Badgers report card: Plenty to work on before bowl game

After all the successes we’ve seen over the years at Camp Randall Stadium, this certainly isn’t what anybody in the Upper Midwest envisioned witnessing from Wisconsin’s football team. Despite being 24-point favorites this week, Wisconsin blew an opportunity to compete for a possible BCS bowl game with a 31-24 loss against Penn State.

The Badgers are still likely headed to a Florida bowl — presumably the Capital One Bowl in Orlando — but it will mark the end of a three-year run of BCS bowl game appearances.

There is a month between now and that bowl opportunity, and Wisconsin (9-3, 6-2 in Big Ten play) learned it has plenty to fix. Let’s revisit the Badgers’ regular-season finale and hand out grades for the team’s performance in Game 12 against Penn State:

Passing offense: C

This is the second week in a row Wisconsin earns a letter grade beginning with “C” in this category, and some probably consider that to be a generous grade. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave did throw for a career-high 339 yards passing, and he set career marks for completions (29) and pass attempts (53).

Still, we continue to be flummoxed by Stave’s inability to connect on must-have throws down the field to Jared Abbrederis. He also throws too many interceptions and has 12 this season. Three of his interceptions came on Saturday. The first took place when C.J. Olaniyan scooped up a Stave fumble near midfield and returned it 33 yards. And the third came on a last-second desperation Hail Mary into the end zone. But the second interception typified Stave’s struggles this season.

On the play, Stave overthrew Abbrederis, and the ball sailed high and through his hands into the arms of Penn State cornerback Trevor Williams at the 5 early in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin could have driven in for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-21. Instead, Penn State drove down the field and extended its lead to 31-14.

“It just sailed a little bit,” Stave said. “And that can’t happen. Not in that situation out there on the field.”

It didn’t help during the game that Stave faced so much pressure because his offensive line couldn’t pass protect. Still, Badgers coach Gary Andersen was adamant afterward about the importance of Wisconsin taking advantage of its few downfield opportunities in the passing game.

“Have to,” Andersen said. “We have to. That is the bottom line. That is the identity of where we are right now. If we’re going to give up those big plays down there on defense, we’re going to let them crowd the box and we can’t make the big plays on offense, you’ll turn yourself into a real average football team real fast. That means the team that we played was better than we were, and that was definitely the case today with the Penn State team.”

Rushing offense: B

Wisconsin began the day averaging 6.76 yards per rush, so the Badgers’ 4.0 yards-per-carry mark against Penn State should tell you all you need to know about the team’s inability to run as well as hoped. Melvin Gordon did a nice job and carried 13 times for 91 yards — an average of 7.0 yards per carry. James White rushed 13 times for 56 yards, but neither tailback gained 100 yards in a game for the first time since the Ohio State loss back on Sept. 28.

The Badgers got away from their bread and butter with the run game and went all in on passing. As a result, Stave threw 53 times, which represents the most by any Wisconsin quarterback in 30 years. Wisconsin ran only 30 times.

Afterward, you could almost hear the disappointment in the voices of Gordon and White about the team’s lack of ability to pass well enough to keep Penn State’s defense honest against the run.

“The defense, they’re putting a lot of guys in the box and having safeties down in the box,” White said. “So, it’s difficult to run the ball when there are safeties down there. So we have to be able to throw the ball and capitalize on the opportunities we get to throw it down the field.”

Added Gordon: “I thought James and I ran the ball well. We ran hard, physical. I played with a lot of emotion today. Just more plays went their way when it came to throwing it in the air.”

Passing defense: F

This is the first time I’ve ever handed out a failing grade in any category while writing these report cards for Wisconsin’s football team. And this isn’t being done for shock value. Simply put, the Badgers’ typically stellar pass defense was terrible.

It began on the first series from scrimmage, when safety Nate Hammon missed a tackle that allowed Penn State tight end Adam Breneman to run untouched the rest of the way for a 68-yard touchdown less than two minutes into the game. Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg destroyed the Badgers’ defense, completing 21 of 30 passes for 339 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Keep in mind Wisconsin began the day ranked sixth in total defense (278.5 yards per game) and 10th in passing defense (179.4 yards). Hackenberg had 159 yards in the first quarter alone.

