Circumstances have sacked Badgers’ O’Brien

MADISON, Wis. — So often in American society, people quickly want to find a place to lay blame when misfortune occurs rather than calmly reflect on the circumstances surrounding those difficulties.

Gasoline prices rise. The National Hockey League lockout lingers. A football team loses. Who deserves blame? Grab the torches and pitchforks and run someone out of town.

In this 24/7 Internet news cycle era, it is easier than ever for voices of dissent to be heard. Folks take to Twitter, Facebook and message boards to demonstrate their displeasure with scathing conviction, regardless of the full-fledged truth.

This is where Wisconsin junior quarterback Danny O’Brien enters the picture.

By any account, his season has not gone according to the script. O’Brien was hailed as a savior when he opted to transfer during the offseason from Maryland to Wisconsin, the key piece in the Badgers’ run for a Rose Bowl or a national championship.

By the team’s third game, he was benched in favor of quarterback Joel Stave, who had never played a down of college football.

“Danny transferred in with a dream of being a two-year starting quarterback at Wisconsin,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said Monday. “It started that way and got side-railed.”

Now, Stave is lost for the season with a broken left collarbone. The starting quarterback role falls to either O’Brien or senior Curt Phillips, who has not thrown a pass in a game since 2009. Bielema announced the two would take equal reps in practice during this bye week as the coaching staff determines which player will start Nov. 10 against Indiana.

Some have suggested O’Brien already had his shot and failed. Wisconsin is 6-3 and unranked, not 9-0 or 8-1 and near the top of the BCS rankings. If he had lived up to the expectations fans placed on him, they say, the Badgers wouldn’t be in this position.

But if we are playing the blame game, let’s ask: How much of O’Brien’s struggles are really his fault? Doesn’t he deserve the same opportunity and support in a game as players at other positions have earned? Has he truly been put in a position to succeed?

This is not an O’Brien apology column — he certainly is not without flaws. It is meant merely to suggest we need to step back and think about the confluence of circumstances surrounding O’Brien’s situation as quarterback at Wisconsin.

People forget he arrived in June with just two months to learn the playbook and acclimate himself with teammates. Although quarterback Russell Wilson didn’t arrive last season until July, it’s worth noting how unusual his transition was. He is, after all, now a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Once O’Brien earned the starting job in fall camp, he did not have the same type of parts around him as Wilson had. The once-dominant offensive line struggled to grasp new techniques with a new coach. That line was so ineffective that Bielema fired his offensive line coach, Mike Markuson, after just two games — which included a 10-7 loss to an Oregon State team that started the season 6-0 for the first time since 1907.

Bielema never promised the offensive line problems would be fixed the following week with a new coach against Utah State. When the offense struggled again, O’Brien was the first player to get the hook with the team trailing, 14-3, at halftime.

Just two games earlier, O’Brien had completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the season opener against Northern Iowa.

Bielema told the media O’Brien lost his job because he couldn’t hold on to the football more so than the lack of offense. During the first half against Utah State, O’Brien lost a fumble and threw an interception, although the interception was negated because of a roughing-the-passer call. He also lost a fumble and threw an interception one week earlier against Oregon State.

But the game plan in the second half against Utah State was one O’Brien easily could have executed. Stave threw the ball just six times for 15 yards and handed off 19 times in a comeback victory.

O’Brien’s next two appearances could hardly be called ideal circumstances. One came in the final three minutes at Nebraska with the Badgers trailing by three points. Given one drive to show his worth, O’Brien misinterpreted a bootleg call at midfield and accidentally handed off to Ball for a fumble that ended the game.

Then on Saturday, he came off the bench cold in the third quarter following Stave’s injury against a Michigan State team with one of the top five defenses in the country. When Wisconsin lost in overtime, message boards popped and sizzled with criticism of O’Brien — even though the Badgers had a likely game-clinching rushing touchdown called back by a holding penalty.

“I haven’t unfairly criticized him,” Bielema said. “I can’t control the outside world. I don’t think as coaches we have. We’ve understood where he’s popping himself into and the difficult scenarios that he’s been part of. Even at the end of the Nebraska game was a difficult scenario.

“Those moments, if you take them the right way will make you better for the future, and I think Danny has done that. But a lot will be shown this week in practice, as well as next week.”

Thus far, the numbers O’Brien and Stave have put up are not all that different. O’Brien has completed 60.5 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and one interception. Stave has completed 59.3 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and three interceptions.

No, O’Brien hasn’t been the second coming of Russell Wilson as some had hoped. But he also hasn’t always been provided with the necessary support that enables success. Two years ago, he was the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year at Maryland. Whatever talent was there hasn’t suddenly disappeared.

O’Brien doesn’t deserve the level of blame being heaped on him from outside the program. Not all the problems facing this Wisconsin team are his fault.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.