The Wisconsin Badgers have yet to prove that they are worthy of being considered one of the 11 best teams in all of college football.
With everyone expecting at least one dominant performance out of Wisconsin’s somewhat weak non-conference schedule, it looks as though Badger fans will have to wait one more week as Wisconsin was anything but consistent Saturday afternoon in a 20-19 win at home over Arizona State.
Jay Valai, a hard-hitting fifth-year senior safety, blocked what would have been a game-tying extra point attempt in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter in front of a crowd of more than 81,000. If not for the blocked PAT by Valai, it definitely could have been one of the worst games turned in by the Badgers’ special teams unit in quite some time.
Wisconsin fans had to hold their breath during each kickoff, as the Sun Devils dominated the kick return game. They took one kick return in for a touchdown and another was just inches away from six more points.
The glaring problem in the first two games of the season was turnovers, but the Badgers obviously improved on that aspect, as they did not turn the ball over once. However, Wisconsin still exposed several weaknesses in the near upset.
Wisconsin running back John Clay, who got off to somewhat of a slow start, rebounded and finished with 123 rushing yards, including the 19-yard go-ahead touchdown with 2:48 left in the third quarter. Wisconsin’s other standout performance on offense came from fifth-year senior tight end Lance Kendricks, who hooked up with Scott Tolzien seven times and finished with 131 receiving yards and a touchdown.
The Badgers, who were two-touchdown favorites heading into the game, are without a doubt going to take some heat from the media again this week. Experts picked Wisconsin to fly right through its non-conference schedule, but they have done anything but that so far. Here’s further analysis of what the Badgers did and did not do well against Arizona State Saturday.
Chemistry between Kendricks and Tolzien: The talented Kendricks, who looks more like a wide receiver than a tight end, is obviously on the same page with his fifth-year senior quarterback. This was especially important Saturday, as wide receivers David Gilreath and Nick Toon were both sidelined with injuries. The two have hooked up 11 times for 196 yards and two touchdowns in three games this season. Sure, Kendricks’ numbers may decline slightly when Wisconsin gets its receivers back in action, but he has proven to be an invaluable asset to the passing game thus far.
Rushing game: John Clay did what he does best, which is wear down the opposing defense over the course of the game. Clay got stronger as the game went on, and he eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the ninth straight game, the longest active streak in the nation. True freshman James White kept the Sun Devils out of sync with a running style almost the opposite of Clay’s. The speedster racked up 40 yards on just six carries and allowed Clay to get some much-needed breaks.
Ball protection: Wisconsin really hurt itself in the first two games by turning the ball over at the worst times. This prevented the Badgers from running up the score on the two non-conference opponents they started the year off against.
Special teams defense: Except the two game-changing plays that occurred at the end of each half, the special teams unit performed quite poorly. Sophomore defensive back Shelton Johnson somehow managed to drag down Arizona State kick returner Kyle Middlebrooks less than a yard from the goal line as time expired in the first half, helping to preserve a three-point halftime lead. A missed field goal and a kickoff return for a touchdown were other mistakes of the Wisconsin special teams defense.
Defense: The Badgers’ defense did not perform as poorly as some might think. After all, Arizona State only managed 12 offensive points, but the duo of quarterback Steven Threet and running back Deantre Lewis really kept the defense off balance. The Badgers are not all that used to seeing the spread offense, but they still cannot afford to give up that many easy yards come Big Ten season. Lewis carried the ball just nine times but still managed to pile up 122 yards on the ground and Threet threw for 211 yards in the near upset.
Wisconsin had the perfect opportunity to make a big statement by blowing out a Pac-10 team, but that obviously did not happen. The weaknesses exposed Saturday afternoon truly reflected why Wisconsin has not quite reached the “elite” status in college football. With FCS opponent Austin Peay coming to town this Saturday, the Badgers might have to wait until conference season rolls around two weeks from now to climb up to that “elite” level.