MADISON, Wis. — Only Bret Bielema can know whether his words reflected well-crafted spin or genuine delight.
But Bielema, Wisconsin’s seventh-year football coach, sure sounded like a politician attempting to sell something on Saturday evening. Yes, 12th-ranked Wisconsin won its season opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Northern Iowa. It also narrowly escaped an historic upset, squeezing by with a too-close-for-comfort 26-21 victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
What should folks make of it all?
“From my point of view as a head coach, in my twisted mind, it couldn’t have worked out any better,” Bielema said. “… To me, we get a lot better out of this than a 42-0 blowout. I don’t see what that gets. I know our fans, we kept them in their seats.”
That’s certainly one way to look at it. Another way is this: Wisconsin has a long way to go if it hopes to live up to expectations of securing a third consecutive Big Ten championship.
Since the NCAA split its divisions in 1978, only two FCS programs had beaten a ranked FBS team. Northern Iowa nearly became the third, despite not reaching past the 50-yard-line until 4:27 remained in the third quarter.
That’s about the time when UNI shifted to a spread passing attack, and Wisconsin’s defense melted quicker than a stick of butter in the microwave.
In the span of three minutes, 47 seconds during the fourth quarter, the Panthers scored two touchdowns on identical wheel routes down the right sideline thanks, in part, to blown coverages by the Badgers. Wisconsin’s 26-7 lead had shrunk to 26-21, and Northern Iowa wasn’t done yet.
“When you play a team like Wisconsin, you can draw all the X’s and O’s that you want,” Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. “But until you can line up and beat them at the line of scrimmage, you have no chance. And we started winning the line of scrimmage.”
Last season, Wisconsin ranked fourth in the country in passing defense, allowing just 163.6 yards per game. But UNI freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen splintered the defense, throwing for 265 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday.
Kollmorgen and UNI also had an opportunity to take the lead in the final minutes when he dropped back to pass on fourth-and-one from the Wisconsin 41. The throw was tipped at the line of scrimmage by defensive tackle Ethan Hemer and fell incomplete, allowing Wisconsin to take over with 2:46 remaining and salt the game away.
Despite the victory, Wisconsin’s players said they absorbed a valuable lesson.
“They brought us down to earth,” Badgers safety Shelton Johnson said. “UNI is a great team. We’re a lot better. We’re a lot better than we played today, and we’re going to be a lot better next week. As far as what happened today, it shouldn’t have been that close, but it was. It does really open your eyes and allows you to learn from it.”
Without question, Saturday’s result could have been worse for Wisconsin. Just ask Pittsburgh, which lost, 31-17, against FCS opponent Youngstown State. Still, the Badgers will have to play much better if they hope to beat Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State and Ohio State, among others, during the Big Ten season.
“You can tell that we’re not extremely happy with the way things turned out,” Badgers center Travis Frederick said. “But a win is a win for us. We were close on a lot of things. But as you can see, close doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to win with that.”
There were enough positives to make Badgers players and coaches feel good against UNI, ranked No. 7 in the FCS coaches poll.
Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien starred in his Wisconsin debut at quarterback. He completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball carried 32 times for 120 yards and a touchdown. And No. 1 receiver Jarred Abbrederis caught six passes for 84 yards with two scores.
National perception of this year’s team may have taken a hit on Saturday — Wisconsin didn’t score fewer than 28 points in any game last season — but the Badgers can take solace in knowing they won despite not playing their best.
That is one point that doesn’t require spin from Bielema.
“Wisconsin football may not be the prettiest thing to watch,” Bielema said, “but we get Ws.”