It was an all too familiar sight for Badgers fans as Northern Iowa threaded the ball down the field, completing pass after pass and scoring in bunches.
Panthers quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw for two touchdowns and 173 yards in the final 15 minutes, evoking painful memories of the aerial beatdowns of 2011 in a 26-21 Wisconsin win.
A secondary loaded with experience started three seniors and a junior Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall, but the top 10 FCS team had no trouble dismantling the defensive backfield in the fourth quarter.
“I think this game was a little bit of an eye-opener for us,” defensive tackle Ethan Hemer, who started all 14 games last season, said. “We wanted to put something on film this week to show what kind of defense we can be, and we fell short of what we wanted. I think the scoreboard showed that.”
Through the first three quarters, the passing defense looked sharp, like it had finally matured and wouldn’t break down. At that point, Wisconsin had allowed only 92 yards through the air and had given up only a single touchdown after a lengthy drive in the final minute of the third quarter.
But cornerback Marcus Cromartie, along with safeties Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward, agreed that the few but costly coverage slip-ups nearly allowed Northern Iowa to crush the hopes of another BCS Bowl season.
According to Southward, the defense played well on 90 to 95 percent of the plays, supported by the 47 total yards of offense the Panthers managed in the first half. But once Northern Iowa found it’s perfect play – a wheel route to running back David Johnson out of the backfield – it put up 14 points on the board in less than five minutes.
The Badgers’ defense, including the linebackers responsible for covering the running backs who bolted downfield, looked lost as Kollmorgen, a redshirt freshman, fed the ball to his redshirt sophomore tailback for completions of 55 and 31 yards. And with that, what for most of the game appeared a painless nonconference win quickly turned into an unexpected flirtation with a loss in the home opener.
Suddenly, Wisconsin’s clock-consuming offensive drives were no more effective than a few explosive, game-changing plays from Northern Iowa.
All because of a few critical mistakes.
“It’s just a great lesson for our defense that every play matters,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “You take away … these five plays and we played a great game.”
“We can’t [give those up]. That doesn’t happen in college football. So we’ll take the positives and move forward.”
But these late mental errors are nothing new for this Badgers team. As Cromartie pointed out, the late-game mistakes that led to nail-biting losses was one of the team’s major weaknesses last year. The oft-criticized secondary faded late, something it will have to improve on if it hopes fulfill the dreams of a third-straight Big Ten title.
On the schedule it may be marked down as a victory, but the mood among players after the game was one of disappointment, a game where a lot went right but just enough went wrong.
“We won, but that’s not good enough for us,” Southward, a redshirt junior, said. “We want more, and in order to keep going to the next level and being a great team, we can’t be complacent and we can’t accept anything less.”
While the defensive line looked much improved from last season, surrendering only 41 yards on the ground, its lack of pressure on Northern Iowa’s young quarterback likely magnified the secondary’s missteps.
Sacking Kollmorgen just once, the time he had to sit back and find the open receiver made each mistake that much more damaging. Southward said it’s easy to place the blame on the cornerbacks and safeties largely responsible for preventing the long downfield passes. But ultimately it’s a problem for which the entire defense is responsible, not just one subset.
As Bielema said postgame, this could be a crucial learning experience for the defense that the only way to ensure a victory is through 60 minutes of strong play. Johnson, a senior captain, and his teammates proved in the first half they can defend the pass and save the team from waiting for a tipped pass on fourth-and-one to ensure their first victory of the 2012 season.
“We’re a lot better than we played today, and we’re going to be a lot better next week,” Johnson said. “It shouldn’t have really been that close, but it was. Thankfully it wasn’t a loss, we didn’t have to learn from a loss today.”
Not a loss, but they certainly came close.