Badgers outperform expectations despite loss

Wisconsin built a 17-point third-quarter lead against Nebraska, only to see it evaporate in a 30-27 loss in Lincoln on Saturday. Perhaps the offensive start was too good to be true. As good as the Badgers were in the first half, that’s how poorly they performed in the second half.

Wisconsin’s five-game conference winning streak had been the longest in the nation among BCS conference teams. Now, the Badgers will have to start all over again.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s fifth game of the season.

Rushing offense: C-plus

This grade may seem harsh considering Montee Ball scored three touchdowns. But a closer look at the statistics reveals this was Wisconsin’s worst rushing performance of the season.

Wisconsin carried the ball 41 times for a net gain of 56 yards. Granted, that includes quarterback Joel Stave’s numbers. He was sacked three times and lost 33 yards. Still, the overall effort isn’t good enough from a team that was supposed to dominate on the ground.

Ball finished the night with 32 carries for 90 yards and those three touchdowns. His average yards-per-carry was just 2.8 yards, which represented his lowest average output in five games this year. Last season, when he was a Heisman Trophy finalist, Ball averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

After Ball, there was no running game to speak of on Saturday. Backup James White rushed just once and lost five yards. Third-stringer Melvin Gordon, who gained 112 yards on eight carries against UTEP one week earlier, also didn’t produce much. He ran twice for five yards.

That kind of rushing performance is cause for concern as Wisconsin delves deeper into Big Ten play.

Passing offense: C-plus

Considering that redshirt freshman Joel Stave had never started on the road before, his statistics were decent against Nebraska. Stave completed 12 of 23 passes for 214 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

He showed he was capable of connecting on deep play-action passes, which is vital to Wisconsin’s success. Stave hit receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 47-yard gain and a 29-yard touchdown. But after halftime, Stave simply couldn’t find a rhythm. He completed 3 of 9 passes for 53 yards and no touchdowns.

The most puzzling aspect of the entire game was when coach Bret Bielema opted to bring in backup Danny O’Brien with 2:55 remaining in the game and Wisconsin trailing 30-27. Bielema has said for a couple of weeks that O’Brien is the best two-minute offense quarterback for Wisconsin. It just seems odd, however, to let one guy start the game and not let him finish it.

If you don’t have confidence in Stave at the end, why not just stick with O’Brien as the starter? Perhaps not surprisingly, the game ended on a miscue when O’Brien accidentally handed off to Ball on a fourth-and-one near midfield. O’Brien was supposed to keep the ball and run a naked bootleg, but he misinterpreted the call and thought he had the option of handing off to Ball. The Badgers fumbled and turned the ball over on downs.

The list of problems at quarterback probably makes every Wisconsin fan wish Russell Wilson had one more year of eligibility.

Passing defense: B

Wisconsin’s defense had struggled in the passing game during the early part of the season. For the most part, the Badgers performed well in this area on Saturday.

Wisconsin defensive end David Gilbert made it known earlier in the week that he didn’t think Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez could throw the ball well. Many times on Saturday, Martinez either short-armed throws or simply missed his target.

But Martinez had the last laugh. He completed 17 of 29 passes for 181 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Martinez threw touchdown passes of three and 10 yards, the last one bringing Nebraska to within 27-24 in the third quarter.

Wisconsin ranks 66th in passing defense, and the Badgers allowed a season low in passing yards to Martinez. But if you’re going to have a starting defensive lineman call out Martinez for his inability to throw, you’d better not let him throw for two touchdowns and leave the stadium a winner.

Rushing defense: C-minus

The Badgers entered the day ranked 13th in the country in rushing defense. By the end of the night, they had slipped to 31st in the nation.

Nebraska gashed Wisconsin in the run game all night behind the legs of Martinez, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah. The Cornhuskers carried 46 times for 259 yards and a touchdown — an average of 5.6 yards per carry.

Martinez in particular gave Wisconsin trouble. He gained 107 yards and rushed for an important 38-yard touchdown to help bring the Cornhuskers back in the third quarter. Given that Wisconsin knew about Martinez’s propensity for running the ball, allowing him to gain more than 100 yards is inexcusable.

Special teams: C

More kicking issues surfaced for Wisconsin, and the answers don’t appear to be coming anytime soon.

On Saturday, freshman Jack Russell got his first career start. He was benched by halftime after shanking an extra point and missing badly on a 41-yard field goal attempt.

His replacement, Kyle French, made his only extra point try and did not attempt a field goal. The good news is that French didn’t land a kickoff out of bounds. In the previous two games, French was penalized for kicking the ball out of bounds and subsequently lost his starting job.

Neither kicker has proven to be all that reliable, but at this point it’s probably best to stick with French. Russell possesses a better leg, but French has more game experience. Thus far, there has been an open competition for the starting spot every week in practice. That probably won’t change in the coming weeks.

At least punter Drew Meyer continues to do his job well. Meyer punted seven times and averaged 46.7 yards per punt. Three of his punts traveled at least 50 yards and were downed inside the 20.

Overall: C-plus

Hey, Wisconsin didn’t get slaughtered like some folks thought. The Badgers were a 13-point underdog, after all. Maybe Wisconsin is a little bit better than the first four games indicated, but the Badgers clearly are nowhere near the level they showed during last season’s march to the Rose Bowl.

Some positives emerged from Saturday. Wisconsin’s defense earned two takeaways that directly led to touchdowns. Stave displayed poise while playing in a hostile environment.

But the pieces just aren’t in the right place for the Badgers overall. The offensive line continues to struggle at the line of scrimmage, the running backs don’t have many holes to run through and the kicking game is a mess.

Things had better improve quickly. Otherwise, Wisconsin will blow its shot to win an incredibly weak Leaders Division.

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