Heading into Lincoln, most expected the Badgers to lose, but they didn’t go down without a fight as they built a 17-point lead before Nebraska scoring the game’s final 20 points to win 30-27 in front of its home crowd.
The fact that this was the team’s Big Ten opener made this loss particularly hard to stomach for the Badgers and drew comparisons to UW’s painful loss to Michigan State in 2011.
“[Michigan State in 2011] wasn’t a Big Ten opener, but it was our first Big Ten road game,” head coach Brett Bielema said at his press conference Monday. “I get those questions a lot not only obviously media-related, but sometimes my closest friends or my relatives … I would say that this team is its own set of characters.”
While many have noted Wisconsin — and the Big Ten as a whole — is experiencing a down year, only two teams remain unbeaten through five weeks as both Northwestern and Ohio State lead their respective divisions at 5-0 — Bielema said he expects the conference to make a recovery as the season moves forward.
“I’ve been in football long enough to know it’s not how you start the race, it’s how you end the race,” he said. “My guess is there will be quite a few teams up there knocking at the end of the year.”
One big question surrounding the team coming out of the 30-27 loss at Nebraska was the future role for redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, the co-offensive MVP for the game along with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Stave was hit hard after making a throw late in the fourth quarter, and former starting quarterback junior Danny O’Brien came back into the game to lead the potential game-winning drive, primarily because he looked better running the two-minute drill in practice, according to Bielema. The drive ended with a fumble between O’Brien and running back Montee Ball that ended any chance of a Badgers’ victory, but Bielema refused to second guess his decision to keep Stave on the sideline.
“Joel really got rocked on that play, on the completion to Kenzel (Doe),” Bielema said. “I didn’t see that … someone said look at Joel. I looked out there, and he’s slow getting up, kind of just a little bit off.”
Bielema did say he saw important signs of development in the redshirt freshman quarterback, who made just his second career start in front of a rocking crowd at Memorial Stadium.
“I think he plays better in games than he does in practice,” he said. “To me, that’s just something you’ve got to learn about your quarterback.”
The Wisconsin head coach attributed Stave’s swift development to watching star quarterback Russell Wilson play last year, where he witnessed the type of competitiveness the UW head coach says the new man under center displays.
Despite dominant play from the Wisconsin offensive line early, Ball struggled to find space and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry, finishing the game with 90 rushing yards and three touchdowns. As the marquee returning starter on offense for the Badgers, Bielema said he and running backs coach Thomas Hammock have talked to him about trying to single-handedly carry this offense.
“You could see early on where he was really trying to press and make some things happen, rather than just let them come to him. That’s what he’s done that in the past.”
Bielema also said every NFL scout who he has talked to said Ball is a better player than last year, even though his numbers are not nearly as impressive thus far.
With his team at 3-2 at the end of the September, Bielema said neither of the two offensive senior captains — Ricky Wagner and Ball — have been the vocal leaders for the team to rally around. Strong safety and senior captain Shelton Johnson has been injured, but could rejoin the team this week, Bielema said. But the void has allowed some juniors to step in.
“(Abbrederis) is a tremendous leader … Chris Borland on the other side of the ball,” Bielema said. “But it’s just sheer numbers that can kind of be overwhelming to have those younger guys take effect.”
Wisconsin faces Illinois Saturday, the first game against an opponent in its division, and Bielema spoke of the budding rivalry with Illinois now that the two schools will play each other every year.
The Fighting Illini have a new coach in Tim Beckman, and though the head coach pointed out they run a similar spread offense anchored by the same quarterback, junior Nathan Scheelhaase, he knows firsthand how coaching changes can shake up a team.
“Schemes are easy to identify. What happens in a coaching transition is all the little things that you don’t really know until critical moments,” he said. “Obviously, we didn’t have a head coaching change, but we had a lot of coaching transition, and some of those things pop up when there’s critical moments in a game.”