By Jake McCormick
And now it begins. After three non-conference home games that ended in expected fashion, the Wisconsin Badgers are poised to take on Michigan State in their fourth straight home game at Camp Randall. By the end of the Badgers’ 44-14 victory over Wofford (located in South Carolina by the way), the team was still struggling to find an identity. There were no shortages of playmakers on either side of the ball, however.
Tight end Lance Kendricks emerged as a threat in the passing game by leading the team in receptions (six) and yards (70), and added a touchdown. Receiver Nick Toon continued to impress with big catches downfield, and Scott Tolzien continues to grow into the starting quarterback position by completing 15-of-20 passes for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. The running backs were another story, but I’ll get to that later.
Defensive end O’Brien Schofield tallied another sack, middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean led the team in tackles with 15, and freshman Mike Taylor continued to improve as an outside linebacker by racking up nine tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss. Even the special teams came through big, with true freshmen Chris Borland blocking a punt and David Gilbert recovering it for a big second quarter touchdown. However, the team is not playing perfect football through four quarters and will need to improve before facing a desperate team in Michigan State.
“We seemed sluggish from the beginning, but not from defensive point of view,” head coach Bret Bielema said. “Our objective is work together. We need 11 guys on the field focused on what they need to do on every snap.”
Saturday marks the start of the Big Ten season and Wisconsin will need to prove they can run the ball without fear of putting it on the ground. That was the first issue Bielema addressed in his post-game press conference.
“I know there’s an issue, we fumbled the ball, we cannot have that happen,” he said. “As head coach, I will take responsibility, will get that corrected and will move forward.
“There were a lot of positives, but some positives have to come through negative actions.”
With that, I’m going to utilize as many interviews as I can from after Saturday’s game and let the players and coach answer my weekly questions.
Can Wisconsin stop Wofford’s triple option, which is very similar to the offense run by Cal Poly in the 2008 season finale?
The defense’s response to the third different style of offense they’ve seen in three weeks was praised early on after the game by coach Bret Bielema. It was the third straight game where the defense had three or more takeaways.
“I liked how our defense came ready to play and knew what we needed to do to get a win,” Bielema said.
Later, Bielema expanded on his satisfaction, saying the defense is expected to compete against a different style of offense every week in Big Ten play.
It was a totally different offensive structure than they had played, but they zoned in on it,” he said. “In the Big Ten, you have to focus in on the style of play of your opponent every week.”
St. Jean said the team had Cal Poly dreamin’ in their minds when preparing for Wofford. He added that as strange as it sounded, the game was circled on the team’s calendar as a burden of proof.
“We took the Cal Poly game very personal,” St. Jean said. “We just (had) to make a statement and we needed to find ourselves as a defense.”
“Anytime you play an offense like that you need to be assignment sound, read keys, and make sure guys are in the right spots making plays,” safety Chris Maragos said. “We did that today and that’s why we had success.”
Which defensive line pass rush will we see: the one that pressured NIU all day or the cupcake baking they did against Fresno?
Wofford only attempted seven passes, including one interception, but the defense managed to record two sacks and six tackles for loss. The defensive line played well, but it was ultimately the linebackers that provided the highlights with a sack, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Freshman Mike Taylor is feeling more confident in what he’s doing.
“I think every week I’m getting a little better,” Taylor said. “We had two defensive penalties all game. That takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders.”
How will John Clay perform in his first career start?
Twelve carries for 70 yards isn’t bad. Three fumbles in 12 carries is. This is the biggest problem the Badgers faced all game, and is apparent that Clay and Zack Brown will be taking quite a few gut shots this week with their combined five fumbles on the game.
“In regards to way we played today, it wasn’t where we needed to be,” Bielema said. “Sometimes the best amount of pressure can come from their teammates.”
Tolzien said the team will definitely be emphasizing ball security leading up to the Michigan State game. He added that practice is essential to correcting the problem.
“Just practicing better, that’s where you make money during the week on the practice field,” he said. “In games, it’s going to come, we just have to keep at it.”
This Badger team proved it could handle unusual circumstances off the field, but will there be a hangover effect against a lesser opponent?
Apparently not, and different weapons were showcased again this week, such as Kendricks, who has been waiting for a chance to do more than block.
“It was tough with the fumbles after working downfield,” Kendricks said. “I just snapped into it, my confidence grew. It felt good going out and catching balls like that.”
Kendricks was also quick to credit Tolzien for his ball placement.
“He has a lot of poise, does a great job delivering ball to everybody,” he said. (About his touchdown pass) “I tried to get open a bit, he threw it high where it should be and I was able to get it.”
Overall, Tolzien said he is ready for his first Big Ten start and feels the team is in a good position heading into this weekend.
“I feel pretty good, coach Chryst has us all prepared from top to bottom,” he said. “Then again, all the experience you get in games is valuable too, so three games has helped.”
In the second quarter, the Badgers scored 28 points, and committed zero penalties. Can the team find a way to harness that dominance over more than a quarter of play?
Or what are the chances of the exact opposite, where the defense implodes and gives up 28 points? Is that worse than the way they lost to State last year?
Coach Bielema laughed a little about students yelling “Tolzien for Heisman” heading down the locker room tunnel. Obviously that slogan is pretty farfetched, but what can Tolzien do in a high pressure game against a tough opponent?
Will I have Allan Evridge or John Stocco flashbacks? Are either of those good to have?
Can the Badgers protect the ball?
I really don’t need any further explanation. You all know how frustrating fumbles are.
During his post-game conference, Bielema remarked about the depth at the offensive line because of nicked up starters. Can he find a way to balance their playing time while keeping the line at full strength?
Either way, can the line fuse together to help the running game come together?
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