After losing multiple starters and coaches in the offseason, it was understandable to expect the Badgers to go through the typical bumps and bruises associated with breaking in a new team during the nonconference part of its schedule.
But after just two games, it’s fair to say nobody expected this.
Wisconsin has built an identity on offense in recent history — a heavy dose of the run, controlling the clock and lethal play-action passes. However, the team offense that played against Oregon State hardly resembled a Wisconsin team in recent memory. There was barely a push on the offensive line throughout the game with plenty of three-and-outs and enough missed opportunities to make even the most hardened Badger fan cringe.
To put it lightly, the offense looked dead Saturday. The unit failed to find its rhythm on the field until the waning minutes of the game, and the offensive line offered O’Brien less than adequate protection against a majority of the Beavers’ blitzes. Out of the Badgers’ 13 offensive drives, only two went for more than seven plays, with the longest drive lasting just three and a half minutes.
Even more startling was the complete lack of a dominant run game. For the second week in a row, Monteé Ball found nowhere to rush, as the run game yielded Ball just 61 yards on 15 carries and 35 total team rushing yards — an uncharacteristic group of numbers for a program that prides itself on dominance in the offensive trenches.
Going into this season, there were question marks on the offensive line. Although they had depth, the Badgers still had to replace three starters, two of which started in multiple Rose Bowls. However, the overall performance of the group in this young season is far from acceptable.
After these lackluster offensive numbers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema decides to shake things up even further after the departure of former offensive line coach Mike Markuson and start some new faces next to Ricky Wagner and Travis Frederick. In a long season of physical football, the Badgers will only go as far as their rushing game and the play of their offensive front, something that must improve rapidly over the next two games before the start of the conference season.
The play-calling itself has also been less than stellar in the first two games. It almost seems as if Wisconsin isn’t running a pro-style offense anymore (out of the Badgers 61 total plays Saturday, 38 were passes), and short, one-to-three yard pass plays have dominated the Badgers’ aerial attack. In the past two games, you could count on just one hand how many times the Badgers tried to throw the ball even moderately deep. Besides the deep bomb to Jared Abbrederis against Northern Iowa, the Badgers and Canada have yet to test O’Brien’s arm.
One thing Canada should begin to consider is the use of a screen game. With the way Oregon State was able to reach O’Brien, a basic dump-down screen to Ball would be a perfect neutralizer for an overeager blitzing defense. And it’s also a good way to get O’Brien into a comfort zone. While Wisconsin passed more times than it ran the ball Saturday, it was sadly a necessary evil. Additionally, the Badgers may need to consider passing on first and second down more than half the time, as the running game has not been able to yield those first downs of which the Badgers have been in such dire need.
And don’t give up on O’Brien just yet.
Besides an ill-advised throw off his back foot that led to an interception and a costly fumble, the Badgers’ junior quarterback had to respond to constant pressure and a collapsing pocket for most of Saturday’s game. Given adequate time, O’Brien has shown the ability to make timely throws, and his efficiency will increase as his offensive line improves.
Also keep in mind that the Badgers have yet to prepare for an opponent with film from this current year. With Northern Iowa being the season-opener and Oregon State’s first game of the year coming against Wisconsin, it will be interesting to see how much of a difference up-to-date film study will make in game-planning and preparation.
Looking to the immediate future, a very formidable Utah State team coming off its first win over Utah in 15 years will pose another challenge to the Badgers this weekend. If the Badgers hope to turn this season around, there will be some considerable soul-searching to perform in practice this week. In just a few short weeks, the Badgers will have to mosey on to Lincoln, Neb., to face the Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium against a Nebraska team hungry to avenge its humiliating 48-17 rout last year in Camp Randall.
While there are plenty of other less-than-desirable aspects to the Badgers’ performances as of late — mainly the absence of an adequate pass rush on defense — much has changed after the loss. This team can no longer finish undefeated or compete for the national championship game. That’s it.
The Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl still remain realistic goals, even though the road to get there remains much more treacherous than before.
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in history and English. Love/hate the column? Email him at [email protected] or tweet at him @nickkorger and let him know what you think of the Badgers’ struggles so far.