The University of Wisconsin football team had a chance to validate the progress it had made in recent weks along the offensive line and with its running game on Saturday against the top-ranked defense in the Big Ten Conference.
Instead, there were more of the same problems that plagued the Badgers early in the season in a 16-13 overtime loss to Michigan State.
Even those ugly early season performances weren’t this bad as UW finished with 37 rushing attempts for a season-low 19 yards against the Big Ten’s No. 1 run defense.
“Give credit to Michigan State,” UW coach Bret Bielema said. “We knew it would be a tough task, but we were never able to get anything going on the ground. Any time that happens for us offensively, it’s never going to be a good day.”
The Badgers came in knowing lost-yardage plays were a big part of Michigan State’s defense, which had been allowing 100.2 rushing yards per game.
The Spartans came in with 46 tackles for loss and added to that total with 12 for minus-59 yards. That included five sacks, after coming in with six in their first eight games.
“Those (lost-yardage plays) are huge,” said Ryan Groy, the left guard who made a second straight start at left tackle for the injured Ricky Wagner (knee).
“We had a lot of missed assignments here and there, a lot of guys falling off blocks, me included. A lot of lost-yardage plays and sacks we can’t have.”
UW tailbacks Montee Ball and James White combined to rush for 712 yards and nine touchdowns in the previous two games against Minnesota and Purdue.
But neither could get going against Michigan State’s athletic and aggressive defense. Ball had 22 carries for 46 yards (2.1 average) — with 20 yards in losses. White, who came in averaging 6.9 yards per carry, had seven carries for 16 yards (2.3).
“They played physical, but they just read plays well and fly to the football,” Ball said. “When I’m getting the ball, I look up and I’m seeing a lot of people in front of my face.”
That’s what happened in the third quarter on a third-and-1 toss sweep to the right. Ball was met by a swarm of defenders and took an 8-yard loss.
The “Barge” formation, which is UW’s version of the Wildcat and made its debut the previous week with much success, only made the situation worse.
The Badgers had two key penalties and a momentum-sapping 15-yard loss on a high snap out of that formation.
The most critical mistake was a hold by tight end Sam Arneson, who was lined up on the right edge of the formation, negating an 18-yard touchdown run around right end by White in the fourth quarter. That came after UW’s defense recovered a Michigan State fumble on the previous play.
“It was tough,” said Arneson, who didn’t get a chance to see the replay. “I thought I had good hand placement. It was an outside run, so you’ve got to let go with a smaller corner like that and I thought I did in time. But, obviously, they called it back, and it hurt to have that called.”
The Badgers ended up settling for a field goal and a 10-3 lead.
Almost as costly was a snap by Travis Frederick that sailed over White’s head late in the third quarter. A 34-yard punt return by Jared Abbrederis had given UW a first down at its own 47. The 15-yard loss on second down led to a punt.
“It certainly was my fault,” Frederick said. “It just was a little big high. In practice this week, they tended to be a little bit low, so I had been working on getting them up a little bit.”
To make it even worse, UW got just the look it wanted.
“The corner ran with Montee on the motion,” White said. “I was pretty sure the tight end could have hooked whoever was outside. It was going to be an outside run, it looked like it was going to work.”
The Badgers unveiled some new looks out of the Wildcat, including one in which quarterback Joel Stave went in motion and the ball was snapped to White. That play ended up gaining nothing.
White didn’t think the problems were enough to scrap the formation.
“We didn’t run it too many times ... a lot of penalties when we did it (and) bad execution,” White said. “They had a pretty good scheme for it but I still think it would have worked fine.”