Wisconsin escaped with a 16-14 victory against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday night. The Badgers fought back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to win their 17th straight home game and improve to 2-1 this season, but plenty of alarming issues emerged along the way.
Handing out grades for the Badgers’ third game of the season:
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Passing offense: D+
Consider this grade comparable to a student who doesn’t quite fail but instead does the bare minimum to skate by. That’s essentially what Wisconsin’s quarterbacks did Saturday night.
Danny O’Brien was so mediocre in the first half that Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema opted to bench him for redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who hadn’t taken a snap in a college game. O’Brien completed 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards and no touchdowns. He had an interception nullified because of a roughing-the-passer call, and he fumbled the ball away in Utah State territory.
O’Brien wasn’t absolutely awful, but Bielema clearly wanted to send a message about the importance of better ball security.
The play-calling was so vanilla when Stave entered the game that fans couldn’t be blamed for falling asleep. Wisconsin passed six times and ran the ball 20 times with Stave under center. Stave completed 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards and no touchdowns.
Stave didn’t do enough to warrant a quarterback controversy, but the decision to split reps Saturday night does not demonstrate much confidence in the passing game.
Rushing offense: B-
The old adage goes: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Nobody can say Wisconsin didn’t try running the ball on Saturday, even if it wasn’t always effective.
For the game, the Badgers rushed 45 times for 156 yards. That’s an average of just 3.5 yards per carry. Running back Montee Ball carried 37 times for 139 yards and scored his second touchdown of the season.
Without the run game, Wisconsin had no chance to win because of how ineffective the passing game was against Utah State. But there is still plenty that needs to be cleaned up.
Three times in the first half, Ball was stuffed on third-and-one situations. He also failed to score on a third-and-goal from the two-yard-line. Those moments used to be automatic for Wisconsin’s run game behind a powerful offensive line. Now, it’s becoming more of a surprise when the Badgers convert.
Passing defense: B-
After letting quarterbacks from Northern Iowa and Oregon State sling the ball all over the field, Wisconsin’s defense did a solid job of containing Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Still, there were significant breakdowns.
Keeton completed 18 of 34 passes for 181 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also connected with running back Kerwy Williams on a wheel route for a 39-yard touchdown pass. The wheel route absolutely killed Wisconsin against UNI, when the Panthers twice scored touchdowns on the wheel route.
The Badgers also surrendered a big play in the final minutes that nearly cost them the game. Keeton found receiver Cameron Webb for a 36-yard pass down to Wisconsin’s 15-yard-line. Wisconsin was fortunate that Utah State’s kicker ultimately missed a 37-yard field goal with six seconds remaining. Otherwise, the play would have stood out even more.
Rushing defense: B
Yet again, Wisconsin’s run defense was a strength during a game in which the Badgers’ offense struggled.
Utah State ran the ball 35 times for 127 yards with no touchdowns. The Aggies averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Those are significant achievements considering the running ability of Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Wisconsin held him in check for much of the game, only allowing him to break contain on a few occasions.
Wisconsin ranks 17th in the country thus far, allowing 82.0 yards rushing per game. The Badgers are surrendering 2.89 yards per rush overall.
Special teams: B+
Bad news first: Kicker Kyle French struggled.
French missed a 36-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter and had an extra point try blocked in the third quarter. The extra point miss nearly cost Wisconsin the game.
On the whole, however, Wisconsin’s special teams play was excellent. Punter Drew Meyer is quickly developing into one of the Badgers’ most important players. He punted nine times for an average of 41.4 yards. For the season, he is averaging 41.0 yards per punt. He entered Saturday’s game ranked No. 2 in the Big Ten in punting average.
And finally, the special teams play stands out because of the punt return from Kenzel Doe, who brought a kick back 82 yards for a touchdown. The score changed the momentum of the game and brought Wisconsin to within 14-10 in the third quarter. It was only Doe’s second career punt return, and he possesses plenty of promise.
Wisconsin obviously has several areas to correct, but at least the Badgers can attempt to make changes following a victory. The quarterback situation needs to be rectified, and Wisconsin needs to generate more holes for Ball at the line of scrimmage.
But once again, the defense held strong. Wisconsin is allowing 15.0 points per game, which ranks 27th in the country. It’s the only reason the Badgers don’t have a losing record at this point because the Badgers are only averaging 16.3 points per game. That ranks tied for 113th out of 120 FBS programs.