For nearly three quarters Saturday night, Badger fans were eerily quiet. With the Wisconsin offense stagnant and the team down 14-3, Kenzel Doe took it upon himself to change that.
The sophomore returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown, electrifying the crowd as Wisconsin (2-1) scored 13 of its 16 points in the third quarter to outlast Utah State (2-1) 16-14 under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium.
Receiving the punt with just over seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, Doe’s second career punt return was a big one. The shifty wide receiver bolted to the left sideline, where a series of jukes and a burst of speed across the middle of the field gave the Badgers a boost of momentum they were desperately in need of.
“We knew that was going to be a huge, huge part in the game,” junior left guard Ryan Groy said. “That was an unbelievable effort by him, that was an unbelievable play. We were all jacked up and the fans were going crazy. It was something that we knew we could get rolling after that, we knew we had the fans behind us, and it was time to roll.”
Leading the Aggies was sophomore quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who displayed his dual-threat talents by leading Utah State in both passing and rushing yards, completing 18 of his 34 passing attempts for 181 yards and two scores while rushing 15 times for 79 yards. Pacing Wisconsin throughout the night was star tailback Mont?e Ball, who rushed for 144 yards and a score on 37 carries, shouldering the load against a physical Aggies’ front seven.
“I thought the defense played well tonight on a tremendous running back,” Utah State head coach Gary Andersen said. “They gave [Ball] the ball a lot, and they should give him the ball a lot, and I’m sure they will continue to give him the ball a lot … we were physical with him at the point of attack for the most part, and I think we were able to control the offensive line.”
The Aggies jumped out to an early 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Keeton found Kerwynn Williams open on a wheel route behind Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor, as the running back scampered 39 yards to the end zone in an almost identical play to what Northern Iowa ran twice against Wisconsin two weeks ago.
After a late touchdown pass from Keeton to wide receiver Matt Austin in the second quarter extended Utah State’s lead to 14-3 entering halftime, the Badgers exited their home stadium to a loud round of boos.
“I heard it at halftime when I took the headset off,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. “They love to win games too. I heard them cheering at the end, which is all good.”
In a surprise move, Bielema elected to play sophomore quarterback Joel Stave under center in the second half over starter Danny O’Brien. Stave only went 2-for-6 through the air for 15 yards, but Bielema made it clear he was not happy with O’Brien’s performance in the first half – one which included an interception negated by a roughing the passer call and a lost fumble.
But momentum swung the Badgers’ way in the third quarter, as Doe’s punt return injected life into the team and brought the score to 14-10. After the defense forced a three-and-out on Utah State’s next possession, Wisconsin responded in turn with six straight runs to Ball, who busted off a 17-yard run on the final play of the drive – his longest of the night – for a touchdown. However, the Aggies blocked Kyle French’s low extra point attempt, making the score 16-14.
In a similar fashion to the previous two games, the Badgers’ fate was not decided until the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Utah State’s Keeton completed a long pass to wide receiver Cameron Webb for 36 yards on 3rd and 10, as the Aggies’ drove the ball to the 15. After a key offensive pass interference penalty backed up the Aggies, kicker Josh Thompson took the field with 11 seconds remaining to try for a 37-yard field goal.
Facing the crazed Wisconsin student section, Thompson missed the field goal wide right, as Badger players and fans alike broke out in celebration.
“I honestly thought it was going in,” Ball said. “From my angle I thought it was going in, so I put my head down until I heard people screaming and shouting it was wide right.”
The win marked the end of a testing week for the Wisconsin football program, as the firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson and a humiliating 10-7 loss to Oregon State last week largely hung above the team. While the Badgers’ offense still struggled for the third week in a row – the team gained just 234 total yards and converted three of its 15 third down tries – the team still found a way to survive Saturday night.
“Obviously we went through some growing pains,” Bielema said. “But made [the] transition in the offensive line … I was excited about the progress we made during the week. Hopefully with another week to work [on the offense], we’ll be positive.”
-Of Note: Wisconsin’s win Saturday night over Utah State was its 18th in a row at Camp Randall (currently the second-longest active streak in the nation) and its 25th straight win over a nonconference opponent at home. The victory also marked the fifth-consecutive night game the Badgers have won. Kenzel Doe’s punt return touchdown was the longest in Wisconsin history since Josh Hunt’s 89-yard return against Western Michigan in 2000. Montee Ball’s touchdown Saturday night was the 57th in his career, moving him into third place all-time in Big Ten history.