There was a lot for new offensive coordinator Matt Canada to like about his side of the ball in the University of Wisconsin football team’s 26-21 win Saturday over Northern Iowa in the season opener.
As promised by Canada since he was hired from Northern Illinois, he didn’t stray far from the blueprint that has made UW’s offense successful in the past.
The Badgers didn’t commit a turnover, scored on all four of their red zone chances, held the ball for 39 minutes, 5 seconds and converted 56.3 percent (nine of 16) third-down attempts, despite more long-yardage situations than they would like.
“I’m the biggest critic of this offense, without question,” Canada said. “I will always be that. But I’m very proud of the way they played. There’s a whole lot of good.”
In the next breath, Canada was able to point out many areas that could have been better: two of the red zone conversions were field goals, the Badgers couldn’t put away their opponent despite the lopsided time of possession, and a missed third-and-2 conversion in the third quarter with UW leading 19-0 that Canada found particularly galling.
Canada said nothing about an apparent missed block by fullback Sherard Cadogan, which limited tailback Montee Ball to one yard on the play. The Panthers began their comeback on the next series.
“It falls on me,” Canada said. “We’ve got to get our guys in a position to get it done. That was the critical call in the game. I take full responsibility for all parts of it.”
The biggest reason the Badgers failed to break open the game offensively — despite an impressive debut by junior transfer quarterback Danny O’Brien — was a lack of big plays.
“We only had three explosive plays,” Canada said of the passing game.
Canada freely admitted he played it conservatively with O’Brien in his first game, wanting him to get off to a good start.
“Sure, you wanted him to feel good and get off,” Canada said. “That was the game plan, no question about it.”
It’s hard to argue with the strategy after O’Brien completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards, with two touchdowns and no turnovers. That’s a passer rating of 191.29.
The only times O’Brien was allowed to look downfield, he completed his throws. The first two, a 22-yarder to tight end Jacob Pedersen on third-and-22 in the second quarter and 20-yarder to Jordan Fredrick across the middle in the third quarter, set up touchdowns.
His biggest throw was a 53-yard touchdown to Jared Abbrederis off play action early in the fourth quarter, for what proved to be the decisive score.
While most of the focus was on the defensive collapse that allowed the Panthers back in the game, UW’s offense could have put away the game earlier.
One reason UW’s offense has been so successful in recent years is it combined big hits in the passing game with a power running attack. UW wound up averaging fewer yards per play (5.5) than UNI (5.7).
While it’s only one game, the Badgers didn’t display much speed on offense aside from Abbrederis and backup tailback James White.
“Big plays make it easier,” Canada said. “If you just go chunk by chunk by chunk, then obviously you’ve got to be perfect.”
That was evident on the first drive, which lasted 14 plays, but ended in a field goal when tight end Brian Wozniak dropped a low throw from O’Brien on third down.
“If you grab (Wozniak) he’ll say, ‘I should have caught it,’ ” Canada said. “But the ball was low. It almost looked like Danny could have handed it to him. The pocket was great, he’s standing there wide open.”
The only long run in the game was a 20-yarder by White. But with Ball working off the rust after missing time in preseason camp with a concussion and three new full-time starters on the line, the running game should improve.
After watching video of the game, UW coach Bret Bielema actually was more encouraged that the offense has big-play potential. But he said players have to do a better job of finishing plays.
“I think we counted up 11 (plays) that were maybe a broken tackle or one more finish to a block” away from being big plays, Bielema said.
While there were things to like about the offense, it’s going to need more big hits or it could allow other inferior opponents to hang around in games.
“The offense is just getting going,” Canada said. “(If) we’re going to possess the football that much, we’ve got to score. We were right there. We need to crack it open and get away from them and we didn’t.”