Wisconsin is making a habit this season of playing close games and creating high blood pressure for Badgers fans everywhere.
None of Wisconsin’s first three games have been decided by more than five points. That trend continued on Saturday, when Wisconsin escaped with a 16-14 victory against Utah State. It took a missed field goal by the Aggies with six seconds remaining for the Badgers to secure a win and move to 2-1.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game:
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1. Wisconsin found a playmaker on special teams.
Kenzel Doe was supposed to pose a threat for Wisconsin as the team’s slot wide receiver, but he didn’t catch a pass during Saturday night’s game. That’s OK, though. He made his mark in a more important way.
Doe returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown to help turn the game around in the third quarter. His shifty moves cut Wisconsin’s deficit to 14-10 and breathed life into Camp Randall Stadium. It was only Doe’s second career punt return, but you have to figure he’ll be the guy taking the majority of punts moving forward.
“I have been working so hard just trying to get an opportunity to just get my chance on the field,” Doe said. “I had been working all summer just catching punt returns, and I finally got my chance today.”
Doe’s return was the longest punt return by a Wisconsin player since Josh Hunt’s 89-yard punt return on Aug. 31, 2000, against Western Michigan.
Jared Abbrederis held down punt return duties last season, and he was excellent in that role. But Doe’s big-play abilities give Wisconsin something unique, and the Badgers should ride it for as long as they can.
2. The offense has more questions now than ever before.
It turns out, bringing in a graduate assistant to coach the offensive line didn’t magically cure Wisconsin’s troubles. In fact, it’s difficult to discern how much better the offensive line really is.
Wisconsin ran the ball 45 times for 156 yards against Utah State, and running back Montee Ball carried 37 times for 139 yards. Still, the team averaged just 3.5 yards per carry.
But that’s not even the biggest problem now because Danny O’Brien couldn’t even hold his spot as the team’s starting quarterback. He was benched in the second half in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
Neither player performed particularly well. O’Brien completed 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards. Stave completed 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards. He spent most of the second half handing the ball off to Ball.
Stave probably didn’t do enough to warrant another look as the team’s starter. But he was in the game when Wisconsin made its comeback. If nothing else, the second-half move should serve as a wake-up call for O’Brien that nothing at Wisconsin is guaranteed. O’Brien will need to do a better job with ball security because he has lost fumbles in each of the last two games.
3. The defense may be this team’s biggest strength.
There’s a statement nobody thought they’d hear a year ago, when the offense was racking up 44.1 points per game. But it’s true. Wisconsin’s defense has bent early in the season, but it has not broken.
Saturday was yet another example of the Badgers’ ability to hold a team off the scoreboard in key situations. Wisconsin trailed 14-3 at halftime but did not surrender another point the rest of the way.
Wisconsin allowed Utah State to convert just 6 of 19 third-down attempts. Through three games, the Badgers are holding opponents to just 29.8 percent on third-down attempts (14 for 47).
“There’s a lot we can improve on,” Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. “But you like the work ethic, you like the heart. We always fight, you know just out always playing our best. Guys are showing a lot of resiliency, a lot of effort throughout the entire game. And that’s something you can build on. That’s something that you have to have.”
4. Young players are making an impact.
There are only nine seniors on this year’s team, so a few younger guys were bound to step up on game day. Saturday was no different.
Redshirt freshman punter Drew Meyer punted nine times for an average of 41.4 yards and has become one of Wisconsin’s most reliable players. He’s filled in nicely for graduated senior Brad Nortman.
Freshman wide receiver Reggie Love caught his first career pass with a 19-yard reception in the first quarter. He could become a bigger target as the season progresses if no other wideouts emerge.
And finally, redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon carried the ball for the first time this season, gaining 15 yards on his first carry in the second quarter. Gordon is a special talent, but he’s in the unfortunate position of being behind Montee Ball and James White. When he does see the field consistently, Badgers fans will be delighted at what he brings to the table.
5. The Badgers know how to win games at home.
Hey, this was no work of art. But the outcome is one Wisconsin will take any week.
With the victory, Wisconsin won its 25th straight non-conference home game, dating back to Sept. 13, 2003. The Badgers also captured their 17th consecutive victory at Camp Randall Stadium, which dates to Oct. 17, 2009.
That 17-game home winning streak will certainly be in jeopardy later this season when Michigan State and Ohio State come to Camp Randall. Wisconsin’s players know they’ll have to play better to have a shot in both games. But it’s only September, and there’s time for improvement.