Wisconsin football notebook: Starters impress, kicking game brutal again

Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen hinted he was anything but satisfied with Wisconsin after Saturday's rout of Tennessee Tech. - Mike McGinnis

Derek Straus and Connor O'Neill got the job done in their first starts, but Kyle French and Jack Russell struggled.

Redshirt senior shows he belongs

Connor O'Neill has been patiently waiting for his moment now for five years.

Saturday afternoon, he made the most of it.

Making the first start of his career -- in place of injured starting inside linebacker Derek Landisch -- the redshirt senior proved that he wasn't going to give up his new spot without a fight, recording a game-high total of nine tackles and 1.5 TFLs.

"It means a lot to me to be able to run out there with the first unit and get my first start," O'Neill said. "I told myself I wasn't going to live with any regrets after my first game and I feel like I did that and took advantage of that."

O'Neill was quick to fill against the run and relentless in pursuit from his position, seeming to not miss a beat as a replacement. Although he has gotten decent playing time throughout his career, Saturday marked the first time O'Neill received the lion's share of the minutes on the field.

Good thing, because the Badgers' coaches might have seen something Saturday they missed in fall camp, where Landisch won the starting job over O'Neill.

"He did that in spring. He did that at camp. He wrapped his arms around a new scheme," head coach Gary Andersen said. "He's a smart young man. It's really good for us, because with Landisch and O'Neill, it gives you three inside linebackers.

"But to have him come in today and play the way he did, he's waited a long time for that opportunity, and he took advantage of it."

"One of my goals coming into fall camp was to earn the respect of my teammates and coaches," O'Neill added. "And I hope that, especially after this game, I was able to do that a lot more."

Teammate and fellow linebacker Ethan Armstrong also took notice, and views O'Neill as another starter, not a newcomer.

"He's played a lot, he's had a lot of success. He had a great game today and I'm really proud of the way he played," Armstrong said. "But I knew he was going to play that way. ... He's a senior, he's seen it all before so I expected nothing less from him."

Stave struggles with control

Despite posting a solid stat line of 219 yards and three touchdowns on a 24-for-29 performance through the air, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave struggled with his control, underthrowing several receivers including a 4th-down one-hopper to Jeff Duckworth that turned the ball over on downs.

"There were a couple of throws at the end that I'd really like to have back," Stave said. "The passing game can continue to get better. Numbers don't always necessarily tell the whole thing. There was one throw on the 4th [down] and two that I threw right into the ground that I'd like to have back."

It was strikingly similar to the same control issues the sophomore had in the season-opener against UMass, underthrowing a wide-open Jared Abbrederis on several occasions.

"Our ability to pitch it and catch it, not very good stuff," Andersen said. "We have to improve in the throwing game. If we don't, it's going to bite us here pretty quick."

Kicking game brutal once again

Just like 2012, 2013 doesn't figure to be any better for the Badgers' kicking group of Kyle French and Jack Russell.

French missed an extra point in the third quarter and never seemed to kick a clean ball, while Russell came in, perhaps to replace French, and ended up missing a 31-yard field goal.

Andersen didn't hold back when asked how he felt about the kicking struggles.

"Kind of feel the same way I felt about the kickoff team a week ago; it just doesn't seem real clean. It's just not crisp," Andersen said. "We've got to continue to improve and it all starts with me. I'm not pointing fingers at any kid, I'm not pointing fingers at any assistant coaches.

"I've got to find a way to help him and get him where he needs to be. Sometimes the best way to help people is to create competition for them so that's what we'll do. There will be a competitive effort to see where it goes through the week and we'll continue to work with both young men. We've got to get better, we're going to get in a position where we're going to have to make those kicks. ... Most of the PATs didn't have that clean sound of the kick and everything that comes with it to me, so we're going to work at it."

Straus continues to show his stuff

Another first-time starter had his name called Saturday and like O'Neill, made the most of his opportunity.

With the injury to starting fullback Derek Watt, Straus seemed to almost be a duplicate of his teammate, serving up devastating lead blocks out of the I-formation while making good use as a safe option for Stave in the passing game, catching three balls for 10 yards and a touchdown.

"It was a good opportunity for him, and it's another example of a young man that had prepared himself throughout camp and worked hard to get in the moment and took advantage of it," Andersen said.

Straus is a redshirt sophomore, the same year as Watt, so extended game reps have been hard to come by since he's come to Wisconsin. But, like Andersen said, Straus looked like he was mentally prepared, helping to pave the way for another game of three different 100-yard rushers for UW.

"I have been taking mental reps," Straus said of his time behind Watt in camp. "It's just about having confidence in myself that you can do it and get out there and perform. I was prepared and I was very confident coming in and I just had to settle in and do my job."

He was also very honest about the way he thought he did in his first career start.

"I thought I did alright, there are a few blocks I would like to get back," Straus said. "But overall, I was really excited about how I played. I just need to correct those mistakes, fix them on Monday, Tuesday, and prep for Arizona State."

"What stood out is, I guess, is what kind of didn't stand out," Andersen added. "He did a good job. He obviously was doing his job. The run game was moving around very well."

Straus could have had two touchdown receptions, but was looked off of by Stave in favor of Abbrederis in the back of the endzone, although Straus cleared up that he wasn't upset because Abbrederis was the No. 1 option on the play.

"My job's to stretch the play out, it was a touchdown, so why would I be upset?" Straus said.

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