Wisconsin Football: 5 Biggest Storylines Following Win Against Utah State
The Wisconsin Badgers defeated Utah State 16-14 Saturday night. It was just as ugly as the score suggests.
Down by 11 at the half, the Badgers rallied to take a 16-14 lead in the third quarter, and then held on for dear life for the final 18 minutes, narrowly avoiding defeat when Utah State's Josh Thompson missed a 37-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.
The play of the game came with just over seven minutes to go in the third quarter when Kenzel Doe returned a punt 82 yards to the house to swing momentum in UW's favor.
There were a few other interesting developments in Madison on Saturday, and they will be duly noted as we delve into the biggest storylines moving forward for Wisconsin.
The Quarterback Situation
Following a first half in which Danny O'Brien completed 5-of-10 passes for 63 yards while also losing a fumble, Bret Bielema decided to make a change at quarterback.
Enter Joel Stave, a freshman out of Whitnall High School. How did Stave perform in his first action as a Badger? No better than O'Brien, going 2-for-6 for only 15 yards passing, although his handoff form was nothing short of world class.
So what do the Badgers do at QB next week? It could very well be Stave getting the nod, although it may become a rotating door situation, as senior Curt Phillips is also someone who could be given a shot if poor play under center continues.
It's not often a 7-for-16 performance at quarterback wins you football games, so Wisconsin should be fortunate to have escaped with a victory.
The Running Game
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It turns out firing the offensive line coach didn't make much difference at all.
Montee Ball matched his first two efforts of the season as far as yards per carry is concerned, only managing 3.8 yards each time he was handed the pigskin. However, Ball did manage to run for 139 yards and a touchdown on a ridiculous 37 carries.
Melvin Gordon and James White only combined to rush five times, with Gordon busting a 15-yard run. Apparently, that wasn't enough for Bielema to give the freshman more carries.
Both Gordon and White are extremely talented, and yet Ball continues to be the workhorse in the backfield. Is there pressure on Wisconsin to pad Ball's stats to help him in the quest for the Heisman?
I sure hope not, but I can't conceive why the rushing load isn't spread out more. Perhaps using Gordon and White out wide or implementing some two-back formations would add some spice, especially with the lack of experience at receiver.
Maybe it doesn't matter who it is in the backfield with the offensive line Wisconsin continues to march out, but more distribution of the wealth certainly couldn't hurt.
The Coaching Staff
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We've already seen one shakeup with the firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson, but that might not be the final coaching change we see in Madison this season.
No, I won't go as extreme as saying Bielema should be let go, because coming off of back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances, you can't allow a disappointing start to a season lead to a rash decision like firing the head coach.
However, offensive coordinator Matt Canada's seat is getting mighty toasty already. A team that averaged over 44 points in 2011 is now only putting up 16.3 points a game. Clearly, whatever Canada is trying to do here isn't working, and it all goes back to the poor offensive line and Canada's insistence on implementing spread techniques in a pro-style offense.
Don't be surprised to see Canada dismissed moving forward if current trends continue, but Bielema's job isn't in jeopardy this season.
The Leaders Division
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There are six teams in the Leaders Division, but only four are eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 1—Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue.
Fortunately for the Badgers, Ohio State is one of the ineligible teams along with Penn State, because the Buckeyes appear to be the cream of the crop in the Big Ten, which isn't saying much at this point.
It comes down to this: can the Badgers avoid a complete meltdown and do just enough to win the Legends Division? They received a few breaks, getting to play Ohio State and Michigan State at Camp Randall, although road games at Nebraska and Purdue could prove to be treacherous.
In my mind, the Boilermakers will pose the biggest threat to Wisconsin. Even though they dropped a game in Notre Dame, that's a much better loss than Oregon State, and Purdue played the resurgent Fighting Irish tough.
The Badgers can probably afford to drop two or three games in conference play, but a winning record against the three other eligible teams in the Leaders Division is a necessity.
The Performance of the Defense
For as much talk as there's been regarding the Wisconsin offense, the performance of the defense has gone rather unnoticed. Yes, the Badgers are barely scoring 16 points a game, but they are holding opponents to a mere 15 tallies a game.
Aside from a few miscommunications and blown assignments, the defense has done enough to keep Wisconsin in every game, and with the way things have gone on the other side of the ball, its going to have to continue its stellar play.
The only real knock you can give this unit is that it has failed to force a turnover, but from the defensive line anchored by David Gilbert to star linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor to an experienced secondary, the defense is solid from top to bottom.
Then again, the opposition hasn't exactly been top notch, but no one was expecting the defense to be carrying Wisconsin thus far.
Can they keep it up? Time will tell, but for the sake of the offense, the Badgers better hope so.