It has been a season of extremes for the University of Wisconsin football team's offense.
The running game churned out a school-record 564 yards against Indiana and 467 yards against Purdue. But it managed only 19 yards against Michigan State and 35 against Oregon State.
In Big Ten Conference play, the Badgers averaged 42.3 points in their four wins and 18.5 points in their four losses.
The offense was good enough to build a 27-10 lead at Nebraska early in the second half in the conference opener, then bad enough to be shut out the rest of the way in a 30-27 loss.
Even the play-calling by offensive coordinator Matt Canada has been disjointed — bold and creative in the early going, with plenty of shifts, motion and new plays; then buttoned-up and conservative in the second half.
An example from last week's game against Penn State was a 57-yard touchdown pass from Curt Phillips to running back Melvin Gordon on the game's fourth play. Gordon didn't touch the ball again until his 9-yard run in the fourth quarter when UW trailed 21-14 on its way to a 24-21 overtime loss.
After moving downfield like clockwork on its first two series en route to a 14-7 lead, UW's offense had eight straight punts and a turnover.
No wonder it's difficult to get a read on the Badgers' offense going into the Big Ten title game against Nebraska on Saturday night. It's been a season of peaks and valleys, with little in between.
Starting three quarterbacks and the turmoil in the offensive line — there were several injuries and a switch in coaches after two games — have been factors in UW's inconsistency.
Even Phillips, who has started the past three games, has fallen victim to the highs and lows. He has been dynamic in 2-minute situations late in the past two games but mostly ineffective as a passer the rest of the time.
UW's issues on offense can be traced to three areas: Mostly subpar play from its quarterbacks, other than a stretch when redshirt freshman Joel Stave began to emerge before breaking his collarbone against Michigan State on Oct. 27; the lack of a consistent threat at receiver behind Jared Abbrederis; and the erratic play of the offensive line.
The line didn't have an answer last week when Penn State made two significant adjustments after UW's first two scoring drives. The Nittany Lions widened their defensive ends and used a five-man defensive front to match up when UW went to heavy personnel, such as two tight ends and a fullback.
"We were running well the first two drives," junior center Travis Frederick said. "After that, we weren't executing correctly. The offensive line was not adjusting to everything (the Nittany Lions) were doing. They were one step ahead of us in some cases."
With four new coaches on offense, it was destined there would be growing pains even before the problems at quarterback.
It's understandable if Canada wanted to limit mistakes and not put his third-string quarterback in tough situations the past two games.
UW attempted to win with its defense against Ohio State and Penn State. Had the Badgers backed that up with a strong kicking game, it might have worked. But sophomore Kyle French missed field goal attempts of 40 and 44 yards, which could have helped swing the outcome in the two losses.
Nebraska has the Big Ten's best pass defense (152.2 yards per game), but only the eighth-best run defense (166.2).
That would appear to make UW's offensive game plan a snap. But if this season has shown anything, it's that the Badgers can't simply run over opponents as in past years — unless the opposing defense is inept, such as Indiana's.
In UW's first game against Nebraska, Stave completed four passes of 20-plus yards, including three in the first half.
"We took some shots early on and it worked for us," Phillips said. "In the second half, we weren't able to connect on a lot of those shots. We might have gotten a little more complacent.
"They might be prepared for some of those, but at the same time, we have to be ready to take shots whenever the opportunity presents itself."
Phillips' strength may not be the deep ball. In three starts he's completed three passes of 20-plus yards: the 57-yarder to Gordon, a 29-yarder to tight end Jacob Pedersen and a 33-yarder to fullback Derek Watt.
"You know, Curt can throw the football," UW coach Bret Bielema said, "when he sees it and reads it and reacts to it."
That's what Phillips has done in 2-minute situations. In other situations, Bielema said he has seen slight hesitation in Phillips.
"There are some plays where he maybe wasn't quite sure he could throw it," Bielema said. "If you just hesitate a half second, sometimes that window can close."
That's what happened in OT last week, when Phillips might have had Watt open on second down. Phillips said afterward that he could have made a back-shoulder throw but didn't want to make a mistake. He ended up getting sacked.
In 2-minute situations, Phillips has had to react and take chances. It might be time to do the same thing against Nebraska.
"Wisconsin quarterbacks are traditionally kind of labeled as game managers," Phillips said. "We don't need our quarterbacks to do anything spectacular. With the kind of athletes we have out there, we've got to get the ball in those guys' hands and let them make plays.
"At the same time, taking risks is necessary at some points, but they always have to be calculated risks."