The UW football team’s home winning streak advanced to 18 Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, even if it was only by a couple of feet.
The streak, which dates back to Oct. 17, 2009, appeared to be on its deathbed when the listless Badgers trailed 14-3 at the half and revisited life-support in the waning moments when Utah State junior kicker Josh Thompson lined up for a 37-yard field goal attempt. When the ball stayed just outside the right upright, though, the streak—and maybe Wisconsin’s aspirations for this season—marched on in the form of a 16-14 victory in front of 79,332 nervous fans.
At halftime, head coach Bret Bielema replaced his starting quarterback, redshirt junior transfer Danny O’Brien, with untested redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Still, it was not the offense that provided the jolt Wisconsin needed to mount a third-quarter comeback.
After the two teams traded three-and-out possessions to start the second half, the Aggies offense, led by sophomore quarterback Chuckie Keeton (18-34, 181 yards, two TDs), picked up two first downs but ultimately faced a fourth-and-two at its own 45-yard line. Bielema, sensing an opportunity for a Utah State fake, opted to put his “punt safe” unit on the field. Essentially, the defense stays on the field except for one man, who is replaced by the punt returner, sophomore wide receiver Kenzel Doe.
Punt safe does not lend itself to big returns—the defense does not really even try to set up a return—but somebody forgot to tell that to the diminutive Riedsville, N.C., native. He fielded the line drive kick at his own 18, navigated the right sideline and then cut back to the middle of the field, eventually outrunning USU’s defense for an 82-yard touchdown.
“I was like, OK, if I score, I know we’re going to win this game,” said Doe, whose score closed the gap to 14-10. “I felt so good inside because I knew I helped contribute to the team.”
After the Badger defense delivered another three-and-out, UW’s All American senior running back Montee Ball (37 carries, 139 yards, TD) put UW ahead for good. He carried six consecutive times, capping off a 42-yard drive with a 17-yard score.
“We played a much more physical game than we had in the last two games,” redshirt sophomore right tackle Rob Havenstein said. “We wanted to wear down the defense and I think we ended up doing that a little bit today, but obviously we still need to improve on things.”
That was the story in just about all facets Saturday for Wisconsin. Good at times, compromising at others.
The offense managed just 12 first downs and 234 total yards. It committed five penalties—four false starts and a holding call—and had another holding call declined.
“Those really made us play behind the chains,” Bielema said.
O’Brien’s fumble with under three minutes to play in the first half led to Utah State’s second touchdown and, along with an interception that was negated by a late hit, got the junior benched for the second half.
“For us to win at Wisconsin, we can’t turn the ball over,” said Bielema, who also said no decision has been made about who will start next week against Texas-El Paso. “He’s holding on with one hand and the ball went on the ground. That’s when I talked with [offensive coordinator Matt] Canada and the offensive coaches, and we felt good about making the transition.”
Stave finished the night 2-6 for 15 yards.
The Badgers defense largely kept Keeton and the Aggies spread attack in check, as the unit finished with just 127 rushing yards.
“That was a true dual-threat quarterback,” redshirt junior free safety Dezmen Southward said. “I can’t think of many plays where he truly broke us down and was just running all over us.”
However, long pass plays continued to cause damage, resulting in Utah State’s first score and allowing the ill-fated field goal attempt at the end.
Senior linebacker Mike Taylor made plays all over the field and led the team with 15 tackles, but was also beat—for the second time in three weeks—on a wheel route for USU’s first score.
“He can’t cover that, I [can’t] stress that enough,” Bielema said. “If we put him in that position again, we have problems. He’s a really good football player, but we’re asking him to do too much in that situation.”
“As the guy responsible for that, you have to see run or see pass,” Taylor said. “If it’s one or the other, you’re kind of overplaying it. It falls on my shoulders, I have to be tuned in more, I guess. It’s my fault.”
The UW secondary played aggressively and finished with five passes broken up, including three from redshirt senior defensive back Marcus Cromartie. Still, Cromartie was beat on the Aggies’ second touchdown and on a 36-yard completion to senior wide receiver Cameron Webb on USU’s final drive.
Even Wisconsin redshirt sophomore kicker Kyle French chipped in some inconsistency. He shanked a 36-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter, had an extra point blocked in the third and then sent the ensuing kickoff out of bounds.
Luckily for UW, he was not the only one with kicking issues Saturday night in Madison.