Oh, Bucky. I don’t know how you do it.
After Saturday’s offensive…explosion? Eruption? Smackdown? Beatdown? I left my thesaurus at home, so I’ll just get on by saying that after the Wisconsin Badgers scored a lot of points — 70, to be exact — against FCS squad Austin Peay, the 385 push-ups Madison’s favorite mascot powered through were a harbinger of good vibes as Big Ten play begins this weekend.
Forget that there likely isn’t enough ice in the city to make Bucky’s arms stop burning — here’s what Saturday meant. After three games of football that had most onlookers saying, “Eh ok, we’re going to have to play better come Big Ten season,” Wisconsin put on a performance that quelled most of those concerns regarding ball security, red zone security and special teams play…right? Sort of.
When so many of your 10 touchdowns on the day are basically untouched romps to the endzone, when you can outgain a team by almost 500 yards, it’s just so hard to take stock and develop an accurate assessment of your team. That said, the Badgers have played four games, not just one, and with the Spartans of Michigan State anxiously waiting to play host Saturday afternoon, here’s what we can take from the Austin Peay shellacking. Yes, I found my thesaurus.
Wisconsin can run the ball…with three different running backs
Spare me all the “the sky is still blue analogies.” Yes, I know Wisconsin’s always been a running powerhouse. But what you take from Saturday is that head coach Bret Bielema has faith in all three of his running backs — especially freshman James White, who scored four times — and will not hesitate to give them the ball at any appropriate time.
White, especially, has to be the biggest source of encouragement for the Badgers. Again, everyone knew the kid from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. was fast. But what we know now is that, as the No. 2 back on the depth chart, Bielema will continue giving the frosh the ball.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that White and Montee Ball, who White leapfrogged on the depth chart last week, both received 11 carries against Austin Peay. Bielema wasn’t about to promote the true freshman and let Ball become the second member of the Zach Brown Club (sorry, Zach). However, with those 11 carries, White averaged 13.2 yards per carry en route to 145 yards, while Ball averaged 5.8 for 65. Again, it was all against Austin Peay. But numbers are numbers, and with the speed White displayed on the way to posting better numbers, that even split with Ball won’t last too much longer.
Now, that’s not to say we’ve seen the last of Ball. The sophomore still possesses superior pass catching and blocking skills to White — Bielema said after the game Saturday that the Governors’ lone sack might have been due to a missed block by White. But with John Clay likely to get more carries in Big Ten play after being eased through the non-conference schedule, somebody’s carries have to diminish. Sorry, Montee.
Turnovers still need to be watched
Against the Governors, the Badgers didn’t turn the ball over. They also didn’t force any turnovers. For the season, Wisconsin has posted a -1 turnover margin. That’s tied for eighth in the Big Ten with Purdue. Consequently, Michigan State is third in the conference with a +5 margin.
Yes, two picks thrown by Scott Tolzien and two fumbles as a team in four games doesn’t exactly alarm you, especially when teams like Penn State (nine total turnovers) and Michigan State (six) have been even more careless with the ball.
What should, at least, open your eyes and is surely alarming Bielema and his staff this week is that the Badgers have only forced one fumble and two interceptions. Catch my drift?
Moving forward, Wisconsin needs to force more turnovers, plain and simple. Maybe the pass rush takes a hit with Chris Borland out for the year, but still. J.J. Watt and Louis Nzegwu have looked good thus far, and the number of blitz packages defensive Dave Doeren dials up could populate a phonebook.
Maybe the Badgers will pick it up this weekend. Safety Aaron Henry showed that he can lay the wood with his monster hit on APSU’s Ashlon Adams, and the Spartans haven’t looked like the most careful team. Aside from their six turnovers, MSU sits dead last in the Big Ten with an astonishing 37 penalties for 312 yards, an average of 78 per game.
Special teams must find consistency
To many casual fans, football consists of two phases: offense and defense. Special teams is the ugly duckling, the forgotten stepsister, whatever you want to call it. But anyone who saw Wisconsin nearly fall to Arizona State two weekends ago witnessed firsthand the significance of special teams.
The Badgers allowed one kick return for a touchdown, came within a yard of giving up another one, but also blocked a PAT to best the Sun Devils. Against Austin Peay, punter Brad Nortman unleashed a booming 76-yard punt that came to a stop at the one-yard line on the last play of the game. Kicker Phillip Welch is six for seven on field goal attempts, but his kickoffs have left something to be desired.
In short, Wisconsin’s special teams can be a formidable unit, but it can also be a sloppy one. If Big Ten title and Rose Bowl aspirations are to come to fruition, the former will have to manifest itself more frequently than the latter.
Mike is a junior majoring in journalism and communication arts. Where do you think the Badgers stand right now? Let him know at [email protected] and on Twitter @mikefiammetta