Perhaps the biggest indication of just how strangely Wisconsin's 31-13 loss at Ohio State played out is the wide range of fan reactions to the defeat. Some are almost gleefully pointing out that the Badger offense actually beat its Buckeye counterpart head-to-head by a score of 13-10. Others are looking at the actual margin of defeat and calling this a lost season after critical errors led to yet another road loss in the Big Ten.
The right perspective is somewhere in the middle. Like it or not, defense and special teams are two of the three phases of football. Ohio State's front seven were able to generate enough pressure on quarterback Scott Tolzien to force those two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Philip Welch missed those two field goals. And head coach Bret Bielema's own kick coverage unit didn't even get a hand on Ray Small when he returned that kickoff for a touchdown. These things happened. They were not flukes but, rather, the result of making critical mistakes against a better opponent on the road.
At the same time, it would be foolish to look at the offensive and defensive series in this game and come away completely discouraged. Wisconsin moved the ball on Ohio State and, if not for a combination of missed field goals and turnovers, would have scored more points. The Badger defense contained quarterback Terrelle Pryor admirably and got off the field quickly. The statistics were lopsidedly in favor of Wisconsin and, even though they are somewhat skewed by the Buckeyes' building a large lead in the second half, the Badgers dominated areas of this game.
In a weird way, it feels as though we never got to see these teams actually play each other. Wisconsin's offense was forced to become one-dimensional in the second half; we'll never know if John Clay could have worn down the Ohio State defense late in the game the way he did Minnesota's. Ohio State's offense was hardly on the field; every time the Buckeye defense or special teams unit scored a touchdown, they had to kick off to the Badgers again. We'll never know if Wisconsin's defensive dominance could have eventually forced another turnover. It's too bad because, while there is no guarantee Wisconsin would win if these teams played again, chances are that 21 points would not be scored with the Badger defense on the sideline.
Let's take a look at the highlights and low-lights:
Defensive Line - The Badgers controlled the line of scrimmage on defense, holding Terrelle Pryor to 35 rushing yards - 27 of which came on one carry. Running back Brandon Saine was held to 55 yards, 31 of which came on one carry. Outside of those two long runs, the team rushed for 39 total yards. Defensive end O'Brien Schofield harassed Pryor all day and the pressure he put on Pryor helped force the star quarterback into a 5-of-13 day passing.
Linebackers - The linebacking unit for the Badgers this year is much less heralded than the 2008 edition - but it is also playing much better football, particularly against spread offenses. The linebackers have been more disciplined this season and on Saturday they did a great job of staying in their gaps and not allowing big gains, particularly when the Buckeyes tried to run the option. Culmer St. Jean recorded a huge interception that he ran back to the Ohio State 12-yard line, setting up the only Wisconsin touchdown of the afternoon. In general, the defense did a great job getting off the field. The Buckeyes went three-and-out on six of their nine offensive possessions and one of the remaining three ended with St. Jean's interception.
Play Calling - This may surprise some fans, but the offensive and defensive play calling was pretty good Saturday. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst dialed up plays that worked, effectively loosening up the middle of the Ohio State defense by designing wide receiver reverse plays for David Gilreath and Isaac Anderson. Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren devised a trustworthy scheme and essentially solved Terrelle Pryor. Tolzien's two interceptions that directly led to 14 points were not the result of bad play calls but, rather, intense pressure from the Buckeyes and bad decisions by the quarterback. Pryor's touchdown drive at the end of the first half was similarly not Doeren's fault but the result of bad execution on two critical plays - defensive end J.J. Watt's failure to contain Pryor on his 27-yard run and cornerback Antonio Fenelus getting beat (but barely) on the touchdown pass. There was also a questionable Buckeye catch on that drive that should have been reviewed.
Scott Tolzien - We showered praise on the first-year starter at quarterback when he helped lead the Badgers to a 5-0 start, so we would be remiss if we didn't point out that Tolzien's performance Saturday helped cost Wisconsin a victory. While his completion percentage was reasonably high, Tolzien threw two bad interceptions that gave Ohio State 14 points without the Badger defense even seeing the field. Both were bad decisions - a high throw that sailed past Nick Toon and right into the arms of cornerback Kurt Coleman and a throw into double coverage that was tipped and returned 32 yards by Jermale Hines. Without the first interception, there was a good chance the Badgers could have come away with at least a field goal. To be fair, Tolzien was under heavy pressure all day and did not receive much help from his offensive line or his wide receivers, who were surrendering sacks, committing penalties and dropping balls left and right.
Offensive Line - The "best offensive line Matt Millen has seen on film this year" did not play like it Saturday. The line allowed Tolzien to be sacked six times after giving up a total of two during the previous five games. False starts and holding penalties consistently set the Badgers back. While it is tough to single out one player with the entire line performing the way it did, Josh Oglesby routinely got beaten in pass protection during the second half and looked slow.
Special Teams - Whether or not it is deserved, Bielema continues to invite criticism every time a special teams issue occurs and he refuses to hire a full-time coach for the unit. Despite ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten last season in both return and coverage statistics, Bielema has stubbornly insisted on continuing to coach special teams himself. Saturday was another inauspicious day in that department. Right after the Badgers cut Ohio State's lead to one score with a field goal, Ray Small returned the ensuing kickoff untouched for a touchdown. This put a team not built for comebacks in a 28-13 second-half hole that they would not emerge from. Philip Welch also missed two field goals. The 57-yard miss is excusable, particularly after Welch made one from the same distance against Fresno State, but the second miss came at the end of a long, impressive drive and was badly needed to make it a 12-point game. David Gilreath simply looks lost returning kicks and punts and seems to be using a coin flip to decide whether or not to call for a fair catch. Enter Maurice Moore, who promptly took an unintentional step out of the Wisconsin end zone on a kickoff return, hesitated and tried to retreat, and then had to scramble just to make it out to the five-yard line. We'll give Bielema credit for successfully calling a fake field goal attempt that put six points on the board, but otherwise, the special teams unit was a mess Saturday.