Badgers' defense finally forced some turnovers
SEP 29, 2012 11:46p ET
If there's one thing Wisconsin knows about in Big Ten road play over the past two seasons, it's heartbreak.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from Saturday's game.
1. Wisconsin's defense can force turnovers.
The Badgers entered Saturday tied for dead last in the FBS in turnovers forced with just one, tying Southern Miss, Oklahoma and Buffalo for 117th. But on Saturday, Wisconsin forced two turnovers that led to touchdowns.
Cornhuskers running back Rex Burkhead fumbled on a first-and-10 at his own 23-yard-line less than four minutes into the game. Wisconsin responded with a seven-play, 23-yard touchdown drive for an early 14-0 lead.
On Nebraska's first drive of the third quarter, Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez fumbled when he was sacked by defensive end David Gilbert. Badgers linebacker Chris Borland recovered his second fumble of the game.
Four plays and 13 yards later, Wisconsin scored a touchdown and to take a 27-10 lead.
The Badgers did not score over the final 26 minutes, but imagine how bad things could have been without the defense's ability to create turnovers.
2. The running game continues to struggle.
You can say there was some improvement because running back Montee Ball rushed for three touchdowns. But don't let those scores cloud your vision. His yards-per-carry during Saturday's game was worse than in any of the previous four games this season — and that's saying something.
Ball entered the game averaging 3.9 yards per carry, which is considerably worse than his 6.3 YPC from last year's record-breaking season. Against Nebraska, he rushed 32 times for 91 yards — an average of just 2.8 yards per carry.
Of course, it's unfair to put all the blame on Ball for those diminished results. Wisconsin has tried putting lipstick on a pig — in this case changing offensive line coaches after two games — but the results really haven't improved. The offensive line just isn't what it was last season when it had All-Big Ten linemen Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby.
Without a push at the line of scrimmage, Ball is doomed.
On a fourth and one play at midfield with less than 90 seconds remaining, the line was clogged, Ball fumbled the handoff exchange with substitute quarterback Danny O'Brien, and Wisconsin turned the ball over.
Pretty much sums it all up.
3. What's up with the quarterbacks?
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema has said before that O'Brien is the best quarterback in the two-minute offense. So perhaps it wasn't a complete shock that O'Brien trotted onto the field with Wisconsin trailing 30-27 at its own 10-yard-line with 2:55 remaining.
But if O'Brien really is the best two-minute quarterback, can someone explain why he isn't the best quarterback on the team for the other 58 minutes?
Starter Joel Stave didn't muster much out of the offense during the second half, and he took two vicious shots on his last drive of the fourth quarter. But if you have faith in Stave to start the game, it seems reasonable to let him finish the game, provided that he is healthy.
Instead, O'Brien came in and completed 3 of 4 passes for 25 yards. He also had that poor handoff exchange with Ball. You have to wonder what would have happened if O'Brien led Wisconsin down the field for a game-winning touchdown, though. Who would be the starter going forward?
As it stands, the starting job still likely belongs to Stave. He completed 12 of 23 passes for 214 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. It's too bad nobody got to see him try to win the game at the end.
4. The kicking game continues to struggle.
This week, freshman kicker Jack Russell finally took over as Wisconsin's starter in all facets of the kicking game. By halftime, he was benched.
It's been a back-and-forth competition between Russell and sophomore Kyle French since fall camp began. The fact that Wisconsin is five games into the season and still doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 is pretty alarming.
On Saturday, Russell missed an extra point and a 41-yard field goal toward the end of the first half. French replaced him and made his only extra point try.
French has had issues in the kicking game as well. He had an extra point blocked earlier this season, and he lost his starting spot because he couldn't keep kickoffs in bounds in back-to-back games against Utah State and UTEP. That put the ball at the 35-yard-line and infuriated Bielema.
At this point, it's anybody's guess which guy will be Wisconsin's starting kicker moving forward. It depends on which player has the hot leg in a given week at practice.
5. Wisconsin has plenty of work to do in Big Ten play.
Most college football fans assumed the Badgers would have a cakewalk all the way to the Big Ten championship game. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play, Wisconsin was the easy pick to emerge from the Leaders Division.
That may still happen, but the Badgers still have serious issues if they want to reach Indianapolis seven games from now.
The running game is struggling, Wisconsin is breaking in a new quarterback with only one proven wide receiver (Jared Abbrederis) and there isn't one trustworthy kicker on the roster.
The best news to come out of Saturday is that Illinois and Indiana lost from the Leaders Division. Purdue may have scored 51 points, but it also surrendered 41 against Marshall. Even though Penn State and Ohio State won, it hardly matters this year. Wisconsin can finish third behind both teams and still play for a Big Ten championship.
It's going to be a wild ride, and despite the Badgers' issues, they still have a great chance to play for a league title. And that might be the wildest thing of all.
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