Following the humbling loss to Oregon State last weekend, senior tight end Jacob Pedersen stood in front of the offense at a meeting Sunday with a simple message: Believe.
Clearly shaken by the upset at Reser Stadium, the Badgers sit at a pivotal point in the season, with more than a single victory on the line under the lights at Camp Randall Saturday. It’s a chance to not only regain a sense of confidence, but to keep the hopes of a BCS bowl game within sight.
It’s an unfamiliar position for a program that has finished with at least 10 wins each of the past three seasons.
“(The urgency) wasn’t there before because I guess all of us players now, we’re used to being on top,” senior running back Montee Ball said. “We’re not really used to building a program. We came in when this program was great, so right now we’re all learning.”
That sense of urgency – the apparent word of the week for the Badgers – is precisely what Wisconsin will need to right the ship against an Aggies squad fresh off an adrenaline-pumping victory over in-state rival Utah, breaking a streak of 12-straight losses to the Utes. Across the line of scrimmage from Ball and an offensive line that has severely underperformed through the first two games is a 3-4 defense that has surrendered an average of only 76 yards per game on the ground this season.
In its second year using three defensive linemen and four linebackers – a scheme primarily used in the NFL – Utah State’s defense will rely on confusion and creativity to keep an already-reeling Wisconsin team off-balance.
“We have got to stay humble and hungry,” Utah State senior linebacker Bojay Filimoeatu said in a Monday press conference. “With our defense playing how it is in the past two games, I think we can do anything right now.”
But UW quarterback Danny O’Brien, who threw for 172 yards and a costly interception against Oregon State, may be in an even tougher spot this weekend.
Nevin Lawson, a speedy junior cornerback with NFL potential, serves as the centerpiece of a shifty secondary that can both blitz and drop into pass coverage and surrendered 229 passing yards to Utah.
“They got a great (defensive back) corps, probably one of the better that we’ll see all season long,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “(Lawson) is a heck of a player; he’s as good of a corner as I think there is in the country.”
When Ball is not on the field attempting to finally break out and make up for his lack of Heisman-worthy numbers, the UW defense will have its hands full against dangerous dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton. A sophomore who completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns and gained another 86 with his own legs in the upset of Utah, Keeton creates serious matchup issues for the Badgers.
Though the defense did an admirable job keeping the Beavers from running away with a win in Corvallis, Ore., the team will count on linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor to wrap up Keeton when he escapes the pocket. When Keeton does drop back to throw, he is sure to test Michael Trotter – who is filling in for senior captain Shelton Johnson, sidelined with a broken arm – early and often.
“They’re absolutely a very good team, especially their offense,” Borland said. “As far as stopping the quarterback, … there’s things we can do schematically but it comes down to tackling, comes down to guys playing sound within their own game.”
If the Badgers are to avoid starting the season 1-2 – a tough concept for Wisconsin fans to swallow given preseason expectations – its offense must reunite behind an embattled offensive line. After failing to direct a scoring drive until the fourth quarter last weekend, O’Brien and his group of unproven receivers must find a way to move the ball down the field more efficiently.
After suffering a chest injury against Oregon State, true freshman wide receiver Reggie Love may have to step in for No. 1 target Jared Abbrederis (Bielema said Abbrederis is probable after practice Thursday). Converting only two of its 14 third downs in the shocking loss, the Wisconsin offense can’t afford to wait until the final 10 minutes to challenge a blitz-hungry Aggies defense.
“You’re not going to win a game when you go two for 14, no matter what,” Pedersen said. “That starts out with us obviously getting in shorter third downs – we can’t be at 3rd-and-10s, 3rd-and-15s.
“When we get those 3rd-and-1s, we got to pat the big guys up front on the back and say, ‘Hey, we need to get this.’”
While Ball and others admitted anger consumed the locker room after the Badgers dropped their second game of the year, players said practices gained new intensity as they prepared for Week 3. The mention of “urgency” omnipresent among coaches and players, Borland noted players dashed to the film room on Sunday and Monday.
A new offensive line coach pacing the sidelines and a humbling loss still fresh in their memories, the Badgers understand what’s on the line this weekend. Bielema and company can only hope they took Pedersen’s message to heart.
“We were all angry, we were all upset, disappointed, all kinds of negative emotions that I believe opened our eyes,” Ball said. “Which is why I believe we had a great practice today [that will] really send us forward back onto the track.”