MADISON, Wis. — There have been prettier displays of Wisconsin football in recent years, but the result was familiar on Saturday.
No. 12 Wisconsin escaped with a 26-21 victory against Northern Iowa of the Football Championship Subdivision. The Badgers have now won 33 consecutive regular-season non-conference games.
Here are five things we learned:
1. Danny O’Brien is a quality replacement for Russell Wilson.
First thing’s first: O’Brien is not a carbon copy of Wilson.
Yes, the stories are similar. Both players transferred to Wisconsin from Atlantic Coast Conference schools and were eligible to play immediately under the graduate-transfer exception rule. But Wilson is an NFL-level quarterback who shattered Badgers passing records that may not be touched for years.
O’Brien is certainly solid. In his Wisconsin debut, he completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rarely threw downfield, as first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada kept the play calling simple.
“I was pretty excited coming out of the tunnel,” O’Brien said. “I got goosebumps for sure, and I kind of had to calm myself down. I had a missed throw early that I thought I could’ve hit, but I got in the groove right away with these guys as we got rolling.”
When Wisconsin did take chances downfield, O’Brien delivered. He completed a nice 55-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis on a play-action that gave the Badgers a 26-7 lead in the fourth quarter.
Earlier in the game, O’Brien completed a 22-yard pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen on third-and-22 for a first down.
“He waited for that play,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “He could see that happening. We gave him protection and he hit it. The only way you learn that is by doing it, so I think there were a lot of positives there.”
Bielema said the pressure for O’Brien to perform at a high level was immense on Saturday, and he was pleased to see O’Brien step up to the challenge.
“I know he had everybody and their mother from his family here,” Bielema said. “I know he had like 30 tickets. That brings things, let alone the other 84,000 people in there. You play in front of your family and friends for the first time. This is a big deal. Wisconsin football is pretty good, and he’s the starting quarterback. I think he handled it very well.”
2. Montee Ball is back.
Now that the college football season is here, maybe we can forget about the difficult offseason Ball endured.
On the field, he played like someone worthy of Heisman Trophy consideration. It wasn’t his best game, but for a player of Ball’s caliber, he was still the best ball carrier in the stadium.
For the game, Ball rushed 30 times for 120 yards with a touchdown. He now has scored at least one touchdown in 21 consecutive games, just six shy of tying the NCAA record. He also has rushed for 100 or more yards in seven consecutive games and 17 games in his career.
Ball did not take a single hit during fall camp, in part because he sustained a concussion when he was assaulted the morning of Aug. 1. He said he felt rusty because of his limited contact in practice, and he hadn’t been hit in a game since Wisconsin’s Rose Bowl loss to Oregon on Jan. 2.
“Yeah, I’d say in the first quarter,” Ball said of the rust. “I was running with my pads very high. Just talking to (running backs) Coach Hammock, he told me to get my pads down. I corrected it.”
When it mattered most, however, Ball was there to rescue the Badgers. He carried the ball four times for 24 yards in the final 2:46 of the game, allowing Wisconsin to hold on to the ball and the victory.
“To finish the game the way he did, there wasn’t going to be anybody that would deny him,” Bielema said. “I don’t care if that was UNI or Nebraska or anybody else that’s left on our schedule. He was going to secure that win. You could tell that.”
3. Despite new players, Wisconsin’s kicking game appears solid.
There had been some concern about how Wisconsin’s special teams unit would fare in 2012. But the Badgers’ performance on Saturday should help to quell any fears.
Kicker Kyle French won both the starting field goal and kickoff role from freshman Jack Russell over the past week. Russell had been No. 1 on the depth chart through two weeks of fall practice. The decision to bump up French proved to be a good one.
On Saturday, French drilled both of his field goal attempts, from 32 and 35 yards. They were vital to Wisconsin’s early success because they gave the Badgers a 6-0 lead.
French did have one extra point attempt blocked on a low kick, but on the whole, he played well. He also had four of his six kickoffs result in touchbacks.
“With the wind, obviously the ball was carrying,” French said. “When you put it on the other end, the ball kind of got caught in the air a little bit. Kickoffs, it’s more you just need to have confidence. Throughout fall camp, I had a lot of confidence.”
4. Derek Watt is going to be a star at fullback
The brother of J.J. Watt is quickly created a name for himself. Derek Watt was moved from linebacker to fullback midway through fall camp, and he played so well that he earned considerable time during Saturday’s game. He is listed as No. 1 on the depth chart, along with Sherard Cadogan.
In addition to being a quality blocker in Wisconsin’s pro-style offensive system, Watt also is capable of slipping out of the backfield to catch passes. He caught two balls for 14 yards from quarterback Danny O’Brien.
“Throughout the week and throughout fall camp, since I made the switch, they’ve been kind of using me in some fly routes and some pass plays,” Watt said. “I had that expectation going in that I could go out there, and I had my first collegiate catch.”
Watt also played in front of J.J., a linebacker for the Houston Texans who attended the game.
“J.J. contacted us, and he didn’t want to have anybody know he was here because he wanted his brother’s first game to mean something,” Bielema said. “I couldn’t be happier with Derek and where he’s at.”
5. The defense still has issues to fix.
For two-and-a-half quarters, Wisconsin’s defense looked nearly invincible, even if it was playing against an FCS team. But things went terribly wrong in a hurry.
Northern Iowa didn’t reach past the 50-yard-line until 4:37 remained in the third quarter. Over the next 16 1/2 minutes, the Panthers gave the Badgers everything they could handle.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen operated out of a spread passing attack and ripped Wisconsin to shreds. He finished the day 18 of 34 for 255 yards with three touchdowns. He completed a 55-yard touchdown pass to Chad Owens on a wheel route down the right sideline in which Owens was wide open.
A few minutes later, Kollmorgen hooked up with David Johnson on the same pass play, this time for a 31-yard touchdown.
“They’re a great team, but we didn’t really play up to our potential,” Badgers cornerback Shelton Johnson said. “They were doing a couple good things, but for the most part it was breakdowns. Whether it was on the defensive line with contain or pressuring the quarterback ort he secondary or the linebackers not getting over on a wheel route. There were tiny breakdowns all over the defense today that we have to fix.”