at their televisions. That last play and it's aftermath has been discussed ad nauseam. There isn't anything to add at this point. It overshadowed the game to such an extent I couldn't even write this for a couple days as I tried to understand what I saw.
Lost in this discussion was a great back and forth game that was the first real test for both teams. A lot was learned about the Badgers in this late night contest.
It's official now. We can start calling Melvin Gordon a star as he's proven himself the real deal, dominating the first high talent defense he's seen this season. Gordon is an explosive runner who pairs the ability to burst through gaps in the line with the power to shake off would be tacklers in space. He's the most dynamic running back Wisconsin has seen in years. His 193 rushing yards are a statement; he accounted for more offense than anyone else on the team.
While they didn't make a statistical declaration in the way Gordon did, the Badger defense was very good on Saturday. Wisconsin's defense spent a lot of time on the field in the 1st half as the offense had only one drive of more than four plays. Arizona State was able to put up 20 more yards of total offense than the Badgers, but they needed 30 more plays to do it. Wisconsin was able to limit the Sun Devil's rushing attack to just 2.8 yards per carry.
Aside from some nearly indefensible fade routes in the 4th quarter, the pass defense held up reasonably well. The corners held up in coverage for the most part and Michael Caputo had his best game of the year. They weren't perfect (we'll get to that) and gave up a lot of yards but they were far from the liability many feared before the season started.
The secondary has taken to the coaching points of Gary Andersen's staff, as has the rest of the team. The game as a whole left the impression of a team that was well coached. A hostile environment left them unfazed. They didn't appear sluggish with the time difference. Arizona State appeared to have bigger issues with the heat than did the Badgers.
The team executed at critical moments at the end of the game. The fake punt was a complex, long developing play that only worked because of the precision with which it was carried out. With the help of that fake punt, Wisconsin's offense engineered two crucial late game drives, the 2nd of which should have won the game.
Lost in an otherwise lackluster performance, Joel Stave was 4 for 6 for 70 yards passing on the final drive. His performance was no doubt aided by the fact he ran a 2 minute offense just a week before. The players were in very few situations they were unfamiliar with, and it showed.
All that said, even if the Badgers were allowed a chance to leave Tempe as victors off a last second field goal, there were is still plenty of room for improvement.
The passing game was very inconsistent. Setting aside his impressive final drive, Joel Stave was mediocre the rest of the game. When pressured by the Arizona state defense, Stave was shown to be not mobile enough to extend plays nor able to throw effectively while on the move. The 6' 5" Stave had multiple passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and missed open receivers when under pursuit.
While Stave deserves some of the blame, the onus is on the offensive line to improve in pass protection. The former walk-on quarterback can be a solid, contributing member of the offense but simply isn't good enough to carry it on his own when other position groups break down. If given time to pass, Stave's heavy feet are more than compensated for by his big arm. That time wasn't there Saturday.
Adjustments need to made on defense as well. Arizona State was given six 1st down on penalties. While Badger fans grew accustomed to a team seldom penalized under Bret Bielema, Andersen's more aggressive defense is going to get penalized more often. A team in press man coverage will get more pass interference calls than one in zone. Even with that understanding, the Badgers can't give up more than 1-2 a game. On top of that, Dezmen Southward's inexplicable personal foul on 3rd and long was painful to watch. While a different penalty, they all underscored the same theme: a Wisconsin defense that was already strained from spending a lot of time on the field didn't help its cause with bad penalties.
While those mistakes can be corrected, there are legitimate concerns in how some inherited personnel match up with the new defensive scheme. Brendan Kelly struggled greatly at times when asked to play in space. We pointed out this was something to watch in camp, as the converted defensive end struggled in pass protection. Kelly's size was no match for Marion Grice's speed in single coverage. Teams will no doubt look to exploit this further as the season progresses; the logical counter is employing Vince Biegel on passing downs more frequently. The question is if he's ready.CLOSING THOUGHTS
I came into this season thinking this game was a loss for the Badgers. As suspected, this team has some problems. The passing game, as is the case EVERY year it seems, is very mediocre. Even though the new scheme has this defense looking faster, there are concerns about how quick it is along the edges. Even with that, the team that looked very well prepared for a tough opponent.
This team will have continued struggles in some areas, but adjustments can be made. Andy Ludwig is trying to make his offense as balanced and unpredictable as possible, but without better pass protection the play action pass that can be so deadly for this team will be limited. In reality, this team can become more run focused as it's obvious that Melvin Gordon needs more touches. Gordon with an additional 10-12 touches per game is a scary proposition for any opponent.
In case you didn't notice, there was a conscious decision to not include an "Ugly" section in this week's break down. The ugliness in that game was obvious but outside the control of the team and coaching staff.
Given how they've played so far it's reasonable to expect the Badgers to be in every game they play this year. While they probably don't have enough to beat Ohio State, they should give Northwestern all they can handle the following week.
While nowhere near as crushing as the hail mary games of 2011, this loss is stinging. It's an even more bitter pill to swallow given the circumstances of how it ended. In reality this loss doesn't mean a whole lot to this team. This team wasn't going to the BCS championship. This team is likely looking up at a B1G Championship game berth. There is a lot of season left and it's a roster and a coaching staff that looks like it will continue to improve. It should be fun to watch.