We saw this coming. It was really no surprise.
Dropped passes, muffed kick returns, lapses in coverage, a late-game fumble. For whatever reason, the Wisconsin Badgers -- who have looked so dominating at home for most of the season -- can't put it all together on the road. That was fine against Minnesota and Indiana, but not so much against better teams like Ohio State and Northwestern.
As a result, a close game that was there for the taking fell to the wayside and the Wildcats won 33-31 Saturday at Ryan Field in Evanston, a place UW hasn't won at in over a decade.
The signs were there. Even in some of UW's most impressive wins, there have been issues that continually rear their ugly head. Go back to the Michigan State win when a blowout turned into a 38-30 win when the secondary gave up two long touchdown passes in the final minutes. Go back to the Indiana win when a dominating performance by the rush defense was spoiled by a poor performance by the cornerbacks and the Badgers ended up with a nail-biting 31-28 victory.
There's a lot we knew coming into the game, but there were a few things we didn't know (good and bad):
What we knew
- We knew the secondary was bad. Bielema's propaganda has attempted to tell us all season that Wisconsin has depth at cornerback, but the reality is that if you have four "able" cornerbacks you don't have two. Mike Kafka's big game was really no surprise.
- We knew the special teams would make a few mistakes. Wisconsin has improved in almost every area this season, but you can easily argue that Bielema's special teams group has regressed. No one was shocked when the coverage units continually gave up big returns to Northwestern. The Wildcats averaged 33.4 yards per return. Issac Anderson's bobbled kick return that he took out of the endzone also hurt. He was tackled at the five yard line and UW ended up punting.
- We knew Wisconsin would get its points. The Badgers' offense is for real and despite NU boasting a decent defense, the Badgers found the end zone and put up 31 points.
- We knew the Badgers would commit silly penalties. It's become a staple of Bielema's tenure at Wisconsin. While UW has improved in this area at home, Bielema's players still struggle mentally on the road. Issac Anderson committed two penalties in five plays, the second of which wiped out his 11-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter when he was called for an illegal shift. Wisconsin ended up settling for a field goal.
What we didn't know
- David Gilreath would find the endzone. It has been an awful year for punt returner David Gilreath and he probably should have lost his job weeks ago, but Bielema's stubbornness paid off Saturday when his guy broke a 68-yard return for a touchdown that cut NU's lead to 27-24
- John Clay would get shutdown. Clay still managed 100 yards on 23 carries and scored a touchdown, but Northwestern did a great job of limiting UW's potent rushing attack and forced Wisconsin to throw the football. While Scott Tolzien had success in the air, it appeared the offense was a little out of sync all day and that contributed to UW failing to score on its final three possessions.
- Wisconsin would lose when scoring 30 or more points. The Badgers entered Saturday's game with a 30-game win streak when scoring 30 or more points. Of course when was the last time Wisconsin failed to win when scoring 30 or more points? Well, that was the last time the Badgers played at Ryan Field when they lost 51-48 to the Wildcats Oct. 8, 2005.
So what's the problem? I've been saying this for weeks: The Badgers are still a year away. They're young and they are going to make mistakes on the road. Are these mistakes becoming a chronic problem under Bret Bielema? Maybe. But this is a different group of players than the veteran group that never put it together last season.
If this team can make strides in what should be a sure-win in Hawaii and carry it over to the bowl game, then I'm confident the mistakes will be limited next year. And if they aren't? Well, then it will be a coaching issue.