The punt return unit wasn’t even on the field for the biggest return for the University of Wisconsin football team in a long time.
The Badgers were in a “punt safe” situation when sophomore Kenzel Doe, subbing for the injured Jared Abbrederis, went back to field a punt in the third quarter against Utah State.
Doe replaces one defensive player in that situation, either a linebacker or a safety, he said. Otherwise, the rest of the defense stays on the field.
“Most of the time it’s supposed to be a fair catch,” Doe said.
Instead, Doe turned it into an 82-yard return for a touchdown that helped spark the Badgers to a 16-14 victory over the Aggies on Saturday night. It was the longest punt return for a touchdown by UW since Josh Hunt’s 89-yarder against Western Michigan in the 2000 opener.
Just before Tyler Bennett’s wobbly 37-yard punt, which came with Utah State holding a 14-3 lead, Doe took a peek and saw the left sideline looked wide open.
“I said, ‘There’s nobody on the sideline, I’m just going to catch it and take off with it,’ ”Doe said. “The defense turned around and started blocking for me. I saw the punter try to angle me out, so I cut against him. I knew he wasn’t going to be able to transition in time to catch me.”
Doe started up the left sideline, getting past a couple defenders, then cut across the field near midfield and easily outran Bennett to the end zone for his first touchdown with the Badgers.
He had taken over as the third receiver on offense, but was still looking for his first big play.
“I’ve been working so hard to just get the opportunity, to get my chance on the field,” Doe said. “I finally got my opportunity. I feel like I did a good job of taking advantage.”
Aggies coach Gary Andersen lamented two momentum-changing plays on special teams -- Doe's return, and Josh Thompson's miss wide right on a potential game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt with 6 seconds left.
"It’s a huge play when you give up a special teams play for a touchdown, especially when you leave 10 points on the board in special teams," Andersen said. "The last three were on the last play. The last three were hard to deal with."
Abbrederis missed the game with a concussion, but was there to counsel Doe after a mistake on his first time back. Doe caught a fair catch at the UW 3, which helped set up Utah State’s first touchdown.
Doe said he lost track of where he was on the field. Returners are normally told to stand at the 8 and not catch any ball that goes over their heads.
“I didn’t know I was drifting (backward) as I was running,” Doe said. “I thought I was running directly to the side.”
When Doe went to the sideline, Abbrederis was there to help pick him up.
“Abby was like, ‘Denzel, let it go, it happens,’ ”Doe said. “Our offense is going to pick it up.’
You’ve got to have short term memory on the football field. That’s what I tried to do.”
Doe admitted it’s highly unlikely to have a return for a touchdown during a “punt safe” situation.
“It’s very shocking,” he said. “(Teammates) were like, ‘Kenzel, I didn’t even know you were going to take off running.’
“It worked out perfect. They were like, ‘We really don’t know anything about punt return. But it turned out good.’ I just thank them for blocking for me and doing everything right.”
Abbrederis not cleared
UW coach Bret Bielema maintained during the week that Abbrederis had a chance to play after suffering a concussion in the previous game.
But Bielema admitted after the game that Abbrederis had not yet been cleared medically, even though he was in uniform on the sidelines. Bielema said he hopes Abbrederis can be cleared to return to practice on Tuesday. He was replaced in the starting lineup by junior Jeff Duckworth.
Junior defensive end Pat Muldoon, who started the previous week due to an injury, missed the game with a cast on his left wrist. Brendan Kelly, who didn’t play against Oregon State due to a hamstring injury, returned to the starting lineup.
Penalties pile up
One of the few positive trends for UW in its first two games was committing only five penalties for 40 yards. But that trend changed in a hurry against the Aggies.
The Badgers had four penalties for 20 yards — all of them false starts — in the first half in an ugly performance that had the home crowd booing as UW left the field trailing 14-3.
The offensive line had three of the penalties, including one on the first play by junior left guard Ryan Groy. Junior right guard Zac Matthias and junior center Travis Frederick were also whistled, along with tight end Brian Wozniak.
It got so frustrating at one point, tailback Montee Ball slapped his thigh pads in anger, then clapped his hands hard on Frederick’s false start on third-and-8 late in the second quarter.
On the resulting third-and-13, quarterback Danny O’Brien was sacked by linebacker Zach Vigil, with linebacker Jake Doughty recovering at the UW 24-yard line. That set up an 11-yard touchdown pass from Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton to wide receiver Matt Austin.