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Badgers unimpressive despite 2-1 record

Jonathon Zenk, Sports Writer
September 18, 2012
Filed under Sports

Coming into the season, there were high hopes in Madison. With Ohio State and Penn State ineligible to make the Big Ten Championship Game, due to NCAA sanctions, a return trip to Pasadena and a third-straight Big Ten championship was not out of the realm of possibility.

However, three games into the season, Wisconsin sits at 2-1 after a disappointing 10-7 loss at Oregon State and a victory over Utah State in which the Badgers needed a missed field goal by the Aggies to win, and they did.

The seven points against the Beavers was the lowest point total for the Badgers since they scored seven in a 48-7 loss at home to Penn State in 2008. Since that game does not technically count due to the NCAA sanctions against the Nittany Lions, the last time Wisconsin was held to seven was in a 30-7 loss at Iowa in 2004. It was the first non-conference loss for Wisconsin since a 23-5 loss against UNLV in 2003.

In the Oregon State loss, the Badgers also lost starters safety Shelton Johnson and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis due to injury.

Johnson left the game with a broken arm and will miss at least six weeks. Abbrederis left with a chest injury and didn’t play Sept. 15 against Utah State. However, Abbrederis should be ready to play against UTEP.

Without Abbrederis, the passing attack has been atrocious. Against Utah State, Wisconsin had just 78 total yards passing on only seven completions. If people didn’t know any better, they would think Wisconsin was trying to transform itself into the late 90s teams. Tight end Brian Wozniak was the leading receiver with just two catches for 24 yards.

In the first three weeks, Wisconsin scored 49 points combined against Northern Iowa, Oregon State and Utah State. In comparison, the Badgers surpassed the 49 point mark last year in just 37 minutes against UNLV.

That is the fewest amount of points the Badgers have scored in their first three games since 1989 when they scored 40. That was the last year of the Don Morton era.

On defense, Wisconsin allowed 45 points in the first three games and has been bend-but don’t-break so far during the season. The defense has yet to force a turnover, though, which is a concern.

Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton gave the Wisconsin defense a number of chances to force a turnover, but the Badgers defense could not make the play. Late in the game, cornerback Marcus Cromartie dropped an interception, which cost the Badgers valuable field position and almost came back to haunt them.

There was plenty of turnovers for the Badgers this offseason, with both big-time players and coaches leaving. Gone are all-World quarterback Russell Wilson, No. 1 wide receiver Nick Toon, three starting offensive linemen, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and three additional coaches.

The Badgers still returned Heisman candidate running back Montee Ball, as well as Abbrederis and the tenacious linebacking duo Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, but the Badgers haven’t been able to overcome the loss of Wilson and the four coaches to this point.

Quarterback Danny O’Brien, transfer from Maryland this offseason, has played below average so far, throwing three touchdowns compared to one interception but has also lost two crucial fumbles in the past two games.

It is a tall task replacing Wilson, who was college football’s most efficient passer last season and the best quarterback to ever play at Wisconsin. The team knew it would not get Wilson in O’Brien, but it thought they would get a bit more out of him so far.

After scoring just three points in the first half against Utah State, Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema, made a change at quarterback, replacing O’Brien with red-shirt freshman, Joel Stave. The freshman went 2 for 6 for 15 yards in the second half, but a few of his passes were dropped. It is unclear who will start this Saturday against UTEP.

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who came from Northern Illinois, hasn’t done a good job of mixing up plays. In the opener against Northern Iowa, Wisconsin threw the ball downfield twice, and it was completed both times. The Panthers defense ganged up to stop Ball, and Canada did not make them pay.

Two games in, offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired after the Badgers rushed for just 203 yards in two games on 70 carries, that is a 2.9 yard per carry average, including rushing for only 35 yards in the Oregon State loss.

Wisconsin also lost three starters to graduation, including Kevin Zeitler, who was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Bengals. But, four of the current offensive linemen played meaningful snaps last year and played well, so a change was needed. Graduate assistant Bart Miller will take over until the conclusion of the season.

With Miller, the Badgers will go back to a run blocking scheme used by former offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who left this offseason to join Chryst’s staff at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ball has yet to get on track with his running game so far. He has rushed 84 times in the first three games for 320 yards, a 3.8 yard average, far from the 6.3 yard per carry average he had a year ago.

Perhaps a turning point of the early part of the season happened midway through the third quarter against Utah State. When sophomore Kenzel Doe, who replaced Abbrederis as the punt returner, returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown to cut the Utah State lead to 14-10 and give the Badgers some momentum, propelling them to the victory.

Wisconsin will try to finish the non-conference part of the schedule strong as the Badgers host the UTEP Miners at 11 a.m. Sept. 22 at Camp Randall Stadium before going on the road to start the conference schedule at Nebraska.

Even with Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin has a lot of work to do if it wants to make the trip back to Indianapolis, let alone a trip back to Pasadena.