But Hackenberg wasn’t finished. He fired a 59-yard touchdown strike to Eugene Lewis over two Wisconsin defenders and threw a 52-yard pass to Allen Robinson on a screen to the left flat. The three passing plays of 52, 59 and 68 were the three longest pass plays against Wisconsin all season.

“It was very obvious that they were pretty well schooled up on how to attack us and some things that we seem to be a little less successful for us the last few weeks,” Andersen said. “Got us on our toes a couple times on defense and we did not react well to that. The key to that whole situation is it starts with the coaches. And didn’t handle it good enough. That wasn’t acceptable.”

What made the performance even more embarrassing was Wisconsin’s complete inability to substitute properly during the first drive of the third quarter. The Badgers inexplicably ran plays with only nine and 10 men on the field. They also had 12 men on the field during another play on the drive and were flagged for an illegal substitution penalty. Penn State would capitalize with a 7-yard touchdown to go ahead 21-14.

Andersen said Penn State changed its tempo on the drive, which completely threw Wisconsin’s defense out of sync. Still, he did not offer an excuse and said the coaches need to do a better job of communicating the right personnel packages to the players.

If all these mistakes weren’t enough, there was also the mishap in which Eugene Lewis was totally uncovered on a second-and-goal from the Badgers’ 3-yard line. Andersen tried to run down and call timeout, but referees didn’t see him in time. Hackenberg threw the easiest touchdown pass you’ll ever see to Lewis, which tied the game at 14-14. Andersen tossed his headset down in protest, but it was to no avail. And it was an all-around frustrating performance to watch.

Rushing defense: B

Wisconsin’s run defense was actually pretty good. That is, up until the Badgers surrendered a 61-yard run up the middle on a third-and-nine draw play to Nittany Lions tailback Zach Zwinak in the final minutes.

Wisconsin was preparing for Hackenberg to pass, and the plan was to blitz off the edges. That left Tyler Dippel as the only Badgers lineman in the middle of the field, and Zwinak scooted all the way to Wisconsin’s 21-yard line. Penn State missed the field goal on that possession, but Wisconsin was left with only 31 seconds remaining to drive 80 yard for the game-tying touchdown.

If the Badgers had stopped Zwinak, they could have gotten the ball back with a couple minutes left and a more realistic opportunity to tie the game.

“It was just a good check,” Dippel said. “They checked to the draw. We had a blitz coming off the edges and it just kind of opened up wide open for them. I think we were more expecting a pass, for them to try and get a first down and run the clock out, kneel the ball and end the game.”

For the game, Penn State carried 28 times for 126 yards and no touchdowns. Take away the Zwinak run, and it was 27 runs for 65 yards.

Special teams: B-plus

There weren’t any big returns from Wisconsin’s Jared Abbrederis that changed the game — he mostly handled punt returns with the intention of fair catching. Meanwhile, Kyle Zulegar and Kenzel Doe did not have a kick return of more than 19 yards.

Still, there were some encouraging signs to be found, particularly out of sophomore kicker Jack Russell. Russell drilled the longest and most important field goal of his career, connecting from 48 yards out to bring Wisconsin within 31-24 with 4:13 left in the game. Russell is now 8 for 11 this season after missing his first two kicks of the year.

“I was pretty excited knowing that I gave the team an opportunity to come back and help win this thing,” Russell said. “Just knowing that I could help the seniors as best as I could. I knew it came off well. I got a little bit under it, but I knew I hit it well enough and that it was straight.”

Punter Drew Meyer also played well. He punted five times for an average of 47.8 yards. Three of his five kicks pinned Penn State inside its own 20-yard line.

Also, let’s not forget that Beau Allen blocked a field goal and Leo Musso blocked a punt to keep Wisconsin in the game even longer.

Overall: C

Wisconsin’s inability to execute in crucial moments with Joel Stave and the passing game coupled with the Badgers’ stunning collapse defensively drops the team’s final grade here. This certainly was not the way most people anticipated Saturday’s game going. After all, Vegas oddsmakers listed Wisconsin as 24-point favorites for most of the week.

Now, Wisconsin must regroup in time for a bowl game. But the challenge should be even more difficult because the Badgers won’t be facing a slightly above-average Penn State team. They’ll be playing against a top team from the SEC. And although the opponent remains unknown with the SEC championship game yet to be played, you can bet it will be one of the top five or 10 teams in the nation.

In other words, Wisconsin had better correct its mistakes or prepare to be exposed and embarrassed on national television.

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