Note: I tried to get a poll into this post, but ran into a bit of a snafu. So I'll ask here with the hope you'll comment below: which quarterback should start against UTEP, Danny O'Brien or Joel Stave? Update: There is now a for realz poll attached!
After sleeping on it, perhaps only one thing is clear. We'd all feel a heck of a lot worse if Josh Thompson hadn't booted that field goal.
Thankfully, he did, and we can start the process of looking forward to UTEP -- if there is such a thing. The quarterback situation will dominate this week's lead-up to the non-confernece finale, as will the offensive line (again) among other things. We'll hit on those below, but first a quick rundown of MVPs and such.
Offensive MVP: RB Montee Ball
If someone else besides Ball deserves this, I sure didn't see it. I wouldn't laugh at Kenzel Doe's name here for his 82-yard punt return touchdown, but if UW hadn't had Ball to pound the rock on 37 carries while two quarterbacks mixed mostly inefficiency with a few glaring mistakes, how would the offense have even scored its one touchdown?
Ball rushed for only 3.8 yards per carry, thought I would argue that's more of a consequence of the offensive line's struggles than anything have to do with Ball. Yes, perhaps, he could've picked up more yards picking up his feet and such, but Ball had several vintage-Ball type of runs where he extended the play by lowering his shoulder, driving opponents into the turf and not stopping on first contact. I said this in the GameThread early in the game, after Ball finished the first quarter with 12 carries. It started to remind me of the Illinois game last year, when the offense was so bad Ball was forced into 38 carries, which he turned into 224 yards and two touchdowns (he added another through the air) in Champlain. I thought that performance was criminally overlooked in his Heisman Trophy candidacy, as UW's offense was purely lost without him.
Barring a few 200-plus-yard efforts over the next few weeks, I think we might as well shelve Ball's Heisman talk for this year. The real issue entering UTEP is that outside of Ball, Wisconsin doesn't have one single playmaker that's a consistent factor.
Defensive MVP: LB Mike Taylor
As a whole, the defense was tough, holding to the tried-and-true bend-but-don't-break Wisconsin game plan. Maybe that's not a game plan really, as it sure would be great to stop the opponent from driving at all. But hey, Utah State outgained Wisconsin 308-234, had a quarterback in Chuckie Keeton thriving on one of the biggest stages of his career and the ability to do it all knowing the Badgers's offense was struggling mightily.
So I come back to Taylor here knowing that it was him who got burned on the Aggies' first score on yet another wheel route. It's pretty stunning that one simple route remains a blatant issue for a Big Ten defense, but hey, at least they recognize it now, right?
"I think it was a wheel route with Mike again, and obviously something that we actually went through [Saturday] morning in coverage," Bielema said. "So it's something we have to protect him on. We've obviously exposed ourselves enough there. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out."
Rocket science aside, Taylor still anchored the Badgers' defense, finishing with a game-high 15 tackles (one for a loss of four yards). I was also impressed with Ethan Armstrong (some of you in the comments were unhappy with his coverage -- I thought he was solid, though I think it's clear we need another look at the film to know for sure) for stepping up as a third linebacker behind Chris Borland. That pair finished with seven tackles each, while Armstrong added a nifty pass deflection in the second half. Turns out, he was also playing pretty banged up after halftime.
"Army actually got x rayed at halftime," Bielema said. "I think he thought he broke his hand. A warrior. I believe he's had two hips and one shoulder surgery, just really competitive, really good football player who is holding it together well. I can't say enough positive things about him."
Special Teams MVP: Kenzel Doe
No doubt here. Who else could it have been? It sure wasn't Kyle French, with his missed field goal and extra point. We got a good look at Drew Meyer, though through virtue of the offense's ineptitude.
Doe's 82-yard score was probably the play of the game, considering Wisconsin was vulnerable on both sides of the ball and already desperate enough to tinker with its quarterback situation.
Goat: The offensive line
It's so puzzling to see this unit continue to make the offense work in overdrive. Between four false starts on one lineman apiece, making Ball have to work harder than perhaps any other time in his career and allowing a steady stream of pressure on O'Brien and Stave, the fall of the offensive line is downright puzzling.
"It's been a difficult week," Bielema said of the offensive line. "You try to make it as positive as we can. I just told the group, I knew it wasn't going to be changed overnight. And it's some things that we've got to get straight and get correct.
Again, we can't beat ourselves with presnap penalties or holding calls. Those really made us play behind the chains. But there were some series where we got the things rolling a little bit. Montee on his touchdown obviously looked more of the same that we've been accustomed to seeing. So we've got to get some of those things back on track."
Afterward, the linemen prided themselves on playing more physical and wearing down Utah State's defensive front. Sure, that could be accurate, but after a week in which right tackle Rob Havenstein said the o-line "worked on more fundamentals, more footwork, and getting in the right spot and finishing" there are clearly some lingering issues.
"The false starts in the first half, only ourselves to blame," Bielema said. "They were shifting from a certain shade alignment to a head up nose and getting the guys covered on the guards. When they were doing that they were making sudden movements and made some barks and got a couple of our guys early, got us with two guards as well as a tight end that jumped on that."
-- Of course, this first one has to touch on the quarterbacks. Bielema's explanation for pulling O'Brien was as follows:
"Number one reason I made transition at the quarterback was just to protect the ball," he said. For us to win at Wisconsin, we can't turn the ball over. And obviously the interception got nullified because of the late hit on Danny. So that was one that we kind of got back as a bonus.
"Then that last, right before the half, the ball just keep your hands a lot of traffic in there. He's holding on with one hand and the ball went on the ground. That's when I talked it over with Coach Canada and the offensive coaches, we all felt good about making the transition."
That last comment addressed O'Brien's fumble right before halftime, on a 3rd-and-13 at Wisconsin's 33-yard line that, at the very least, prevented the Badgers from punting the Aggies farther out of scoring position. Utah State ended up scoring a touchdown five plays later to enter the locker room with a 14-3 lead.
All together, O'Brien finished 5-for-10 for 63 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. Stave went 2-for-6 for 15 yards and not a score or pick. O'Brien also had that interception taken off the board by a late hit, as well as the fumble. Stave's been garnering hype ever since his strong play in the spring, and its safe to say O''Brien's taken a tremendous step backward after his Week 1 effort against Northern Iowa (19-for-23, 219 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions).
Moving forward, I wouldn't be surprised if Bielema and offensive coordinator regularly alternate between the two. I hate two-quarterback systems, but at this point, there's no clear favorite here. I, like apparently everyone else, would like to see more of Stave, but I will argue that not all of O'Brien's miscues were strictly his fault.
-- During the in-game hysteria that reached its climax right before Thompson's field goal, people were calling for the entire coaching staff's head, including Bielema. They're absolutely right in saying the changes are far from over, but with cooler heads hopefully prevailing this morning, let's not Bielema on the hot seat quite yet.
What we're seeing is the stark reality of the challenges presented by a six-man turnover on the coaching staff. We're also seeing the true value of coaching geniuses (I don't think that's considered hyperbole now) like Paul Chryst and Bob Bostad. Bart Miller has generated nothing but praise, but you have to believe a great deal of it stems from the desire to put a positive spin on things after Markuson's firing. While barely escaping Week 3 with a 2-1 record indicates a tremendous need for improvement, I think a bit of patience is needed here for the coaching staff. Even with the whole summer and fall to get acclimated, nothing beats game action and game prep for the coaches. They say the same thing for players, who get all the credit when things go right. When they go wrong, though, the coaches are more often than not the all-too-easy scapegoats.