Everyone wanted to see how Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien would fare in his first career start. They didn't have to wait long.
Just under three minutes into Saturday's game against Northern Illinois, Tolzien found Isaac Anderson for an 80-yard touchdown on the team's first play from scrimmage.
The Badgers didn't have a pass play over 50 yards all of last season, yet on his first play as starting quarterback, Tolzien aired it out to Anderson for 80 yards and a 7-0 lead. Talk about making a good first impression.
Unfortunately for Tolzien and Wisconsin, however, the team would have mixed results from that point on. The junior threw for just 177 yards on 14-of-19 with two interceptions the rest of the way.
The ground game faired slightly better, as the Badgers rushed for 159 yards on 38 carries (four yards/carry) and three touchdowns. Wisconsin's two stars in the backfield—John Clay and Zach Brown—were less than impressive, however.
UW's one-two punch combined for just 96 yards on 29 carries, a 3.3 yard per carry average. Clay did manage to find the endzone twice on one-yard runs, though.
As a result, the Badgers outscored NIU by just one point the rest of the way (21-20), a point that could have been secured by the Huskies had they kicked an extra point rather than attempt the two-point conversion midway through the fourth quarter.
And the defense? Well, they appeared to have Northern Illinois under control until the fourth quarter. After putting up 14 points to zero for NIU in the third quarter, UW owned a comfortable 28-6 lead. Or so they thought.
The Huskies first drive of the fourth quarter, which began following a missed field goal by Badger kicker Philip Welch, resulted in a touchdown on a one-yard rush by Chad Spann. NIU began at their own 24-yard line and went 76 yards on nine plays in less than four minutes.
All of a sudden, the game was far from over.
On the Badgers' next drive, Tolzien was picked off by Cory Hanson, his second of the game. So, with 8:20 to go, the Huskies had the ball on the Wisconsin 31, trailing by 16 points.
It took them five minutes and 33 seconds, but NIU punched it in again, this time completing the two-point conversion attempt and making it an eight-point game.
Two drives, 19 plays, 107 yards, 9:17 time elapsed, and one BIG inadvertent whistle. The UW defense that controlled NIU throughout the first three quarters was gone at this point, having been replaced by a much lesser, weaker unit.
All Wisconsin needed to do was recover the onside kick and survive for a little less than three minutes. They were unable to do so, however. NIU kicker Mike Salerno executed a perfect onside kick, allowing his team to recover the ball with ample time on the clock.
Time for the Badger defense to step up, but can they do it? Can a team that just allowed two touchdowns in consecutive drives after allowing none in the first three quarters stop an offense that has been on the field for most of the fourth quarter?
Fortunately for Wisconsin, the answer was yes.
So you have a UW offense that scored four touchdowns, threw for 281 yards and rushed for another 152. Compared to two touchdowns, 174 passing yards and 100 rushing yards for NIU.
Yet, when all was said and done, the game was decided by just eight points.
Wisconsin was not the same team from one drive to the next on either side of the ball. Whether it was due to new starters or rotating signal callers, the Badgers simply did not play consistent football in the game. It's as simple as that.
Sure, Northern Illinois did a lot to get back in the game, but they were aided significantly by several Wisconsin mistakes.
So while Bret Bielema's 2009 Badger squad showed flashes of an ability to compete in the Big Ten, they also showed—through several mistakes—the ability to lose to a MAC opponent at home, like Northern Illinois.
They did not lose, however, and a win is a win. Let's hope the outcome is not in doubt in the fourth quarter against Fresno State or it could be a long, stressful (but exciting) season.