You play to win the game, they say. And by that measure, Wisconsin's 2012 debut against Northern Iowa went just fine. Perfect, even.
But, of course, it's difficult to get past this scoreline. Sure, Northern Iowa is probably the best FCS team the Badgers have played recently. That's what Bret Bielema said. They finished fifth in the division last year and opened the season ranked seventh. Jeff Sagarin's season-opening rankings (one of the few that combines FBS and FCS) had Northern Iowa 89th -- significantly better than a few of the Badgers' opponents last year (UNLV, Indiana, Minnesota and South Dakota all ranked in the 100s).
Still. It was a mere five point victory at the fortress that is Camp Randall Stadium by a supposed Big Ten contender (or even National Championship contender in some dream scenarios). Is there any doubt last season's squad would have won this game by 20? 30? What was the root of the disappointment, and where do we go from here?
The above chart shows the game at a drive level. Each dot represents whether the play was a success (read on below for more on that); the size of the dot represents the yards gained on the play, and the line shows the team's overall success rate. The R/P tabs show this data separated by play type (Run/Pass).
Scorelines can, at times, be deceiving. Football is game where full-game dominance can be swayed by one single play. The nature of the clock can mean that not all opportunities are created equally. Field position can see a team dominate through whole drives but leave with just three points.
That was the story of the first half for the Badgers. Wisconsin dominated both sides of the ball by pretty much any measure. The Badgers gained 4.8 yards per play to Northern Iowa's 2.8 -- and that was with 43 plays run to Northern Iowa's 14. The Badgers weren't making big plays, they were just consistently pushing the chains forward. It was successful football; Wisconsin football.
That leads us to the definition of an important statistic: Success Rate. The concept is simple: if a play increases the team's odds of getting a first down, it's a success. If it doesn't, it's not. This success is defined differently depending on the down: half the necessary yards on first, 70 percent on second, and all on either third or fourth. These rates typically range from 33% to 55% in the FBS; the Badgers were routinely over the 60% mark with their rocket-powered 2011 offense. If you're so inclined, think of it as the on-base percentage of football.
The Badgers carried a 51.5% success rate into halftime -- a very good mark, one that's usually enough to put some big point on the board when combined with the dominant defense Wisconsin played in the first half. But an inability to blow the game open with a big run and the seeming unwillingness to open the playbook led to drives that stalled after two or three first downs. The Badgers had just one play over 20 yards in the first half. Combine that with the first few drives starting inside or around their own 20 and the team needed to consistently get five or more first downs to get in the end zone.
Why is that a problem? Even with a 60% success rate, the chance of three consecutive failures is 6.4%. At 51.6%, where the Badgers sat, the odds rise to 13.7%, or more than 1-in-8. Given enough chances to fail -- the dink-and-dunk, no-big-play offense the Badgers were content to run provided plenty -- and a team will, eventually. And that's why it was 13-0 at halftime instead of 17-0 or 21-0.
The Badgers opened it up once in the second half, with the 53-yard strike from Danny O'Brien to Jared Abbrederis to account for what would be Wisconsin's final score of the game. But that was it. Even as Northern Iowa stormed back to make it a game, the Badgers dinked here and dunked there. The 53-yard pass elevated Wisconsin's yards per play to 5.5 by the end of the game, but even that number would embarrass the 2011 squad. Only once -- at Illinois -- did the Badgers fail to reach that mark. Both times against Michigan State, one of the nation's supreme defenses, they eclipsed it. But not against Northern Iowa in 2012.
And then in the third quarter, Northern Iowa stopped running the ball. Wisconsin's defense was impressive against the run all game. The Panthers went into halftime averaging just 2.1 yards per rush and a terrible 33% success rate, leading them to rough situations on second and third. Freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen looked out of sorts in the first half, especially in obvious passing situations.
But then, they decided to just throw it. The Badgers managed little pressure on Kollmorgen all game long -- just one sack on 35 drop backs. Northern Iowa racked up 238 yards on 28 second-half pass attempts, averaging an excellent 8.5 yards per attempt. It wasn't that the Northern Iowa offense was consistently successful. Northern Iowa had just a 46% success rate in the second half. But the ability to rack up the big play made it a game. The Panthers ran plays of 10, 16, 21, 14, 55, 20, 31, 12, 18 and 12 yards in the second half. Their only 10+ yard play of the first half went for 16.
The inconsistency in the offense is what eventually led to the collapse on 4th-and-1 on the Panthers final drive -- they just couldn't string enough of these big plays together on their last drive. But the Badgers' complete inability to stop big plays in the passing game is nothing new. It's what sunk the team last season in every single one of their losses, and it will do so in 2012 again unless there is either a significant change on defense or -- and this is probably more realistic -- the offense starts putting games out of reach with big plays early and often.
Danny O'Brien was impressive in his first start as a Badger quarterback. His 19-for-23, 212 yard, two touchdown performance resulted in 9.2 yards per pass and an adjusted (20-point bonus for TD, 45-yard penalty for INT) yards per attempt of 11.3. That's the 32nd highest mark for a Badger quarterback since 2000, ranking just between Russell Wilson's first neutral site performance against Northern Illinois last season and Tyler Donovan in a win at Iowa in 2006.
But I can't help but wonder if there could have been more. We saw Jared Abbrederis haul in that 53-yard bomb and it looked like a play that would have been there all day had the Badgers chosen to take it. But instead, we saw O'Brien go beyond 20 yards just two other times -- completions on the Badgers' first touchdown drive of the day.
The receivers, for the most part, looked capable when given the opportunity. Jordan Fredrick was targeted just twice but made 39 yards of it. Abbrederis needed just eight targets to get to 82 yards. Jacob Pedersen made 26 yards on his two targets. But we saw so few down field plays it was difficult to judge.
Perhaps that was by design. You'll hear talk about "not opening the playbook" all week, and it could be on point. But the decision making was odd. Just feed the ball to Montee Ball 32 times, largely with eight or nine Panthers in the box, and watch him stumble to a 3.8 yards per carry mark, and pass it only if absolutely necessary.
To Ball's credit, his 57.1% success rate was very good -- he often needed just two yards and would therefore get just two yards, and the running game tends to be more about success than big plays in the long run. He picked up 31 yards in the passing game, too, something the Badgers should look to utilize more -- they've been successful the last few years when targeting backs, from Ball to Bradie Ewing and back again.
On the Northern Iowa side, there wasn't any one player who pushed the Badgers (as Cal Poly's Ramses Barden did in the Wisconsin's last FCS scare back in 2008). Running back David Johnson racked up 125 all-purpose yards, but most came on the broken-play 55-yard touchdown pass to make the game 26-14, and then again on a similar play for a 31-yard score to make it 26-21.
Unfortunately, defensive statistics in college football aren't kept as robustly as they are in the NFL. Defense is relatively easy to judge on a team level, but it can be very difficult to accurately assign credit at the individual level. As such, unless a performance really sticks out, I likely won't be covering the individual defensive players much in these summaries.
The Badgers now head to Oregon State, a team that looks to be better and playing with the home field advantage. Wisconsin will need to tighten up the defense or open up the playbook to make 2-0 a reality.