For much of the second half Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, the scoreboard was frozen with the first-half statistics on prominent display.
It was probably a mechanical issue, but you couldn't blame the University of Wisconsin for keeping the numbers -- 251 yards and 23 points -- up there as long as possible. After all, it was the most encouraging half of football the Badgers had played all season.
Not that there was a lot of competition for the honor. After a rocky non-conference season that unfolded in a manner no one envisioned, UW will open Big Ten Conference play at 25th-ranked Nebraska next week with more question marks than it had when it opened the season a month ago.
The Badgers found some partial answers to those questions in their 37-26 victory over Texas-El Paso Saturday, but their 3-1 non-conference record and the struggles that accompanied it have inspired little confidence outside of the team. UW usually dominates its soft non-conference schedule, but this time there were four games that weren't decided until the final 3 minutes, futility on offense that brought to mind the Don Morton years, injuries to star players such as Montee Ball and Jared Abbrederis and on-the-fly changes with the offensive line coach, quarterback, right guard and kicker.
The surprisingly competitive games made the non-conference season more exciting for fans, but a lot less comforting. Now the Big Ten season is here and the Badgers are still searching for the right combinations on offense, defense and special teams. Ball, their Heisman Trophy candidate at tailback, could miss time after leaving Saturday's game with an apparent concussion and quarterback Joel Stave will make his second college start in Nebraska's intimidating stadium.
At least the Badgers closed with their best all-around performance, a victory over a UTEP team that had some dangerous weapons and refused to go away. If nothing else, that represents growth, which is why the Badgers were optimistic they'll be ready for Nebraska and the Big Ten.
"It's not where we want to be," coach Bret Bielema said. "But I told our guys the other day that going into this week we were 2-1 and it could be 3-0, but it could have been 0-3. We responded as best as we could. We continue to work with them and grow. Our kids, I think, and coaches are learning every day."
No one knew UW faced such a lengthy learning curve after it opened the season ranked 12th in the nation. But the Badgers struggled to put away Northern Iowa, looked helpless on offense against Oregon State and needed a missed field goal to escape with a victory over Utah State.
Every one of those opponents was better than advertised, a significant departure from UW's usual non-conference schedule. Still, no one expected the defense to continue to hemorrhage big plays, that Ball's Heisman campaign would be all but dead before October and that touted transfer quarterback Danny O'Brien would be benched for Stave, a former walk-on.
"It's made us better," Bielema said. "And the good thing is we have been in some four-quarter games and (not) routing people. That's worth its weight in gold to be able to say that."
That's looking on the bright side, but this much is true: After all the push and pull over the last four weeks, the Badgers are heading in the right direction.
They ran the ball effectively even without Ball for much of Saturday's game. Stave executed the play-action pass, a UW staple, very well and calmly led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive with the game on the line. The new offensive staff ditched its conservative play-calling and unveiled some of the wrinkles it had promised. And the many young players gained much-needed experience.
"I would describe this non-conference schedule as a growing and learning period," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "I think that on both sides of the ball, we had guys step up and guys get exposed a little bit. We had to fix some things and overall I think it was a non-conference schedule that we needed. We needed to have something like this to wake us up and realize that we've got a long ways to go."
Maybe so, but it sure would have helped everyone's mood if UW could have buried at least one opponent somewhere along the way.
"I think it shows that we're not where we need to be and I think it gives us a little motivation to continue to push," center Travis Frederick said.
UW will need to improve dramatically to keep up with Nebraska, which has one of college football's best home-field advantages and has been scoring points at an alarming rate, including a 73-7 victory over Idaho State on Saturday. The Badgers have one week to do it, too.
"I do think this team is on the right track," Frederick said. "If we continue to make the strides we've made in the past two weeks, I think we'll definitely be ready."
Better? Definitely. Ready for the Big Ten? That remains to be seen.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.