Wisconsin vs. Ohio State: 10 Things We Learned from the Badgers' Loss
You would have to go back to the third week of the 2012 season to find the last time the Wisconsin Badgers won a close game.
Saturday's 31-24 defeat at The Horseshoe against Ohio State marked the seventh consecutive loss the Badgers have sustained when the final margin of victory is seven points or less. The last time the Badgers managed to eek one out, current head coach Gary Andersen was on the opponent's sideline leading Utah State.
While Wisconsin did manage to avoid being embarrassed by a very talented Buckeyes team, there were a few game-changing plays that would end up putting the Badgers in an irrecoverable hole. The Badgers did get the ball back late with a chance to tie the game, but a long field combined with a short clock and no timeouts proved to be too much for the Wisconsin offense.
There's no shame losing to a team ranked in the Top 5 when playing on the road, but considering the circumstances, this one still leaves a lingering sting. Besides knowing that the Badgers are now 3-2, there are 10 things we can take away from Wisconsin's loss in Columbus, Ohio.
Penalties, Mistakes on the Road Are Costly
We're not just talking about any old penalties or mistakes, either. There were three specific instances where a slip-up cost the Badgers dearly, and looking back, those errors may have very well kept Wisconsin from bringing home an upset of Ohio State.
Obviously, mental lapses are always costly in a way, but when they come on the road, those issues can snowball, and that's exactly what happened to the Badgers.
Instead of recovering a fumble on a botched punt, an illegal formation penalty meant Wisconsin had to re-kick. After formulating a 63-yard drive, a chip-shot field goal went wide. And rather than intercepting a pass that hit a cornerback right in the numbers, Ohio State came back on the next play with a 40-yard touchdown pass to close out the first half with a 10-point lead.
Meanwhile, Ohio State didn't turn the ball over, committed fewer penalties than Wisconsin and didn't miss any field goals. It turned out to make a world of difference.
Jared Abbrederis Isn't Bad
Just about everyone believed that for the Badgers to find any success throwing the football against Ohio State, Joel Stave would need to grow comfortable with someone not named Jared Abbrederis.
So much for that.
Abbrederis had 14 more targets than any other receiver on Wisconsin, and the result was 10 catches for 207 yards and a touchdown. Stave looked Abby's way early and often, and despite Abbrederis going up against an All-American corner in Bradley Roby for most of the night with everybody and their mother knowing where the football was going, the senior wide receiver had himself a career day.
His numbers could have been even better had Abbrederis been able to haul in a few more beautifully thrown balls from Stave, but it's been proven time and time again that Abbrederis can still be effective despite Wisconsin lacking a legitimate second option in the passing game.
Wisconsin Is in Trouble When It Can't Run
It's not often—perhaps never—when Wisconsin fails to rush for over 125 yards in a game and still manages to pull out a victory.
The Badgers fell short of that mark against a tough Ohio State front seven. The Buckeyes were willing to make a trade-off, loading up the box to slow Wisconsin's rushing attack while putting faith in their secondary to keep Joel Stave at bay.
It didn't help that Melvin Gordon, who averaged just under five yards per carry on Saturday night (he was averaging just under 12 a contest entering the game), went down with an apparent knee injury at the end of the third quarter. Fortunately for Wisconsin, it appears Gordon will be ready for its next game against Northwestern, which because of a bye doesn't come until Oct. 12.
While Wisconsin was still able to have some success throwing the football, when the run game is clicking, that's all the Badgers need. Following the seven-minute mark in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin didn't run the ball once, and that should tell you all you need to know.
The Kicking Game Remains an Issue
We already know full well that Wisconsin has had its issues knocking the football through the uprights, and once again, we saw Kyle French miss his mark against the Buckeyes toward the end of the first quarter.
After a 63-yard drive stalled at the Ohio State 15-yard line, French and the kicking unit were sent out for what should have been an easy field goal from the left hash. French's kick never had a chance, sailing left and leaving the Badgers down by seven in the second quarter.
French would redeem himself with a 42-yard field goal in the second half, but leaving points on the board against the No. 4 team in the country will almost always come back to haunt you. Past French, there really isn't a better option, as Jack Russell has failed to make a field goal in three tries and Andrew Endicott is only being used for kickoffs.
Recruiting a top-of-the-line place-kicker for next season is beginning to look like a high priority for the Badgers.
Even the Best Players Make Mistakes
There were multiple heart-wrenching plays for the Badgers, but one of them came from an unlikely source—Chris Borland.
For as great of a game the senior linebacker had against the Buckeyes (we'll get to that later), there was one play that will overshadow Borland's performance. In the second quarter with the Badgers down seven, Drew Meyer punted the ball away, only for return man Corey Brown to fumble and watch it be recovered by Wisconsin's Leo Musso.
There was only one problem—Borland was lined up improperly, resulting in an illegal formation penalty.
Instead of the Badgers being set up in Ohio State territory with a chance to tie the game and obtain momentum, they were forced to punt again, and on the Buckeyes' ensuing drive, they converted a field goal.
