A comfortable lead became a nail-biter as the Badger faithful welcomed the new and suffered from some of the old during Wisconsin's season-opening victory over visiting Northern Illinois on Saturday, 28-20.
The biggest question on every Badgers fan's mind was "What will the new quarterback situation look like?"
Scott Tolzien opened the game with an 80-yard strike to Isaac Anderson, started off 6-for-6 in the game, then opened the second half with a 6-for-7, touchdown-scoring drive. In short, he looks good.
Tolzien is the right choice, the last interception notwithstanding. Tolzien threw on target, on time, to six different receivers on all types of routes: screens, short, middle, long, outside, inside—you name it, he did it. Yeah, no one liked the late interception (and no one blamed him for the early one), but he looks like he can get it done, which is just what offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's offense ordered.
So what about Curt Phillips?
First, he can run the ball well, and that's nice. Second, I don't trust his arm. But the biggest question is this: Is it worth taking Tolzien out of his rhythm to put Phillips in to run the spread, thus forcing our opponents to spend the time preparing for the spread?
I don't know. Part of me says yes; I liked the fact that Fresno State, Michigan State, etc., have to prepare for two different offenses. Part of me says no; see the failure to put NIU away and the late pick. Expect more of the same next week.
Rotating eight guys, the defensive line looked good. The middle wasn't soft, and Schofield and Watt constantly made plays from the ends. Those guys looked great.
What wasn't so good, though, was NIU's ability to exploit the edges, which effectively means Jaevery McFadden and Mike Taylor, playing the outside linebacker spots, need to work on containment. Still, it wasn't bad, and they held the Huskies in check more than I expected.
Another concern was penalties. Penalties, penalties, penalties.
You watch McFadden get whistled for a facemask that re-starts a scoring drive for NIU and you say, "well, it happens." But then it keeps happening.
This was a real problem last season, and it can't be again if this team is going to beat the likes of Michigan State (a game the Badgers really need for a successful season).
A holding call in the second quarter killed a promising drive. On a 3rd-and-12, Henry got flagged for pass interference, keeping a drive alive. Then on 4th-and-2, with the game getting tight, another pass interference penalty provided NIU a first down on the two-yard line and a free pass into the end zone.
The penalties have to stop.
On top of those penalties, the defense gave up a few big plays on third down. On the Huskies' final scoring drive, they converted a 3rd-and-11 and a 3rd-and-15. Between inopportune penalties and those two big conversions, the Badger defense gave up five opportunities to get off the field, and on three of the four drives in question, they gave up points. Not good.
A few more odds and ends...
In addition to the guys mentioned above, Isaac Anderson, Chris Maragos, and the offensive line had great games. On the not-as-great side of things, returning kicks, I feel as though Gilreath still struggles to read his protection; it's often there, but he doesn't seem to read it right.
Along those lines, it's plain to me why Zach Brown is the starting tailback: John Clay doesn't exploit the holes his line opens for him. He doesn't seem to have a burst through the hole. In the open field, he's great, but an arm tackle at his feet catches him at the line.
Finally, Phillip Welch had a rough game kicking. I don't blame him for missing from 55 yards (I question why Bielema asked him to make that his first try of the season), but the 41-yarder would have made a big difference, and it's a kick he's got to make in the future.
All in all, it was a satisfying win that ended up closer than the game really was (though we can't underestimate how it got that way: turnovers and penalties...also known as discipline).
Here's looking forward to seeing Tolzien start again next week against Fresno State. Here's looking forward to the defense getting off the field when it should.