MADISON, Wis. Five months of hype built to a crescendo on Saturday when Danny O'Brien finally took the field for his first quarterback start at the University of Wisconsin. By then, he'd answered only some questions, inevitably outperforming three less experienced signal callers in fall camp to earn the Badgers' starting nod. Still, other questions persisted that wouldn't be known until O'Brien actually faced an opponent.1. How good was this guy in Wisconsin's pro-style offense? 2. How would he handle the immense spotlight of playing in front of nearly 80,000 fans at Camp Randall Stadium? 3. How would teammates respond to his demeanor at critical moments in a game?Here are your answers. 1. Incredibly efficient. 2. Cool as a cucumber. 3. Like they've been together for years.Put those together, and it created one heck of a debut for O'Brien, who transferred from Maryland in March for games just like Saturday. During Wisconsin's 26-21 victory against Northern Iowa, O'Brien completed 19 of 23 passes (82.6 percent) for 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His pass efficiency mark of 191.3 was the second-best by a UW quarterback making his first start, trailing only Russell Wilson's 292.46 mark set last season."He did a great job," Badgers running back Montee Ball said. "I really wasn't shocked at all because he showed that type of poise all throughout camp, and he made sure to show it in front of the entire nation."O'Brien was tabbed as the perfect candidate to replace Wilson because of his experience playing in Maryland's pro-style offense two seasons ago. That year, O'Brien earned Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the year honors, completing 57.0 percent of his passes for 2,438 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. After a falling out with a new coach and after graduating from Maryland in three years O'Brien was able to transfer to Wisconsin under the NCAA graduate-transfer exception rule, which allowed him to play immediately this season without sitting for a year. He brought with him 22 games played and 17 starts.That transfer rule will benefit Wisconsin just as much as it does O'Brien because the Badgers are once again considered contenders to win a third straight Big Ten championship. Although Wisconsin lost some love nationally for Saturday's close victory the Badgers dropped from No. 12 to No. 13 in the Associated Press and coaches polls O'Brien proved he was worth the hype."I just wanted to win the game," O'Brien said. "Obviously, I wanted to play consistent. Limit the mental errors at the quarterback position. No delay of games, no blunders in the huddle, calling things wrong. I think from that standpoint, we did well as a unit."O'Brien, of course, wasn't perfect. He said he needed to be more consistent after watching his first game tape. Specifically, he pointed to a third-and-three play from the UNI 15, when O'Brien threw a ball low in the middle of the field to tight end Brian Wozniak, who dropped the pass. Wisconsin was forced to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead.
For the most part, however, O'Brien was in command, demonstrating chemistry with his receivers. He connected with No. 1 wide receiver Jared Abbrederis six times for 84 yards and two touchdowns. He found Jordan Frederick twice for 39 yards and hit receiver Kenzel Doe in the slot three times for 21 yards."He impressed me a lot," Doe said. "I knew he had the experience because he came from Maryland. He was the starting quarterback. So I knew he really wasn't going to have too much jitters because he's already played. And he was throwing the ball exactly where we want it. "It's right there. All we've got to do is make the plays and make him look good. So that's what the receivers did and the tight ends and running backs, so I feel like he did a real good job."Offensive coordinator Matt Canada appeared to keep things relatively simple in the passing game early on, not cutting O'Brien loose for deep balls. The majority of passes came on dump offs in the middle of the field, and Ball indicated that plan came by design."I think coach Canada did a great job of that, settling Danny in for his first game," Ball said. "Let's not go deep and put him in the situation like that. Let's make him come out positive. That was the mentality, and he did a great job of that."When O'Brien had his opportunities to air it out, he took advantage, finding Abbrederis for a 53-yard touchdown strike on a play-action pass in the fourth quarter for a 26-7 lead. Earlier in the game, he hit tight end Jacob Pederson for a 22-yard gain on a third-and-22 from the Wisconsin 47. The play resulted in a first down and eventually the first of two touchdown passes to Abbrederis.When Northern Iowa made the game close in the fourth quarter, O'Brien made sure to demonstrate the same personality traits in the huddle that won him the starting job."He wasn't rattled," Ball said. "He was just telling us, 'Let's just keep doing what we're doing, keep the ball in our hands and keep attacking.'"Added O'Brien: "It's easy to tell when a guy changes all of a sudden in game situations. Be the same guy I've been all day in practice, but you also need to bring things to people's attention if you have to. And be the guy that a quarterback should be, which is assertive in the huddle, keeping everyone locked in. We have so many leaders in this huddle that it's not hard to do."O'Brien demonstrated in his debut that he is certainly one of those leaders for Wisconsin this season.
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