The Wisconsin Badgers are limping into November following two tough losses on the road.
In East Lansing, the Michigan State Spartans pulled off a once-in-a-lifetime victory with Kirk Cousins' Hail Mary pass to Keith Nichol in the closing seconds. However, the game wasn't lost in the final seconds; several aspects of Wisconsin's strategy were exploited by Mark Dantonio.
While not quite as thrilling (or sickening) as the Michigan State defeat, the loss in Columbus was no less disappointing. Seeing Devon Smith score with 20 seconds left off a 40-yard, on-the-move, off-the-back-foot Braxton Miller toss was the stuff of nightmares.
Once again, games are not lost on a single play, and the Buckeyes had the Badgers on their heels for the majority of the game.
Once hailed as the cream of the crop in the Big Ten, the Badgers' weaknesses have been exposed. For Wisconsin to salvage the season, it needs to shore up a few things.
While the unsteady play could be seen throughout the season, the back-to-back losses showed that the Badgers don't have just one weakness on defense. The missed tackles and blown coverages were covered by a relatively stout run defense—not counting Keshawn Martin's 34-yard reverse for a touchdown or Le'Veon Bell grinding out 87 yards.
Michigan State found holes all over. Somebody was always open, and Kirk Cousins was able to see them, racking up 290 yards passing. B.J. Cunningham and Brian Linthicum combined for over half the yards just by themselves. The lack of secondary play was topped off by a Hail Mary to seal the win in the closing seconds.
The next week, it was obvious that the passing defense had been the focus in practice. Braxton Miller threw for 89 yards total, and almost half of that was accomplished on his last play. That would've been great had Wisconsin not given up 268 yards on the ground.
After Wisconsin had displayed one of the best run defenses in the game, Dan Herron was "only" responsible for 160 of those yards. Miller took the rest of them, scoring two touchdowns along the way.
The most confounding part of this is that only four weeks ago, this same Badgers defense manhandled Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who is known for making big plays on the ground.
Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence—more than that is a pattern.
The Badgers special teams have been exploited multiple times this season.
The first was a blocked PAT against Nebraska. The second was a blocked field goal by Spartan Darqueze Dennard. Michigan State capitalized on this, driving 80 yards to score a touchdown and take the lead in the second half.
To make matters worse, in the same game, Kyler Elsworth blocked a punt and Bennie Fowler recovered it in the end zone. The very next week, Ohio State's Ryan Shazier blocked yet another punt. This one also resulted in points.
Four blocked kicks in three games is unacceptable.
Right now, the Badgers special teams have a target painted on their back. No matter who Wisconsin is playing, if they cannot stop getting jerked around while kicking, punting or returning, the Badgers are in trouble.
Even though they average 6'5" and a solid 322 pounds, the Wisconsin O-line has shown some cracks.
The "Big Uglies," as Bret Bielema calls them, had a rough time keeping the pocket safe. The Spartans defense seemed to have someone in the backfield on almost every play, and it was reflected in the stats: seven tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and three sacks.
The effects of that kind of pressure were disastrous, resulting in two interceptions and a safety from an intentional grounding penalty. Russell Wilson hasn't had to run for his life this much since he was playing for North Carolina State.
Ohio State was almost as successful. It had three sacks and three tackles for loss. However, the stats don't tell the full story of this game.
The Buckeyes stuffed the run up the middle and took the pulling linemen out of the sweep almost every time. Wisconsin was held to just 89 rushing yards. On a team as run-centric as the Badgers, 89 yards is pathetic.
For a little perspective, the last time Wisconsin had less than 100 yards on the ground was in 2009 against Northwestern; the Badgers lost that game too. The last time the Badgers won a game with less than 100 rushing yards was in a 2006 nail-biter against the Illini.
Without the offensive linemen dominating the line of scrimmage, the Badgers are hobbled.
There was room to believe otherwise until now. He had the uncanny ability to avoid sacks and make plays with his legs. He looked like a robotic platform perfectly tuned to throw on the move. He could run, throw, catch and tackle. He is an intelligent player.
The man simply didn't make mistakes. Russell Wilson was the closest thing to a Heisman-caliber player that Wisconsin has had in a long time.
But there was something strange about the losses in East Lansing and Columbus. Wilson was off his game.
You can blame the crowd, the O-line, the defense, the band or any number of things, but the point is that he is fallible. When under pressure, he will make some boneheaded decisions: intentional grounding in the end zone or throwing behind a receiver into double coverage.
Russell Wilson is a team leader and a talented football player, but he is a man and will make mistakes. The question now is whether he can stand back up and move past them.
While any dreams of national championships have been crushed, the Badgers still have many reasons to keep up hope.
Legends Division rival Penn State has to run a gauntlet to stay on top. It hosts No. 10 Nebraska and then hits the road against Ohio State and Wisconsin.
If the Badgers can win their remaining games and the Nittany Lions falter in the next three weeks (preferably against Nebraska), the Badgers could still fight for a Big Ten title in December.
After the disappointing loss to Michigan State last year, the Badgers began playing their best football of the season. If Coach Bielema is worth his salary, he will have the Badgers back in similar fashion.