It was nowhere near pretty, but at the end of the day all victories count the same.
In front of 79,568 at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday afternoon, Wisconsin held off a furious charge from Northern Iowa and secured a 26-21 victory.
The Badgers came into the day heavy favorites over the Panthers who play at the FCS level, but certainly didn't look like it. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema noted after the game that Northern Iowa wasn't going to be a pushover.
"A lot of credit should go to Northern Iowa. I've said it before, but I think they are probably the best FCS team we've faced," Bielema said. "I could see that before we even played them today."
The Badgers led 3-0 after the first quarter, and 13-0 at the half, but were forced to make a 4th down stop late in the fourth quarter in their own territory to preserve the victory.
Bielema was surprisingly pleased that his team was forced to play four quarters in their season opener.
"I was very pleased to get out of a game like that -- a four-quarter game -- without having any injuries," Bielema noted.
"I made reference to our guys and told them that any win is a good win, but on the same account, what we learned today is probably one of the most beneficial teaching tools we could ever secure."
Wisconsin found success offensively in the first half running the ball, and keeping the passes short and conservative. It didn't look sexy, but Bielema noted that if they control the ball as much as they did in the first half, more often than not they are going to win the football game.
"That's Wisconsin football, if we snap the ball 80 to 90 times offensively, it usually means we're playing our kind of football," Bielema said.
After driving the ball down the field like a machine on their first drive, the Badgers stalled on third down when tight end Brian Wozniak dropped a catchable third down pass over the middle.
Wisconsin had to settle for a 32 yard field goal from Kyle French. The Wisconsin sophomore kicker would add another field goal early in the second quarter, this time from 35 yards to give the Badgers a 6-0 lead.
The Badgers would score their first touchdown of the season in the final minute of the first half. After putting together a 10-play, five and a half minute drive to take the clock down under a minute, Danny O'Brien found Jarred Abbrederis in the corner of the end zone for his first touchdown pass as a Badger.
O'Brien, a transfer from Maryland looked good in his Badger debut. He was efficient with the ball, and always seemed to make the right read. Those qualities have been a staple of the QB position during the Bret Bielema era at Wisconsin.
After going into the half with a 13-0 lead, the Badgers looked like they were going to run away with the game early in the third quarter. After a heavy dose of the run game, Montee Ball put the Badgers up 19-0 on a 1 yard scamper. The extra point was blocked.
At that point the Wisconsin offense looked like it was starting to click, and the defense had yet to let Northern Iowa cross the 50 yard line.
But the Panthers were far from tapping out.
NIU freshman QB Sawyer Kollmorgen, who at times looked rattled early on, seemed to settle down in the second half leading the Panthers on a touchdown drive late in the third quarter. Kollmorgen hooked up with Chad Owens in the end zone to pull the Panthers within 12 points.
Wisconsin's offense, which was methodical much of the day took a chance early in the fourth quarter. Not throwing the ball longer than 10 yards most of the game, O'Brien reared back and heaved the ball half the length of the field to a wide open Abbrederis who caught the ball in stride and was able to prance into the end zone for a 53 yard score.
It looked like that may be a back-breaker for the Panthers, but instead it seemed to inspire them. Less than two minutes later Northern Iowa was back in the end zone, when a blown coverage on a wheel route out of the backfield made the Badgers defense look very human.
Running back David Johnson swung out wide out of the backfield and the Badger linebackers got sucked into the box, not accounting for the running back. Kollmorgen hit Johnson in stride, and the running back did the rest scampering for 55 yards to the end zone.
Carrying the momentum, the Panthers weren't done scoring. A three-and-out gave the Panthers the ball back in the fourth quarter, and they could smell the upset brewing.
Once again Kollmorgen hit the running back Johnson with a pass, and Johnson found the end zone on a 35 yard pitch and catch to pull the Panthers within just five of the 12th ranked Badgers.
Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley talked about his team seizing momentum in the second half.
"We started winning the line of scrimmage, I thought our offensive line started to protect and gave Sawyer (Kollmorgen) time, and I thought our receivers started to make some great catches for him and finishing plays," Farley said.
"The factor of them starting to stay with the play longer from offensive line to receivers, and Sawyer starting to make the throws, I think everything started to come together."
After the Panthers pulled within five, the Badgers had a chance to put the Panthers away getting the ball back with just over 7 minutes remaining. However Northern Iowa's defense stepped up to the plate, and forced another three-and-out, leaving most Badger fans nauseous.
Driving the ball to the Wisconsin 41 yard line, the Badgers forced the Panthers into a 4th and 1. Dropping back to pass, Kollmorgen's pass was deflected by Wisconsin defensive lineman Ethan Hemer to turn the ball over on downs.
After that, it was time for Montee Ball to close things out for the Badgers. Wisconsin got the ball back with 2:46 left to play, needing just one first down to secure the victory. Four straight handoffs to Ball and the game was in the books.
Again, the game was far from a work of art, but Wisconsin accomplished their ultimate goal of winning the game.
They also found out that they have a pretty solid quarterback to replace the departed Russell Wilson. O'Brien finished the game 19 of 23 for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Badger tight end Jacob Pederson who had a huge third down catch earlier in the game was impressed with the guy throwing him the ball on Saturday.
"He was good with the ball -- no turnovers. He was accurate, got a few touchdown passes. I thought he played really well. He commanded the huddle, and that's what you need a quarterback to do," Pederson said.
Wisconsin Heisman candidate Montee Ball didn't have too bad of a day himself, rushing for 120 yards on 32 carries with one touchdown run. But Ball had to work for his yards, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry in the season opener.
If Wisconsin was sleep walking through the summer thinking that they were going to dance into the Big Ten Championship game simply because of who they are, they realized Saturday that they have another thing coming.
Talking after the game it seemed to light a fire under Ball, Wisconsin's senior running back.
"It's an eye-opener, an eye-opener for us all."
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