With one simple play Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, the University of Wisconsin football team showed that a new era had begun.
Or, more accurately, an old one had returned.
Whichever way you look at it, the Badgers demonstrated early in their non-conference game against Utah State that things had indeed changed after one of the most tumultuous weeks in program history.
On the game’s second play, left guard Ryan Groy pulled to his right and led tailback Montee Ball into the hole. In reviving one of the signature plays in its old-school ground game, UW’s intent was clear: Instead of trying to find holes on running plays, the Badgers would start making them again.
The passive zone-blocking scheme taught by Mike Markuson had left along with the offensive line coach, who was fired by UW coach Bret Bielema on Sunday after only two games in the position. With young Bart Miller taking over, the Badgers hoped to return to the aggressive, downhill approach to running that had turned the offense into a juggernaut the last three years.
Given the timing of the coaching change at what historically is UW’s most important position group, the switch looked like a boom-or-bust move on Bielema’s part. Clearly, he was looking to reverse the fortunes of a team that began the season ranked 12th in the nation but had fallen out of the rankings after an unimpressive victory over Northern Iowa and a dismal loss to Oregon State.
But Bielema didn’t get the immediate boom he was looking for against Utah State, a dangerous opponent from the dead-or-dying Western Athletic Conference. The Badgers ran the ball better than they had previously, but their offense still struggled mightily in a 16-14 victory that wasn’t clinched until the Aggies missed a 37-yard field goal try in the final 10 seconds.
Despite the emphasis on offense all week and a halftime change at quarterback, it was the defense and special teams that saved the game — and quite possibly the season — for UW, which next week hosts Texas-El Paso, a 41-28 winner against New Mexico State on Saturday.
Ball did his best, rushing for 139 yards on 37 carries behind a line that relished a return to a more aggressive approach, but even those yards didn’t come easily against yet another defense that virtually disregarded the pass.
“If you watch the film,” center Travis Frederick said, “I think you’ll see it was a much more physical group than it was the last two weeks.”
And UW still needed an assist from Utah State kicker Josh Thompson to win. As they left the field at halftime, the Badgers were confronted with a 14-3 deficit and booing from their fans. Frankly, it was hard to blame the fans after players and coaches had issued glowing reports all week about energetic practices and a renewed focus. People expected more, and they weren’t getting it.
The Badgers’ meager total of 137 yards and their inability to convert third-and-1 plays in the first half raised all kinds of questions.
Given Bielema’s impulsive nature, which coach would he let go this week? Is UW simply lacking at positions such as quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line? Does transfer Danny O’Brien lack the pocket awareness UW demands from its quarterback?
Somewhere, Markuson had to be smiling. Although he was the one who took the fall, UW’s offensive woes run far deeper that his coaching philosophies. Bielema confirmed that when he replaced O’Brien with redshirt freshman Joel Stave at the start of the second half.
Still, this is UW and at UW it all comes back to the offensive line. For two games, the sights along the line of scrimmage had been the same. No creases for the tailbacks. Runners forced to go East-West rather than North-South. Offensive linemen getting pancaked instead of the other way around.
UW’s more aggressive approach up front was reflected in its rushing totals, which were better though still not up to the Badgers’ lofty standards. Miller didn’t throw everything out, but for the most part he returned to the techniques that had worked so well under former coach Bob Bostad.
“It felt like we were getting a lot of great push,” Groy said. “I felt like I was playing with the guys we had last year and the year before. Not that we’re there yet.”
Groy is right, a revival on the line is not going to happen overnight. The Badgers will have to take baby steps before they can learn to run again.
Other than protect the ball better than O’Brien, Stave did little to indicate that he can carry the offense, which generated only 97 yards in the second half, mostly on the ground. It remains run-or-bust for the Badgers and the running game isn’t back to the point where it can set the tone.
Normally, a non-conference victory over a team from college football’s hinterlands would barely register on the radar screen at UW. But this victory was big because it bought time for the Badgers, who clearly need more work to cure what ails them.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-252-6172.