The Wisconsin Badgers entered play on Saturday at 2-0, largely untested, but showing some signs of weakness in their defense, and faced what many "experts" called a trap game against the young Arizona State team coming into town.
The Badgers knew what they were getting into, practicing the whole week before the game.
Steven Threet, a former Michigan Wolverine, led a comeback against Wisconsin the last time he faced the Badgers in Camp Randall stadium in Madison.
Would history repeat itself, and put the Badgers on upset alert this early in the season?
The Badgers, ranked No. 11 in the AP poll before the game, had a two spotty showings against their opponents this season, beating both, but in what were sloppy "what could have been" games.
In the game against UNLV, the Badgers' offense was sloppy, leaving drives which should have tendered some points, and they looked off key, aside from the lone bright spot in running back John Clay, who put up big numbers (17 carries, 123 yards, 2 touchdowns).
Offensive ineffectiveness shouldn't become a recurring theme, right?
So most Badgers fans, and analysts, thought.
Facing San Jose State, the Badgers looked to improve their game, taking lessons learned away from the Nevada heat.
Week 2, it was second verse, same as the first for Wisconsin.
Offensively, the team stalled on third downs (6-14) and put the team in too many binds against a weaker opponent like ASU. If the Badgers enter Kinnick and find themselves in 14 third downs, it'll be ugly.
Today, we learned three things:
1. The Badgers sleep on their OOC (out of conference) match ups. This can't continue, since they've borderlined on losing twice, and have not blown out the opponents they should be rolling over by 20-plus with their vaunted offensive line and running game.
2. Scott Tolzien is steadily improving game to game. He didn't make the mistakes he made the last few weeks, and really seems to be hitting it off with Lance Kendricks this season.
3. The special teams unit was anything but, Saturday. Aside from a touchdown saving tackle at the one yard line with :00 on the clock at the end of the first half, the Badgers' special teams looked slow, sloppy, and unresponsive.
For the team to continue any success later into the season, these three aspects need to improve, or in the case of Tolzien's continued growth, keep progressing.
The running game can improve, and the passing game can as well.
Still, the Badgers pulled out the victory when they needed to, with Tolzien hitting Kendricks in the endzone after a crucial pass interference flag moved the Badgers from 2nd and goal at the 20, to the 15. Tolzien hit Kendricks on what was an almost identical route, picking on the flagged defender again, this time for a score.
That was a huge boost for the Badgers, but they continued to let imperfection in the special teams department rear its ugly head. The very next play, the Sun Devils' Kyle Middlebrooks return the kick off all the way to the Badgers' one yard line, nearly a touchdown but he was tackled short, as a review would confirm.
In the second half, the offense was better, but the defense allowed the Sun Devils to continue to keep the game close.
Ironically, a great turnaround for the special teams play came in the third quarter, with the Badgers downing a punt on ASU's two-yard line.
The Sun Devils would later punt from their own 28, albeit a 60-yard punt, leaving the Badgers at their own 12.
Tolzien, with poise and composure, found an open Kendricks for a 12-yard gain, setting the tone for the drive which would produce the game-winning touchdown, as the Badgers took the lead and never relinquished it again, with a 19-yard run by Clay to the endzone.
Throughout the fourth quarter, the Badgers would play soft defenses, making sure ASU couldn't get a play over the top, and held Threet and the Sun Devils scoreless until they put together a nine-play, 77-yard drive to get into the endzone, courtesy of running back Cameron Marshall.
Again, ironically enough, with the score being 19-20, 4:09 left in the fourth quarter, it was the play of the Badgers special teams which slammed the door shut. ASU had a PAT attempt blocked by Jay Valai, all but ending any hopes they had of coming back to a tie score.
The Badgers would get the ball on kick off, and the Sun Devils' offense would not see the field again.
While head coach Bret Bielema is gritting his teeth thinking about how to correct the mental and executional errors of his football team, he'll be happy to get off the field with a win, pushing toward conference play which starts Oct. 2 on the road against Michigan State.
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