Borland's mental lapse was inexcusable, and it resulted in a crucial swing.
Risk of Playing Tanner McEvoy Paid off
You may have noticed a player wearing No. 17 in the Wisconsin secondary that stood at 6'5" and played quarterback up until a few weeks ago. His name is Tanner McEvoy, and with the Badgers trying just about everything to slow Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes passing attack, McEvoy saw a lot of the field.
Head coach Gary Andersen has raved about McEvoy's athleticism, citing that he needed to find a way to get the sophomore onto the field. With quarterback occupied by Stave, that meant moving McEvoy to a different position. The logical choice, especially considering McEvoy's height and Wisconsin's lack of weapons, seemed to be receiver, but McEvoy has made the switch to safety instead.
McEvoy already finds himself in the two-deep at safety, and his extended playing time against Ohio State resulted in four tackles for McEvoy, which tied for the fifth-highest mark on the team. Based on Andersen's assessment of McEvoy's performance, we should continue to see plenty of the converted quarterback moving forward.
We Have to Accept the Growing Pains in the Secondary
The first warning that the inexperience in the secondary was going to be an issue came at Arizona State, when the Badgers allowed Taylor Kelly to throw for 352 yards. They didn't quite allow that many against Braxton Miller, but he still managed 198 yards passing while running for 83 more and threw for four touchdowns.
It was clear that Miller, who had missed two games with a knee injury, wasn't all that rusty and has grown more comfortable with the offense compared to last season. The Badgers allowed 192 rushing yards, but when it wasn't Miller scrambling, they did a relatively good job slowing down Carlos Hyde, who finished with 85 yards on 17 carries.
What was easily the biggest growing-pains moment came right before the end of the first half when true freshman Sojourn Shelton flat-out dropped an interception. On the following play, senior safety Dezmen Southward, who should be through with his growing pains, allowed Corey Brown to get behind him for a 40-yard touchdown reception.
Southward, Shelton and junior cornerback Peniel Jean all had their face-palm moments, and in all, the secondary only managed to break up three passes on the night. There were a few instances where the Wisconsin linebackers left the secondary out to dry, but the big plays allowed were what really wound up being the final straw.
Joel Stave Proved He's the Right Man for the Job
It's clear that Joel Stave only trusts one man among his receiving corps, but boy is he good at finding that man.
We're obviously talking about Jared Abbrederis, and Stave found his senior receiver for a ludicrous 207 yards. In all, Abbrederis had 19 targets and 10 catches, which included a few drops by the usually reliable senior. The rest of Stave's targets (18) were spread out between five different receivers.
Stave would finish up 20-of-34 for 295 yards and two touchdowns, a solid showing against a formidable defense. While Stave did throw an interception, he was hit on the play and it also appeared that his intended receiver ran an incorrect route.
There simply wasn't enough time for Stave to bring his team back, and there were just too many game-changing plays that benefited the Buckeyes. With a secondary doing all it could to shut down Abbrederis as well as a rather stagnant running game, Stave still nearly threw for 300 yards—it should have been more considering his receivers' six drops—and certainly looked the part after having a few lackluster performances earlier this season.
Chris Borland, Jared Abbrederis Will Be Sorely Missed Next Season
Yes, Borland's illegal formation was a brutal blow, and Abbrederis may have let a few slip through his fingers, but when you take a look at the box score from Wisconsin's clash with Ohio State, their numbers are staggering.
No one on the Badgers defense came close to matching Borland's 16 tackles, although defensive tackle Warren Herring gets a shout-out for notching two sacks of Braxton Miller on the night. It felt like the senior linebacker was in on every play.
We've already covered Abbrederis' magical night, and there were multiple reasons to believe he wouldn't even be able to top the century mark in receiving yards. And yet the senior came through, just like he does week after week, reeling in 10 catches for 207 yards.
We're a long ways away from the 2014 season, but the thought has to have crossed the mind of Gary Andersen—just who is going to replace Chris Borland and Jared Abbrederis, two players that appear to be sure-fire future pros? It will take a team effort, no doubt, as asking a player to replicate what these two have done would simply be asking too much.
A Fourth Straight Rose Bowl Is in Serious Jeopardy
For the third straight season, Ohio State knocked off Wisconsin, but this time around it has serious implications.
The Buckeyes are now postseason eligible and haven't lost a game since 2011. They also play in the Leaders Division with the Badgers and have the inside track at reaching the Big Ten Championship Game despite there being plenty of season left to play.
That's one thing working in Wisconsin's favor, although it will need the Buckeyes to lose at least two games for the Badgers to have a shot at reaching their fourth straight Rose Bowl. Next week, Ohio State travels to No. 16 Northwestern and closes the regular season at No. 19 Michigan, with those clearly being the two tallest tasks remaining on the Buckeyes' schedule.
For now, all Wisconsin can do is focus on itself and let the chips fall where they may, but odds are that it won't be making a return trip to Pasadena following yet another gut-wrenching loss to Ohio State.