After more than 10 minutes of seemingly exhausting questions about his team’s ability to respond from its last two crushing losses, Bret Bielema outwardly welcomed the first question regarding Wisconsin’s next opponent, Purdue.
“Fifteen minutes into this thing, and I don’t get to answer a Purdue question,” Bielema said in his weekly Monday press conference, somewhat playfully.
The Badgers haven’t received many welcoming questions over the last two weeks, between a last-second loss at Michigan State and a last-minute collapse at Ohio State in Wisconsin’s first two true road trips of the season.
Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, UW trailed by as many as 12 points with 4:39 remaining in the game before mounting a furious comeback that put the Badgers ahead 29-26 with 1:18 left. Yet, a weak kickoff and a 40-yard pass with 20 seconds on the clock from OSU quarterback Braxton Miller allowed Ohio State to pull out a stunning 33-29 victory.
Altogether, Wisconsin’s suffered an all-around inconsistent effort (UW had a blocked punt for the second consecutive week) that even its late comeback was unable to overcome.
“There was a number of good examples on film on Saturday of guys doing a lot of good things, at times; different units performing, very, very efficiently, at times,” Bielema said. “But just not enough of a complete game. So we took that and kind of dismissed that on Sunday night. We don’t practice on Monday, but from what I’ve seen from this group, I know that they’re going to respond very, very positively and come back with a good week of practice.”
Bielema also briefly touched on the peripheral issues facing this team, such as which of its top players will be tempted to leave early for the National Football League after this season. Though the question was referencing potential tiebreaker scenarios and Wisconsin’s bowl chances, Bielema specifically alluded to Ball and center Peter Konz.
“I’ve got a running back and a center that are probably two of the best players on the team,” Bielema said. “I’ve got to think long-term about what do I have to do to replace those guys, beyond on what’s in front of me. That’s my job as a head coach; I’m responsible for everything we do. For me not to have that in the back of my mind is wrong.”
Late-game defense struggling
Despite the very clear weaknesses the Badgers displayed over its past two games, the most distinct reason for the losses was an inability to prevent big plays from opposing offenses in the fourth quarter.
Two Saturdays ago, Wisconsin was stunned by a 44-yard Hail Mary from Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins to wide receiver Keith Nichol, who caught the football off a deflection and muscled it past the goal line. That play capped a nine-play, 78-yard drive that the Spartans developed in just 1:26.
Against Ohio State, Miller’s game-winning heave wasn’t necessarily a Hail Mary, as it came after the freshman quarterback took the snap out of the shotgun, rolled right and avoided two Badger defensive linemen before unfurling the high-arcing pass downfield to a wide-open Devin Harris. The cross-body, cross-field throw itself was surprising coming from Miller, a quarterback regarded more for his mobility than his throwing prowess. But Harris, a freshman wide receiver who had not caught a pass all game long, was wide open and able to settle comfortably under the football.
As the Badgers attempt to move forward and potentially salvage a BCS bowl berth, Bielema’s message to his team was simple.
“Big picture, [Sunday] night what I basically did is kind of went around and talked about taking things personally,” Bielema said. “As a man, a lot of times guys take things to heart, what they really believed to be a big part of who they are, what they are. I pointed out certain guys around the room and kind of stressed that for us to get to where we need to be — whether you’re playing good ball, whether you didn’t do well, whether you played 80 snaps well and five wrong — take personally what you did and try to carry that forward and help the team.”
Widely perceived as the strongest position group on the defense entering this season, Wisconsin’s linebackers have widely lived up to the weighty expectations placed on them this fall.
Mike Taylor recorded 22 tackles (2.5 for loss) against Ohio State, boosting his season total to 86, a rate of 10.8 per game that ranks second in the Big Ten. Chris Borland, who switched to middle linebacker from the outside at the beginning of the season, is right behind Taylor with 84 tackles and leads UW with 10.5 tackles for loss.
Bielema also took time Monday to highlight Kevin Claxton, who, despite breaking a bone in his hand on the opening kickoff of the season Sept. 1 against Nevada-Las Vegas, has played in seven games this season and is fourth in the team with 32 tackles.
“Clax is the guy that from game one to where we are now has really improved,” Bielema said. “He’s got a cast on his hand, he’s become an effective blitzer. [Borland] gets more and more comfortable with that middle linebacker spot. I think those three guys in particular have played well.”