The Wisconsin Badgers knew the toughest part of their schedule would be consecutive road games against two of the most consistently dominant teams in the Big Ten, but they probably didn’t expect those two games to turn out the way they did. Now, after two late, soul-crushing losses, the Badgers are on the outside of the Big Ten title race, needing help from other teams to have a shot at a top-notch January bowl game.
So let’s take a look at what went wrong in those two games, and see what the Badgers need to fix if they are going to win their remaining games and have a chance to recapture a once-promising season. It’s difficult to do because they really weren’t bad in either game, and just let a few freak plays or bad mistakes get the best of them, but that’s the way football works sometimes and Wisconsin came out on the short-end this time around.
– Secondary issues are Primary: Perhaps the easiest sore spot to point to in the last two games is the secondary. It gave up 379 yards and four touchdowns, which isn’t terrible, but were a big letdown when it mattered most. The Michigan State ‘Hail Mary’ is excusable because it’s such a lucky play, but the secondary was scorched the whole game up to that point and consistently gave up big 3rd and 4th-down conversions. Against Ohio State, they allowed just 89 passing yards to freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, but had a huge communication mistake on the last drive and allowed a 40-yard touchdown to a wide open receiver. The defense as a whole was solid throughout most of both games, but it was the big plays that stood out the most and that hurt the most. They need to clear up the communication errors, improve the tackling (yes, they still haven’t fixed that), and continue to get pressure on the quarterback. One bright spot has been the quarterback pressure, as the Badgers have 21 sacks already after totaling just 23 all last season when they had one of the best lineman in the country in JJ Watt. They had seven sacks in the two losses, which still wasn’t enough apparently, but if the line can continue to get to the quarterback, the secondary wouldn’t be put in such tough spots, and maybe the big plays would go away.
No. 66 Peter Konz and the offensive line have carried the Badgers for years, and a commitment to the running game could help Wisconsin in close games.
– Ball needs the Ball: Though not apparent from his Twitter posts, Montee Ball needs to be fed. The 18 carries he got against MSU are a bit deceiving because he was out for almost the entire second quarter with a head injury, but he also only caught two passes in the game, this after they made an effort to involve him more in the passing game earlier in the season. Ball is an every down back who can do just about everything you could ask for out of a running back. He runs with power up the middle, he has speed to get around the edge, he picks up the pass rush (relatively) well, and he can catch the ball on short routes or deeper down the field. He only got 17 carries in the OSU game, and the Badgers only ran the ball 29 times as a team. They were forced to pass the ball in the second half because they were down by two scores, but an earlier commitment to the run could have kept them from being in that position at all. Russell Wilson is a great quarterback and he deserves to pass the ball, but the Badgers have gotten away from what they’ve always done, and maybe a bigger effort to run the ball and control the clock could make the offense more consistent and keep the defense off the field.
– The not-so-Special Teams: The secondary was bad at times, but the special teams really are a major reason the Badgers lost the two games. Two seemingly identical blocked punts led to scores for the other team and completely took swung the momentum in their favor. It’s hard to recover from defensive or special teams touchdowns, yet somehow the Badgers did each week behind the clutch play of Russell Wilson and the offense. Just imagine how the games would have gone if not for the blocked punts and a blocked field goal in the MSU game. It’s clear that something needs to change in their preparation or execution, and it’s a shame that a talented team like Wisconsin was held back by something that should be so routine.
The Badgers have a chance to get the season back on track this weekend when they return home to face Purdue (4-4, 2-2).