Through the first six games of the season, the Wisconsin football team buried opponents so fast and so early that little doubt about the outcome was left by halftime.
In fact, the narrowest lead UW took to the locker room in the first six weeks was 27-14 Oct. 1 against then-No. 8 Nebraska, and even then the Badgers had just finished reeling off 20 straight second quarter points and had all the momentum.
The last two weeks featured much different stories. Sure, Wisconsin established itself early both times, each in environments as electric as they were hostile. After out-gaining Michigan State in offensive yards 141-61 and generating a 14-0 lead in the opening quarter Oct. 22, the Badgers out-gained Ohio State 105-40 and led 7-0 after a quarter in Columbus. There is not much more to be asked of an offense on the road.
Not much, that is, except show up again for the second quarter.
“We just weren’t playing with urgency at all and that’s what pains us most,” junior running back Montee Ball said. “We feel like we practice with urgency and we just didn’t carry it forward to the game.
The Badgers have not scored a second-quarter touchdown since redshirt sophomore tight end Jacob Pedersen hauled in a three-yard pass from senior quarterback Russell Wilson with three seconds left in the half Oct. 15 against Indiana.
In fact, they have not scored period.
After outscoring opponents one through six by a count of 110-20 in the second quarter, UW got beat 26-0 by Michigan State and Ohio State. MSU reeled off four consecutive scores in the second quarter. The Buckeyes scored three times in a row, spanning the second and third quarters. For a team that made its early season mark with consistent production, the dead periods in the middle of the game are momentum killers.
“It comes down to some focus issues,” redshirt sophomore lineman Travis Frederick said. “I don’t want to say anybody on the offensive line, being particular, wasn’t focused or didn’t bring the energy, it just didn’t seem like our group, I would say.”
The running game struggled particularly mightily against the Buckeyes, accounting for negative yardage (negative nine yards on four carries) in the second quarter and just 48 yards through the first three.
For a team unfamiliar with trailing late in games, it has taken life-support status to stir up any sort of sense of urgency.
“Looking up at the scoreboard and seeing that you’re down with just a couple minutes to go, that really lit a fire under us,” Ball (12 carries, 35 yards) said of Saturday’s loss against OSU. “If we would have played like that at the beginning of the game, it would have been a hugely different outcome.”
The Badgers actually scored one fewer point in the fourth quarter than MSU and OSU the last two weeks, but they also managed to erase double-digit deficits on both nights.
With the number of weapons UW has on offense and the variety of ways offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been able to deploy them this year, the mid-game lag is difficult to explain.
Opponent talent level is certainly a factor. So is the fact that both games came on national stages, on the road, in front of rowdy Homecoming crowds. Ball said over confidence may have been an issue.
“It’s always good to go into the game expecting to win, but I think we had too much of that,” Ball said.
After Saturday’s loss, Wilson acknowledged the questions about urgency but said the offense has to be careful not to try to go too fast. Still, some answer for the lethargy must come quickly. The Badgers’ still have a chance to win the conference, but that window will close for good with one more loss.