Wisconsin vs. Arizona State: Shock aside, Badgers' loss provides invaluable learning experience

Christian Petersen

The Badgers made plenty of mistakes Saturday night, putting them in a position where the referees could determine the game -- regardless of whether the game ended properly or not.

The morning after.

The awkwardness, the confusion, the regrets. These emotions apply to plenty of morning-after situations, but perhaps none so fitting as Wisconsin's Saturday night loss to Arizona State.

If you’re like me, you’ve been born and raised in the prime years of your life on Wisconsin football debacles against respectable teams on the road. Last year it was Oregon State, two years ago Michigan State, the year before that Michigan State ... you get the picture.

Still, it’s hard to sum up the grotesque uniqueness of 2013’s first loss. In a game that featured plenty of highs (Melvin Gordon just being Melvin Gordon, Jeff Duckworth showing up after a two-year slumber) and lows (the abysmal performance of quarterback Joel Stave, the surgeon-like picking apart of the Wisconsin secondary) perhaps nothing in the history of Badger football has seen an ending like Saturday night.

Despite the various debacles, Wisconsin did enough to beat Arizona State. Did Wisconsin deserve to win? You be the judge.

Stave had perhaps the worst game of his career, the Badgers played against -- as the Wisconsin State Journal’s Tom Oates put it in his column this morning -- a bad match-up and couldn’t stop the pass, yet somehow put themselves in position to win a tough game on the road.

But, as the coaches of our youth always preached growing up, if you want to win, don’t ever put yourself in a position where the refs can decide the final outcome. And in the fashion of Forrest Gump, that’s all I have to say about that (game ending).

Wisconsin’s mediocrity on offense against Arizona State was by far and away the biggest negative in this game. Not only was its failure to move the ball disheartening, but the amount of three-and-outs the unit produced put the team’s defense in a spot where it couldn’t catch its breath in the second half against the Sun Devil’s fast-paced spread offense.

I personally don’t blame the defense for the loss in this game. It performed admirably, especially considering how outmatched the secondary was against the Sun Devils' precision air attack led by quarterback Taylor Kelly, who, I might add, played terrific (back-shoulder throws aren’t as easy as he made them look).

A note on the secondary: I know many readers will say, "what are you doing complimenting them? The guys either gave up a big play every down or committed a penalty."

Well, that may be true, but look at it like this: Arizona State has one of the better quarterbacks and passing attacks in the Pac-12 and probably most of the FBS. Four of Wisconsin’s five players in the secondary are new blood and have never played on the road (MIchael Caputo, Sojourn Shelton, Darius Hillary and PenielJean). They also hadn't yet faced a quality passing-offense like Arizona State's, which made Saturday's match-up all the more daunting. There were plenty of holes, but for a first experience mixed in with the fact that the defense was on the field a it wasn’t all that awful.

After Wisconsin finally put together a long, traditional drive to crawl back to a two-point deficit in the third quarter, the Badgers' defense forced the Sun Devils to give the ball up and put UW's offense in a position to potentially win the game.

Still, the biggest problem in this game was undoubtedly the poor performance of Stave. The Sun Devils love to bring the pressure -- they ranked second in the nation in sacks last year, after all -- and Stave was unable to recognize pressure pre-snap and lacked the confidence to check off to another play. Plus, his throws were wild and after taking a few hits, he never got into a rhythm.

But what still boggles my mind is the fact that Melvin Gordon did not touch the ball at least two out of every three downs Saturday night, especially in crunch time. What Gordon does when he touches the ball is incredible and can’t be overstated. He is a game-changer, one of just two on the Wisconsin offense (the other being Jared Abbrederis).

I didn’t agree with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s play-calling for the vast majority of the game, especially with his small number of screens and jet-sweeps, plays that made the blitz-happy Sun Devils pay. I thought that after Gordon proved Arizona State could not stop him throughout the game he would not only take almost all of the snaps moving into crunch time, but that he would be in for Wisconsin’s critical two-point attempt in the fourth quarter.

Yet instead of keeping Gordon in for the play, the Badgers subbed him for senior James White and also elected to throw the ball, resulting in Stave getting hit and forcing a throw as he went down to the pressure.

I can’t really understand passing the ball when your opponent hasn’t been able to stop the rush all night. And why would you ever take Gordon out in that situation? He’s far more respected as a running threat than White (sorry, James) and at least he could have provided a valuable distraction for a play-action call when they went for it.

I saw this dilemma live when I was present at the 2011 Rose Bowl against TCU. Right after John Clay had demolished the Horned Frogs on a long-drive to potentially tie the game, then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst elected to take Clay out and go from the shotgun with Montee Ball in the backfield.

The receiver was open, but it still went away from the Wisconsin identity and what had worked in the game. Clay could have been kept in to at least serve as a respectable option the defense had to respect if the Badgers would have gone to play-action, even if it was out of the shotgun. It's strange how this play is almost a mirror of the two-point conversion attempt last night.

I guess what I'm trying to get at amidst this incoherent jumble of thoughts is my one observation: even though the Badgers put themselves in a position to win, they didn't play well enough to win decisively. A win is indeed a win and Kyle French deserved a chance to try to give UW a tough one on the road, but ultimately the Badgers buried themselves in a hole with inconsistent offensive play that wouldn't give their defense the break it needed.

What happened Saturday night isn’t ideal, but it’s not the end of the world. Few of us expected Wisconsin, with all its weaknesses, to finish the season without a few blemishes. Luckily, the first proverbial pimple on this Wisconsin team in the adolescence of the season came where it will leave but a minor mark.

Nobody likes a non-conference loss, especially in the fashion of this one. But Saturday night helped expose the Badgers to problems of their own they can control and correct moving forward. And with a date with powerful Ohio State looming in the near future, the lessons Wisconsin may have just learned could prove invaluable.

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