On, Wisconsin? Is this the 12th best college football team in the country?
We interrupt the last holiday weekend of the summer to bring you this bulletin from Madison, Wisconsin: The state's Big Ten football representative came dangerously close to blowing its season opener Saturday.
Did you carve out a few hours of your Labor Day weekend to watch Wisconsin against presumed cream puff Northern Iowa? Did you skip it, figuring Bucky would be up 42-0 at the half before cruising to a lop-sided win over an under-whelming foe?
Or, did you watch, as I did, as the Badgers held on for a hard-fought 26-21 win over an opponent that was a blown 4th down conversion away from pulling off a major upset?
I doubt there was anyone at Camp Randall, the surrounding bars, or the rest of the state who thought that, if Northern Iowa DID convert that the Wisconsin D had the ability to keep the Panthers out of the end zone. The re-tooled Badgers defense needs to be sent back to the shop, in this fan's modest opinion, to learn some fundamentals when it comes to things like tackling and taking smart routes to ball carriers. And, it's obvious the coaches have yet to un-do what was the defense's major undoing in 2011--giving up big plays. The embarrassments continued Saturday, and they'll only get worse as the quality of the opposition grows when Big Ten play begins.
The Danny O'Brien era at QB eventually started--Bret Bielema's offense resorted to the pass only when necessary in the early going--and he did nothing to expose himself as a liability. It was fun--and rewarding--when Bielema finally allowed his new quarterback to unlimber his arm, throw over the middle and eventually go deep.
The thinking among some fans was that by unleashing a steady stream of Montee Ball on Northern Iowa early on would eventually wear the defense down so that Ball and the rest of Wisconsin's capable runners would be able to cut wide swaths through their worn-out foes.
Ball ended up with a pedestrian (for him) 120 yards. Big runs were far and few between, certainly not of the kind we in the seats have grown to expect. The offense fizzled twice in the red zone, having to settle for field goals. The Wisconsin linemen admitted afterward that they were having a hard time opening holes and, in some cases, even staying out of each other's way. Ball, for his part, still has rust to knock off. He hasn't been hit at all in practice this summer and that may be why he didn't quite seem to be his usual, game busting self Saturday.
Wisconsin entered the season ranked 12th, which to this fan seemed a little high considering the talent lost since January. There are holes to fill--big ones on defense, the o-line and at quarterback. New coordinators are imposing their systems on returning players and teaching them to the kids trying to replace veteran talent. New receivers have to emerge. The folks who cover such things on a regular basis apparently think Bielema has enough talent on his roster to do all that, and more.
If they do, those people need to step up in the coming weeks and prove it, because it wasn't made obvious in the their inaugural game Saturday. Bielema insists it was a good, productive win, a victory his team will learn more from than if they'd walked away lopsided victors. That's true only if they'd looked better at fundamentals and hadn't coughed up those dreaded big plays. Too many things looked too iffy--or sadly familiar--to think this is the 12th best football team in the country we were watching Saturday.
Now, back to your Labor Day weekend, already in progress.