Wisconsin’s offense cannot seem to avoid drama from week to week.
With a new offensive line coach last week, this week a perceived quarterback competition obscured who would start under center Saturday against Texas at El Paso (1-2).
Last Saturday, as the Badgers (2-1) trailed Utah State 14-3 at halftime, head coach Bret Bielema made, in his own words, a “five-second” decision to pull starter Danny O’Brien in favor of an untested redshirt freshman — Joel Stave. On the depth chart released only a few days later, both Stave and O’Brien were listed as the starter.
Keeping the suspense all week, Bielema finally said Stave will be getting the nod Saturday morning.
“If you have any type of inkling of who we are and what we are, we’ll continue with Joel to start,” Bielema said. “… He didn’t show me any reason why not to stay with him. The thing I loved, at halftime [against Utah State], when I said that we were going to make a move, no one batted an eye.
“I make every move with the idea that it’s going to be long-term.”
In Stave’s second half outing against Utah State, he went 2-for-6 for 15 yards — and one of his two completions was for 14 yards.
While Stave has yet to actually prove himself in a game, the first step for the Badgers’ offense is establishing the run. Wisconsin has only managed 359 rushing yards through three games — an average of 119.7 per game, ranking 91st in the FBS.
But UTEP’s rush defense has been struggling. The Miners have allowed opponents a total of 649 rushing yards, or an average of 216.3 per game. For senior running back Montee Ball — who has 320 yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season — UTEP stands as the perfect measurement of where the run game stands.
“I take that mentality into every game,” Ball said. “From looking at the film and stuff I see a lot opportunity to make big plays. But it’s any given Saturday, so they’re going to make sure they come in ready. I’m just going to make sure I’m prepared for what they’re going to throw at me. But I feel like this is going to be a really good game for us.”
Aiding UW’s run game is a still-improving offensive line. With several mistakes last week, including five penalties, center Travis Frederick said their play and abilities are coming more naturally now as muscle memory has started taking over.
“A lot of the stuff that [offensive line coach Bart Miller] is teaching goes back to the things that we’ve done in the past and so it’s a matter of … really focusing on being physical, breeding confidence,” Frederick said.
With all the drama on offense, the defense feels it needs to continue to improve. As marked progress was made during the Utah State victory, the defense hopes to continue that trend through UTEP and into the conference season.
In order to accomplish such a task, the players just need to focus on themselves, according to junior linebacker Chris Borland.
“We really are focused in on what we have to do; we can’t afford to let our focus wander,” Borland said. “We have plenty on our plate every week just to do our job. That’s all we can do anyway.”
UTEP boasts a strong quarterback-wide receiver duo in senior quarterback Nick Lamaison and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Leslie.
Lamaison has thrown for 552 yards, going 48-for-88 with five touchdowns. Through the air Lamaison is helping the Miners average 184 passing yards per game. Leslie has had 14 catches for 223 of those yards and two touchdowns.
The Badgers’ secondary, despite making noticeable, impactful plays against Utah State (adding to its season total of 23 pass break-ups), has allowed an average of 240.7 passing yards per game.
“Their receivers are very good — they’re playmakers,” Borland said. “Their line plays hard; they’re well coached all-around. … I think their receivers are the No. 1 thing we have to take away and then stick to our fundamentals against their offensive line.”
UTEP offers the final chance for UW to prove itself before the conference season.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for us to take one more step forward,” Frederick said. “I think that a good team is able to get better throughout each game and I think that’s something that we’ve done, even though the steps have been a little bit smaller than we had hoped. I hope to take a much bigger step this time.”