Coming into the season, it was only natural to look at Wisconsin's non-conference schedule and roll your eyes. That team, that offensive line facing an FCS team, two more small-conference foes in Utah State and UTEP, and only playing a BCS team or venturing away from Camp Randall to play Oregon State?
Yeah, about that. The Badgers looked positively pedestrian in their season opener against Northern Iowa, a 26-21 nail-biter. The Badgers went up 19-0 and 26-7 in the game before UNI cracked the Wisconsin defense and scored two touchdowns, then forced a three-and-out to get the ball back with about five minutes left to play.
The Panthers reached Wisconsin territory before the drive stalled out on downs, but Wisconsin fans should be excused for feeling overly nervous during UNI's drive. After all, close game, late in the fourth quarter, opponent just crossed midfield...
...right. And we won't post the Michigan State one, either. You're welcome.
So with Wisconsin looking oddly vulnerable, a trip to Oregon State looms a little larger than it did last week. And make no mistake: Wisconsin looks past the Beavers at its own peril. Here's why.
Mannion to Wheaton Is the New Manning to Wayne
OK, so Sean Mannion isn't Peyton Manning. And Markus Wheaton isn't exactly Reggie Wayne, either. But combined, the two make one of the more challenging QB/WR combinations Wisconsin will face this year. And considering the fact that Badger fans are still trying to get UNI's Sawyer Kollmorgen hitting David Johnson for two long TDs out of their heads, well, we could easily see more fireworks this week.
Mannion was the Pac-12 freshman of the year last season, and yes, he threw more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (16). He also racked up 3,328 yards on 305-of-473 passing, and if the thought of a freshman throwing the ball 473 times sounds insane, don't worry—it is. At least for that year.
What Oregon State has now, though, is a returning starter who's comfortable chucking the ball 40 times a game and being the unquestioned focal point of the offense. Combine that with an experienced, speedy receiver like Wheaton, and the Beavers are in business.
Will You Run the Ball More If We Say Please?
The flip side of Sean Mannion being an every-down thrower is the fact that the Beaver rushing attack is somewhere between "situational" and "an afterthought." Oregon State's leading rusher last year was Malcolm Agnew, who gained all of 423 yards on the year. Wisconsin's going to try to hit 423 yards this week. OK, that's a joke, but Wisconsin has gotten within 100 yards of that six times in the last two seasons.
So while the Badgers held UNI to 41 yards on 20 carries—and should be proud of that—that's a strength that isn't going to serve Wisconsin too much in this game, especially when the Badger pass defense was one of the worst in the Big Ten in Week 1 (only Penn State and Michigan were worse, and that's more than unsettling for both those teams).
"Lineman U" Never Flowed off the Tongue Well Anyway
Wisconsin's reputation for loading and reloading its offensive line with NFL-caliber road graders took a bit of a hit on Saturday, as the Badgers averaged well under four yards per carry against UNI. Montee Ball in particular struggled to get free into the open field where he's usually so dangerous.
That's on the offensive line, which didn't provide Ball with anywhere near the level of protection that typified his last two great seasons. And it's not as if Wisconsin can point to elite talent on the opposition, either; this was just an underwhelming performance.
Of course, one game is one game. And Oregon State's defensive line isn't going to strike fear into the hearts of many; they're young, and only DE Scott Crichton made it onto Phil Steele's four-deep preseason All-Pac-12 team. But if Wisconsin's ground game struggles again, look out.