UW ground game remains above reproach

MADISON, Wis. — No. 12 Wisconsin narrowly escaped with a 26-21 victory against Northern Iowa at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. Although it wasn’t particularly pretty, there were some positive signs to emerge for the Badgers.

Of course, there are plenty of things that need work too.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s season-opening performance:

Passing offense: B+

Quarterback Danny O’Brien performed admirably in his Wisconsin debut. In fact, he did about everything fans could have hoped, delivering timely passes and not turning the ball over. He finished the day 19 of 23 for 219 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

O’Brien also was able to hit two big-time plays. He connected with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis on a 55-yard play-action touchdown pass to give Wisconsin a 26-7 lead. He also hit tight end Jacob Pedersen for a 22-yard first down on third-and-22.

For the most part, however, Wisconsin’s play calling in the passing game was conservative. First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada called mostly short dump-off passes, especially in the first half. You have to wonder if Canada will try to stretch the field more as O’Brien becomes more comfortable in game settings for the Badgers.

Rushing offense: B+

It’s hard to complain when a Heisman Trophy candidate rushes the ball 30 times for 120 yards and scores a touchdown. Still, when it comes to Montee Ball, it almost seems like college football fans expect even more.

Ball himself said he was rusty during the first quarter because he had been held out of contact drills during fall camp. Ball suffered a concussion in an assault on Aug. 1, and coaches were careful to limit him during the fall.

James White was a nice complementary piece to Ball on Saturday. White carried nine times for 47 yards and broke off the longest run of the day with a nice 20-yard scamper.

The surprise of the day was that third-string running back Melvin Gordon did not line up in the backfield. Gordon dazzled during the spring game with 159 yards rushing and a touchdown when Ball and White sat out. And in fall camp, he appeared ready to break through if given an opportunity.

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said he tried to get Gordon in on some kickoff returns, but the kicks resulted in touchbacks. Gordon could be a major weapon for Wisconsin later in the season, particularly if Ball or White gets injured.

For now, the combination of Ball and White is more than enough it appears.

Passing defense: C-

Last year, Wisconsin’s pass defense ranked fourth in the country, allowing 163.6 yards per game. On Saturday, the Badgers’ pass defense certainly could have matched those numbers. But they stunk it up on two plays that nearly cost Wisconsin the game.

Northern Iowa tallied touchdown passes on the same wheel route play down the right sideline because Wisconsin blew its coverage. Panthers quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen completed a 55-yard touchdown pass to David Johnson and a 31-yarder to Johnson later in the game. Those plays brought UNI to within 26-21 in the fourth quarter.

Kollmorgen finished the game 18 of 34 for 265 yards with three touchdowns.

Afterward, members of Wisconsin’s defense said they were close to playing at the same level they played at last year. But it’s hard to see because of those two glaring miscues. It makes you think: If UNI has that much success, what will happen when Big Ten play arrives?

Rushing defense: A

There was a reason Northern Iowa didn’t creep past the 50-yard-line until 3:47 remained in the third quarter. The Panthers tried running the ball, and they were stuffed almost every time.

Five different UNI players recorded a carry during Saturday’s game. In total, they rushed 20 times for 41 yards. That’s an average carry of just over two yards.

The pass defense may have left plenty to be desired, but it’s hard to be upset with the rush defense. Wisconsin’s linemen were solid, and with a linebacker trio of Mike Taylor, Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong, not many running backs are going to get very far up the field.

Special teams: B+

The kicking unit deserves credit for its play on Saturday. Kyle French took over for Phillip Welch on field goal duty, and he hit both of his attempts: from 32 and 35 yards. French also handled the kickoffs and recorded four touchbacks on six attempts.

French can be forgiven for driving one extra point low, which resulted in a block. It didn’t cost Wisconsin in this game, and he showed himself to be a solid kicker.

Punter Drew Meyer also performed well. He punted four times for an average of 41.8 yards. That is much better than his performance during the spring game, when he struggled to get much distance on any of his kicks.

Meyer may not be the next Brad Nortman, but if Wisconsin can get at least 40 yards per attempt, the Badgers will be happy.

Overall: B

Wisconsin avoided a catastrophe by winning 26-21, so the Badgers deserve some credit there. The quarterback play and the running back play were solid, which is something that has come to be expected at Wisconsin.

Still, the two coverage breakdowns on defense are simply inexcusable, even if Saturday was the first game of the season. Wisconsin would have won comfortably if not for those plays.

It certainly wasn’t the best showing of the Bret Bielema era, but Wisconsin is 1-0 and off to play on the road against Oregon State.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.