A win is a win. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema and numerous Badger players echoed this cliché following Wisconsin’s (1-0 overall, 0-0 Big Ten) 26-21 victory over FCS opponent Northern Iowa (0-1 overall, 0-0 Missouri Valley Conference) Saturday afternoon in the first game of the 2012 season.
However, the Camp Randall crowd wasn’t necessarily pleased with that type of mentality. The usually raucous crowd essentially stood in disbelief when UNI pulled within five points midway through the fourth quarter. Fans appeared lifeless when the Wisconsin offense responded to UNI’s surge with a three-and-out, giving the Panthers the ball back with 5:17 left to play, still only behind by five.
The anxiety was felt in the crowd most when UNI went for a fourth-and-one on Wisconsin’s 41-yard line with just under three minutes remaining. The Panthers had converted on their two previous fourth down attempts, but redshirt junior defensive lineman Ethan Hemer deflected Northern Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen’s pass across the middle, ridding the crowd of its unexpected restlessness.
“There’s a lot of credit that should go to UNI,” Bielema said. “I thought they were probably the best FCS team we’ve ever faced. I could see that before we even played them.”
Senior running back Montee Ball capped things off for Wisconsin following Hemer’s play, as he rushed for 24 yards during the last drive to run the clock out.
“I don’t care if that was UNI or Nebraska, or anyone else that’s left on our schedule,” Bielema said. “[Ball] was going to secure that win and you could tell that.”
Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Rob Havenstein felt the Wisconsin offense brought a bit more life and intensity during that drive.
“We definitely picked it up a bit,” he said of the drive. “[But] the intensity has got to be there every play, every snap, every down.”
The Badgers’ defense looked like an almost entirely different squad in the second half, as Kollmorgen completed clutch passes at will. After holding the Panthers to just three first downs and 47 yards in the first half, Wisconsin gave up 10 first downs in the second. All 13 Panthers’ first downs came off passes.
UNI’s scoring plays in the fourth quarter mirrored those of UW’s heartbreaking losses that occurred last season, as many of UNI’s long plays were the result of a botched play by one or two Wisconsin players.
“It’s just a great lesson for our defense that every play matters,” Bielema said. “I’m gonna hear it tomorrow in the staff meeting: ‘You take away these five plays and we played a great game.’ Well you can’t. That doesn’t happen in college football so we’ll take the positives and move forward.”
UNI scored 14 of its points in the second half, and it would have been held scoreless in the first if not for a two-yard touchdown pass by Kollmorgen to redshirt wide receiver Chad Owens to cap off a 13-play, 75-yard drive. The two other touchdowns UNI scored, both of which came in the fourth, were 55- and 31-yard passes, respectively.
“They executed well,” junior linebacker Chris Borland said, also mentioning he was a bit disappointed with the overall defensive performance. “We were doing the same thing in the second half as we did in the first, so we’ll have to check out the film.”
Wisconsin didn’t display the raw power that it did game-in and game-out last season, but it limited mistakes and seemed to embrace the slightly different offensive scheme of new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. The Badgers used an empty backfield a handful of times and bunched two tight ends with either redshirt junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis or redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Fredrick every so often.
The Badgers didn’t put the ball in the endzone until a minute left in the first quarter, when redshirt junior quarterback O’Brien hit Abbrederis on a corner route with an empty backfield for a 10-yard score. Abbrederis also caught a 53-yard pass from O’Brien early in the fourth quarter.
“I think there are some things that I have to clean up, but for the most part I think we did a pretty good job in the passing game and the running game,” O’Brien said, who finished 19-of-23 for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his Badger debut.
“Like I said, you take a win anytime you can,” he added.
Ball scored his lone touchdown from one yard out early in the third quarter and didn’t pass the century mark until the final drive of the game. He finished with 120 yards on the ground off of 32 carries. He caught three passes for 31 yards as well.
“We started off a little rusty, a little slow,” Ball said.
Bielema said after the game he would rather have an outcome like this than a blowout early in the season, citing that it’s easier to pick out the weaknesses, and Ball couldn’t agree more.
“I believe that we didn’t make the statement that we wanted to, but I believe that it was a great learning experience for us all,” Ball said. “It’s a lot easier to correct your mistakes after a win [rather] than a loss.”