Redshirt senior left tackle Rick Wagner stressed earlier this week that the offensive line wanted to see more run plays called. He thought the linemen were losing their identity after their dismal performance at Oregon State. Even offensive coordinator Matt Canada said the team “got off track” during the loss.
Well, Wagner’s wish came true for the most part, as Wisconsin passers Danny O’Brien and Joel Stave attempted only 16 passes, seven of which were completed. The team rushed the ball 43 times, up from the 23 attempts last week at Oregon State.
Sure, the Badgers racked up a very mediocre 3.5 yards per rush, but the fact that they showed confidence in the running game and the offensive line—even after a very distracting and unusual week—proves that the Badgers are not going to be drifting away from typical Wisconsin football anytime soon.
“I think we just have to stay true to what we are,” head coach Bret Bielema said.
The offensive line was bound to be heavily critiqued after the firing of Mike Markuson, but after the 16-14 win Saturday night there was a noticed improvement, even though it was plagued by a slew of false start penalties in the first half. Those penalties might have been an indicator of coming out a little too amped after a stressful week for the unit.
“I think so,” redshirt junior offensive lineman Ryan Groy said of the pregame excitement. “First play, I jumped offside and we were really hyped, it’s a Camp Randall night game kind of thing. You’re ready to go, you’re ready to go after somebody, you know? It’ll get you, but we have to work on that too.
“Coach [Bart] Miller was really calm all week. He was prepared for the moment,” he added.
Even though the Badgers only mustered 16 points, six of which came on a Kenzel Doe punt return midway through the third quarter, improvement and the sense of urgency that Badger players mentioned countless times after practice this week was definitely seen.
“It was a lot more comfortable,” senior running back Montee Ball said of the run game. “[There were] a lot more opportunities for me to be one-on-one, which I need to focus on and be better at.
“But we didn’t expect for the offensive line, with one week of preparation with the new coach, to come out and part the sea every single play,” Ball said. “But you can clearly see a difference.”
Ball finished with 139 yards on 37 attempts with one score. Redshirt freshman running back Melvin Gordon had two carries for 18 yards and junior running back James White added 11 yards on three carries.
“Honestly all I can say from this game is you can see that we had a little identity,” Ball said. “We found our identity a little in the second half.”
After scoring only three points in the first half, something needed to change, especially in an environment where fans have been accustomed to seeing 20-30 points in a single half on a regular basis. One of those changes was another bold one by Bielema, as he yanked O’Brien and put in redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave during halftime.
“Number one reason I made the transition at the quarterback was to protect the ball,” Bielema said. “For us to win at Wisconsin, we can’t turn the ball over.”
Stave was surprised by the move and was nervous early, but he threw the ball only six times, completing two of them for 15 yards. He took over and handed the ball off in hopes of wearing down the defense, something that usually comes incredibly easy. In 2010, Wisconsin ran the ball 28 consecutive times against Michigan, something that won’t happen this season under a shakier offensive line, but the Badgers proved that they can still wear down opposing defenses by just handing the ball off.
“We thought we could wear them down over time,” Bielema said. “I pointed out there were several times where our guys were in the huddle. The defensive line was behind them on their knees and trying to gasp for air.
“There were some series where we got the things rolling a little bit.”
Winning off of a missed field goal was not the way most Badger players said they wanted the game’s outcome to be decided, but at least they didn’t go down the way they did last week, when the offense looked like a completely different team and the play-calling seemed a bit head-scratching at times.
Wisconsin actually looked like Wisconsin Saturday night, and even though the win was not pretty by any means, Badger fans can breathe and realize that the confidence in the run game is still very much there.
“I think we definitely took a step in the right direction,” redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Rob Havenstein said.
“[Miller] believes in us, we believe in him,” Groy said. “There’s mutual respect there that we have to move forward with.”