MADISON, Wis. — If you are of the mindset that most bowl games are merely glorified exhibitions, then Wisconsin’s 31-24 senior day loss against Penn State on Saturday won’t be all that upsetting. The Badgers are still headed to a New Year’s Day bowl game — it just won’t be on the prestige level of the Orange Bowl.
Wisconsin assured itself of that after being outplayed by the Nittany Lions, who scored 24 unanswered points to take control at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2) still has an opportunity to win double-digit games, but fans certainly thought it would come before the bowl game.
Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin from Saturday’s game:
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1. Michael Caputo’s on-field presence is important
Caputo entered the day ranking second on the team in total tackles (62), but he did not play against Penn State. He suffered what is believed to be a head injury earlier in the week, and Nate Hammon started in place of him at safety.
Hammon was taken advantage of on the first series from scrimmage for Penn State, when he missed a tackle on a 68-yard touchdown pass. He finished with five tackles.
“Michael is a huge loss for the defense,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “He’s in every package. Found out on Monday afternoon I believe it was that that situation with him was probably wasn’t going to be able to play.
“I believe he’ll be back for the bowl game. He’ll be fine. We’ve just got to get him back where he needs to be. We’re going to take all the precautions with kids to make sure that we’re making all the right decisions. It was a major loss to not have Michael out there.”
2. Wisconsin won’t be going to its fourth straight BCS bowl game
Badgers players really didn’t talk much about the BCS bowl possibilities over the past two months. They said that, if they took care of their business, things would work themselves out.
That likely would have been true, but the Badgers will never know now. Many pundits slated Wisconsin to play in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Instead, UW is probably headed to the Capital One Bowl. It’s only a difference of about 3 1/2 hours geographically, but the difference in prestige is worlds apart.
3. Wisconsin’s defense has more issues than we thought
All the statistics suggested the Badgers were one of the best defenses in college football. But Penn State made Wisconsin look silly, increasing its tempo and throwing the Badgers completely off guard.
Wisconsin allowed Christian Hackenberg to throw for 339 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Zach Zwinak rushed for 115 yards, and the Nittany Lions gained 465 yards as a team. The Badgers entered the day allowing just 278.5 yards per game, which ranked No. 6 nationally.
The most embarrassing drive took place to begin the third quarter, when Wisconsin couldn’t sub in its personnel quick enough. As a result, the Badgers ran plays with nine and 10 men on the field. In another instance, Wisconsin was flagged for an illegal substitution penalty.
“They changed the pace,” Andersen said. “That was very unusual for them in that personnel group that they were changing the pace was very unusual. Something we had not seen. Didn’t handle it well. There is no excuse why we should’ve been and could’ve been on the field or in a position to be on the field.
“We weren’t, and it starts with the coaches. That starts with me. That’s not the players’ fault. We’ve got nine guys out there in that spot. Coaches have to be better communicating faster. It’s got to get from the box down to coach (Dave) Aranda so he has a chance to make a call.”
4. Questions about a quarterback battle are sure to increase
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave’s numbers say he threw for 339 yards, which marks a career high. He also set career marks with 29 completions and 53 pass attempts. This season, he has 20 touchdown passes, which ranks third for a single season in program history.
Still, Stave has now thrown 12 interceptions. And though two of those Saturday could be classified as not his fault — he had a fumble with no pass protection scooped up for a pick and another intercepted on a last-second Hail Mary — he has had too many inaccurate passes. That will leave many fans clamoring for backup Bart Houston to give Stave a run for his money during spring camp.
The coaches have been patient with Stave’s inconsistency. But during some of the biggest games this season, he has been wildly inaccurate. That could be the cold weather, and some could be a lack of pass protection. If he can’t make strides as his career progresses, maybe Houston will get the shot fans believe he deserves.
5. The Badgers should be confident in their kicking game
This will probably get lost in the game because Wisconsin didn’t win. But how about sophomore Jack Russell stepping in there for the biggest kick of his career and drilling a 48-yard attempt to bring Wisconsin within 31-24? Russell’s previous career long was 38 yards, and we all remember he began his career missing his first four kicks.
Russell’s career has been up and down to this point, but he continues to instill confidence in coaches by coming up in the clutch. He has now made 8 of 11 field goals and will be a good bet to retain that starting kicking job when he is a junior.