Change has become a common thread for the Wisconsin football team in 2012. But with the near endless change around the team through the first three weeks of the season, head coach Bret Bielema has tried to maintain a sense of stability around the program.
“It’s really just kind of staying true to who you are and what you are,” Bielema said at his weekly press conference Monday.
Through three games, the Badgers are still struggling to find consistency on the offensive end as Bielema and offensive coordinator Matt Canada continue to attempt to establish the running game. Complicating the struggles on the ground is a muddled situation at quarterback, as the head coach listed Danny O’Brien and Joel Stave as co-starters at quarterback on the depth chart this week.
“We’ll make that decision as the week goes along,” Bielema said. “[We] have a game plan in mind with the coaches.”
“The No. 1 reason [O'Brien] got the job to begin with was because of the way he took care of the football.”
The Badgers’ recipe for success over the past several seasons has been to run the ball and avoid turnovers and penalties. Therefore, after a difficult half from O’Brien that included a called-back interception and a lost fumble, Bielema was ready to make a transition at halftime.
“It’s a decision that was pretty clean,” Bielema said. “I think the decision to go with Joel (Stave) in the second half took about five seconds. … We went with it and ran.”
UW’s head coach made it clear the Badgers have already laid out a plan at quarterback for Saturday, but he remained tight-lipped about the arrangement.
“It’s not really a competition,” Bielema said. “I think we’ll move forward as coaches; it isn’t a thing we’re sitting [on] and wasting time on.”
Stave’s skills were not fully put to the test Saturday as he only attempted six passes and completed just two of them. While not a transcendent performance, Stave maintained the huddle and stayed poised under pressure, and Bielema praised Stave as a smart player with a solid skill set.
“I would admit that Joel has the best arm out of all of them, strength-wise, ability to throw the football,” Bielema said. “He’s got great composure.”
Coupled with inconsistency at quarterback, the Badgers have struggled to move the ball on the ground as well. As a team, Wisconsin averaged 3.5 yards per carry against Utah State, and long, breakout runs have been scarce.
Wisconsin’s longest run of the season, a 20-yard dash by James White, came in the first game of the season against Northern Iowa. The offensive line has appeared to be the primary cause of this problem, and Bielema explained the o-line’s issues Saturday, which included four false starts and two holds.
“One time it was our left tackle for a critical touchdown play; one time it was our left guard on a flinch; one time it was our center on a holding call; one time it was our right guard losing a block across his face,” Bielema said. “At one time it was our right tackle unable to keep pad level, and at one point, it was our tight end with a holding call.”
In the last two games the Badgers have converted only 17 percent of their third downs, and standout running back Montee Ball is averaging 3.7 yards on third down. But Bielema noted “definite improvement” from his squad in its third game of the year.
It looked as if Jared Abbrederis would play after suiting up for warm-ups against Utah State, but the Badgers’ leading returning receiver did not play in the 16-14 win over the Aggies.
“When you’re dealing with a concussion, it’s a day-by-day thing,” Bielema said. “He has to pass his ImPACT (neurological test) and all the other things that the doctors look for.”
Stepping up in Abbrederis’s absence was Kenzel Doe, who returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown, and freshman wide receiver Reggie Love, who pulled in one ball for 19 yards.
“There were some positives, I thought Saturday,” Bielema said. “For Reggie Love to make that third down catch was huge, and for Kenzel [Doe] to make the play on the punt return.”
Like the coach himself, Bielema said preseason Heisman contender Montee Ball is staying positive and working to improve.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Montee Ball,” Bielema said. “For him to have two games the way he’s had to grind it out, with the number of plays he had, he was right on the verge of breaking it free. He’s been the trooper, he’s not had one negative comment.”
The Badgers’ improvements, however minor, ended in a victory, and Bielema stressed the importance of consistent play.
“Eleven guys on offense [have to] play well together, otherwise we’re not going to have success,” he said.