After four games, it’s hard to find the words to describe how to feel after the first month of Badger football. Maybe it’s comparable to that relationship where things just seemingly don’t work right away, but optimism remains that it will come to fruition eventually. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of a nagging feeling of dread that comes with holding a secret you know will eventually be exposed.
Whatever the case, reviews have been mixed about Wisconsin so far this season. But one thing is for sure: early expectations for this team have not been met in the slightest.
At this point of the season, it used to be a mindset of “it’s about damn time” entering the opening of conference play, especially with UW’s history of steamrolling these early September games. But for the first time in recent memory, it doesn’t appear the Badgers are close to ready to compete with Big Ten foes. And with a trip to Lincoln, Neb., next Saturday to face off against the Cornhuskers, the Badgers have just six days to make the necessary strides to keep things competitive in a primetime night game at Memorial Stadium.
Granted, the Badgers did look noticeably better against the University of Texas at El Paso Miners. Even without Montee Ball in the lineup for a majority of the game, the star’s absence allowed Melvin Gordon to finally get his chance to shine. While James White looked solid with 15 rushes for 65 yards and two touchdowns, Gordon undoubtedly stole the show. Gaining 112 yards and scoring a touchdown on only eight carries, the redshirt freshman and No. 3 running back on the depth chart made a strong case for an increased role in future weeks.
And how about Joel Stave? Sure, the redshirt freshman – the first to start at quarterback for the Badgers since Jim Sorgi against Purdue on Oct. 21, 2000 – showed signs of youth and inexperience with an interception, a few telegraphed passes and a mishap on a handoff, but for the most part the young quarterback looked very impressive. Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, seemed to open the playbook for Stave, calling multiple play fakes and deep passes to test the new starter’s arm strength and accuracy. Stave responded in kind, connecting with Jared Abbrederis six times for 147 yards and a touchdown.
Yes, the game was against a weak UTEP squad, but at least the UW offense actually showed signs of measurable life for once this season. From a pessimistic point of view, the Badgers’ success came from the Miners’ absent knowledge of the potential of Stave in the passing game. With Canada showing conservative play-calling in the first three games, the team caught the Miners completely off-guard with multiple play-action and deep passes early in the game.
And yes, the offensive line is still not where it needs to be (three sacks allowed), but the group finally opened up some notable creases for the Wisconsin running backs throughout the game. The team gained 240 total yards on the ground, a mark closer to the total fans have become accustomed to from the rushing game, especially in the nonconference slate.
The offense has been slow out of the gate the entire season. It’s alarming that Wisconsin has only scored five points in the first quarter this season. Not an average of five points, but five points total through four games. And going on the road, an area of struggle for every Bret Bielema-coached team, against a potentially explosive offense in Nebraska, Canada needs to find a way to jumpstart the offense early and often. The team cannot afford to rely on its defense for a majority of the first half before finding its footing against superior opponents in the conference, especially against teams with dangerous offenses like that of Nebraska.
And although UW won 37-26 over UTEP behind 21 second quarter points, the performance was anything but convincing that this team is prepared for the road that leads ahead. However, this weekend seemed to show Wisconsin’s lone loss of the season at Oregon State was against a better opponent than previously thought. The Beavers went on the road and beat No. 19 UCLA, a team that beat Nebraska handily, and the Huskers are far and away the toughest test the Badgers have faced this season. A rowdy atmosphere of fans and players devoted to avenging last year’s humiliating 48-17 throttling at Camp Randall, Wisconsin will get all it can handle.
But can the adversity the Badgers have faced this season make the squad more dangerous than it would appear to this point? Keep in mind, every single game the Badgers have played this season has not been decided until the waning minutes or seconds. Could that experience of playing such tight games actually benefit the Badgers going into a hostile environment? Will the Badgers offense play another productive game like it did Saturday, or will it be the same unit that put up just seven points against Oregon State?
One truth still remains certain: the way Wisconsin plays against Nebraska Saturday night will serve as the best measure for what kind of team the Badgers will be in 2012.
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in English and history. Listen to him on 91.7 WSUM’s “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” on Sundays from 4-5 p.m. and “The Student Section” on Mondays at 4-6 p.m. Have any thoughts about the Badgers that he didn’t cover in his story? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or send him a tweet.