Wisconsin put together its best offensive performance of the season in a 37-26 victory against UTEP on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Although it didn't come against a BCS program, it should go a long way toward building confidence and instilling hope in a previously fearful fan base.
Certainly, Wisconsin will have to improve if it hopes to beat Nebraska next week. But for now, let's assess the Badgers' performance against the Miners one last time.
Handing out grades for Wisconsin's fourth game of the season:
Passing offense: B-minus
Just to reflect for a minute, we gave Wisconsin a D-plus in this category following last week's home game against Utah State, so this is considerable improvement.
Credit goes to redshirt freshman Joel Stave for blocking out the pressures of making his first career start and performing at a high level. Credit also should go to head coach Bret Bielema, who saw something in Stave that led him to make the change at quarterback.
In his first start, Stave completed 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and one interception. It certainly wasn't perfect -- Stave fumbled and nearly had a pass picked off on the same third-quarter drive -- but it was good enough.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada clearly felt more comfortable calling explosive plays that stretched the field. Last week, Stave threw just six passes in the second half against Utah State, and none were completed for more than 14 yards. But with Stave knowing he'd be the starter all week, the gameplan changed.
Stave connected with receiver Jared Abbrederis on passes of 60 yards and 47 yards. The 47-yarder went for a touchdown that gave Wisconsin a 23-6 lead in the second quarter.
A month ago, nobody would have questioned whether Danny O'Brien deserved to be Wisconsin's starter. Now, it's hard to see anyone other than Stave being the Badgers' signal caller in the near future.
Rushing offense: B-plus
Not many programs could lose a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back and see no drop-off in the run game. But Wisconsin is special in that area.
Montee Ball, a Heisman finalist from a year ago, left Saturday's game early in the second quarter after sustaining a head injury and did not return. He finished the game with nine carries for 40 yards and a touchdown.
In his absence, James White and Melvin Gordon picked up the slack.
White rushed 15 times for 65 yards and two touchdowns, but it was Gordon who stole the show. The redshirt freshman made his first extended appearance in a Wisconsin uniform and rushed eight times for 112 yards and a touchdown. That's an average of 14.0 yards per carry. Before Saturday, Gordon had carried just twice for 18 yards this season.
Gordon is a guy who folks in Wisconsin have been drooling about for quite some time. He excelled during the team's spring game in April when Ball and White sat out. But he needed an opportunity to showcase his skills, and Ball's injury gave him that chance.
The question now is: How does Canada split up the carries between Ball, White and Gordon? Clearly, Gordon is too good to keep off the field. It's not enough simply to have him return kickoffs.
Passing defense: B-minus
It wasn't the finest couple of hours for Wisconsin's secondary, although the Badgers' offense more than made up for any defensive shortcomings.
For starters, cornerback Devin Smith got beat on a 39-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. UTEP quarterback Nick Lamaison connected with Michael Edwards to give the Miners a surprising 6-0 lead.
Late in the game, with the outcome no longer in doubt, Lamaison found Edwards again, this time for a 62-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. Badgers safety Michael Trotter attempted to intercept the pass, but he just missed the ball. His gamble left nobody on the back end, and Edwards ran untouched for a touchdown.
Those types of miscues didn't hurt Wisconsin on Saturday. But you have to imagine they'll come back to haunt the Badgers in games against tougher Big Ten competition.
Right now, Wisconsin has just an average pass defense. The Badgers rank 83rd out of 120 FBS teams in that category, allowing 245.3 yards per game. Lamaison threw for 259 yards on Saturday.
Rushing defense: A-minus
This is an area in which Wisconsin's defense has excelled all season, and that didn't change against UTEP.
The Miners carried the ball 33 times for a net yardage of 77. That's an average of just 2.3 yards per attempt.
This season, Wisconsin ranks 13th in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 80.8 yards per game. That's second in the Big Ten behind only Michigan State's vaunted defense (69.3 rush yards per game).
The only negative on the day for Wisconsin was that it couldn't keep UTEP out of the end zone on the ground. Xay Williams scored on an 8-yard run in the third quarter that brought the Miners to within 23-16.
For the most part, however, Wisconsin continued its run defense dominance.
Special teams: C-plus
Special teams certainly were a mixed bag on Saturday, so let's start with the bad news first: Wisconsin still has some issues in the kicking game.
Kyle French lost his starting spot in the middle of Saturday's game as the team's place kicker and field goal kicker. He had a second kickoff dribble out of bounds for a penalty in as many games, and that was all Bielema needed to see to pull him.
Freshman Jack Russell took over kicking duties for French and performed well on kickoffs. His first field goal attempt, however, missed wide left from 33 yards.
Bielema said afterward that Russell had wrestled away the starting job from French for the time being. But the Badgers will need a reliable field goal kicker in the future.
In the punting game, Drew Meyer continued to excel. He punted four times for an average of 45.2 yards. His season punting average of 41.7 yards ranks tied for 55th in the country, but Meyer has been everything Wisconsin could have hoped for in replacing departed senior Brad Nortman.
Finally, Wisconsin gets a boost here because of a blocked extra point attempt that resulted in two points. Cornerback Devin Smith made up for giving up a touchdown when he picked up the ensuing blocked extra point and ran it in for a two-point score, which trimmed Wisconsin's early deficit to 6-2.
It was the first time UW returned a blocked extra point for a two-point conversion since the NCAA adopted the rule in 1988.
Plenty of encouraging story lines emerged on Saturday for Wisconsin, which produced the kind of result that builds confidence.
Stave proved himself to be a capable quarterback, Abbrederis is back in the fold at wide receiver and the running game remains strong. Defensively, Chris Borland was a menace at linebacker, and no opponent has demonstrated an ability to run the football on the Badgers.
Wisconsin finished the non-conference season 3-1. And given the way the Badgers played at times, fans should feel relieved. Now, it's on to the Big Ten season, where Wisconsin still has an opportunity to win its third straight conference title.
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