TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's not often a team already has a 2-0 record when it starts the season, but the University of Wisconsin managed that rare feat this year.
After overpowering two college football non-entities at home, UW was forced to hit the reset button on its season. The victories counted, of course, but the real season for the 20th-ranked Badgers began Saturday night at Arizona State.
With a rare electric atmosphere at dressed-in-black Sun Devil Stadium and a legitimate Pac-12 Conference contender on the opposite sideline, the game figured to be the first real test for UW in Gary Andersen's first season as coach.
In truth, however, it was much more than that. Because matchups carry more weight when unfamiliar opponents meet in intersectional games, Arizona State was in many ways the ultimate test for this UW team.
That's because the Sun Devils were a bad matchup for the Badgers. Their strengths hit UW where it was weak or, more accurately, where it was still unproven despite the statistical domination of its first two opponents.
First of all, Arizona State's no-huddle spread passing attack, featuring junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, figured to test UW's revamped secondary in ways UMass and Tennessee Tech never could.
Second, the Sun Devils' aggressive, physical defensive line, led by all-America candidate Will Sutton, was expected for provide a stiff challenge for a UW offensive line that lost two starters to the NFL draft in April.
Finally, since Arizona State plays a high-pressure defense that was second in the nation in sacks last season, people were anxious to see if Joel Stave, UW's sophomore quarterback, could operate efficiently when under fire from the defense.
So how did UW do when facing its ultimate early season test?
In a word, it failed. UW's 32-30 loss to Arizona State, though it didn't end until a controversial play that will be debated in Wisconsin forever, showed that the concerns about certain areas were warranted. The Badgers took a 21-13 lead when Melvin Gordon dashed 80-yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second half, but the Badgers couldn't hang on for the victory, in large part because they couldn't sustain drives or stop the pass.
Let's take a look at the areas of concern one by one and see how the Badgers performed.
UW's pass coverage didn't let Kelly and his multitude of pass receivers dominate the game until crunch time. Kelly's mobility and Arizona State's quick passing made getting to the quarterback almost impossible, so it was up to the backs and linebackers to maintain coverage.
Despite giving up nothing over the top, the defense allowed too many free-running receivers on critical plays. UW's youth showed late in the first half when cornerbacks Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton were called for pass interference on back-to-back plays despite being in reasonably good position. More penalties in coverage and an inability to cover a series of back-shoulder fades contributed to three long scoring drives that allowed the Sun Devils to come from behind and take a 32-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, Arizona State's aggressive blitzing caused problems for both the run and the pass early, but UW's line gradually asserted itself and began to open holes for Gordon and James White. The coaches also called some plays -- screen passes and fly sweeps -- to make the Sun Devils pay for their aggressiveness.
But even though the Badgers produced decent numbers on the ground, they didn't gain a ton of yardage between the tackles. The Badgers weren't going to hit their inflated 390-yard rushing average from the first two games, but they did have more than 200 yards on the ground.
Stave, who was inconsistent in UW's first two games, was under intense pressure as Arizona State threw a variety of blitzes at him. After a slow start, he settled down a bit but never truly found a rhythm.
Stave's relatively slow release showed at he had two passes batted down and was hit repeatedly as he threw, often affecting the pass. Stave got smoked when the line missed a delayed blitz by Anthony Jones and was slow getting up, but he was back in on the next series. Still, he appeared to be rushing when he missed some critical throws that stalled drives in the second half.
Give Stave credit, though. He hung tough and directed two late drives, one that cut the lead to two, another that gave UW a chance to win at the end. However, the game ended when Stave downed the ball but placed it on the ground after taking a knee instead of handing it to the official. UW wanted to spike the ball on the next play and kick a field goal, but confusion reigned, the officials never took charge and UW never got off another play.
In the end, it was one tough way for for a game UW team to fail such a big test.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.