Slowly but surely, the Wisconsin football team is starting to generate national buzz after a 5-0 start. The Badgers' 31-28 win in Minnesota was their second straight impressive Big Ten victory. In keeping with what has become a trend this season, the game was not as close as the score might indicate, with Wisconsin perhaps about to go up by two touchdowns before Minnesota returned a boneheaded Zach Brown fumble for a score in an 11-point swing.
The Badgers now head into a monster showdown with Ohio State in the Horseshoe. This will no doubt be their toughest test of the season to date and, perhaps, all year. While Ohio Stadium is one of the tougher places to play in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes have already lost there once this season, to a USC team starting a true freshman at quarterback in an evening affair. Ohio State has yet to face an offense as balanced as Wisconsin's and the Badger defense has done a reasonably good job stopping the run and forcing turnovers this season. Given Jim Tressel's penchant for playing ultra-conservative defense when protecting a late lead, Badger fans should feel good about the possibilities if Wisconsin has the ball with a chance to tie or win in the closing minutes.
Let's go to the highlights from Saturday's big win over Minnesota.
John Clay - After fumbling three times against Wofford, the star running back has put together back-to-back impressive performances against Big Ten defenses. If Clay continues to get at least 30 carries per game and pile up yardage in the second half, as he has the past two weeks, the Badgers will have a chance to win in every game. Clay ran for 184 yards and three touchdowns and never turned the ball over. In conditions designed to favor strong rushing attacks, Clay ran with style, carrying multiple defenders at times and never failing to fall forward. By the middle of the second half, the Minnesota defense looked worn out, with plenty of hands on hips and even a couple injuries. Credit head coach Bret Bielema and his staff for resisting the temptation to overuse Clay during the non-conference part of the schedule. It would have been very easy, against some soft defenses, to give him the ball 40 times and watch him plunge through holes all day. But 40 carries means getting tackled 40 times and it appears the Badgers have learned from the mid-to-late-season deterioration of PJ Hill and Brian Calhoun in the past that it may be best to preserve the number-one back. Despite the early success of quarterback Scott Tolzien, the Badgers need Clay to maintain his current pace in order to continue to win consistently.
Tight Ends - Garrett Graham is officially Scott Tolzien's security blanket. Any time a pass play seems on the verge of breaking down, Graham seems to be in exactly the right place for Tolzien to make a quick, achievable throw. He caught three passes on the Badgers' opening drive and finished with seven on the day for 68 yards. This came a week after he was on the receiving end of three touchdown passes. The depth at the tight end position for Wisconsin is impressive, with Lance Kendricks building on his already strong play by catching a touchdown in the back of the end zone and remarkably getting a foot down in bounds. It was a tremendous display of field awareness for a player really coming into his own. Nine of the Badgers' 16 receptions on the day were hauled in by the tight ends.
Front Seven - Despite the Gophers' big day through the air, Wisconsin's front seven played well, limiting Minnesota's ability to run the football and being disruptive enough in the backfield to prevent some big pass plays as well. Minnesota finished with 57 net rushing yards for an average of two per carry and its leading rusher, DeLeon Eskridge, ran for only 60 yards. Defensive ends O'Brien Schofield and Louis Nzegwu combined for four sacks of Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber and Schofield forced a key fumble to end the game as well. Defensive tackle Patrick Butrym recorded a diving interception on a nice read of a screen pass. The front seven played well enough to mask some of the issues of the Badgers' terminally inept secondary.
Ball Security - It may be unfair to pile on Zach Brown after the conference season he has had thus far, but it would be equally unfair to analyze this game without talking about the single reason Minnesota ever had a chance to win in the fourth quarter. With the Badgers up 24-13 and mounting an impressive drive, a draw play for Zach Brown was called on third down. Wisconsin was well within field goal range and would have probably gone up 27-13 - had Brown not fumbled for the third consecutive week. Minnesota scooped up the ball, ran it all the way back for a touchdown, converted the two-point try and was suddenly only down by a field goal. It was a huge shift in momentum and made the remainder of the fourth quarter unnecessarily tense. Brown's third straight game with a fumble all but ensures that he will never see the starting role he held for several games this season. He only had five carries until that point anyway and his general ineffectiveness, combined with John Clay's supreme performance and the increasing playing time of Erik Smith and Montee Ball, seems to point towards a minimal role for Brown in the future. Scott Tolzien also fumbled while on the run, despite hardly being hit. While the conditions were less than ideal for ball security, it has been a point of emphasis since week three and needs to be fixed if the Badgers want to win in Columbus.
Clock Management - Bielema has never been known as a great manager at the ends of halves and games, and the number of painfully close losses the Badgers suffered a year ago are testament to that. As Hoge pointed out in his live game thread, Wisconsin had the ball at the end of the first half with plenty of time to score and chose to pass on third-and-one with three timeouts remaining. The pass fell incomplete and the Badgers were unable to use any of their timeouts to their advantage. Then, at the end of the game, with Wisconsin clinging to a three-point lead and with possession of the ball, Scott Tolzien dropped back to pass on third down again. The pass fell incomplete, giving the Gophers 40 extra seconds they would not have had if the Badgers had simply run. Minnesota had no timeouts remaining at the time. Thankfully, O'Brien Schofield sacked quarterback Adam Weber and forced a fumble that was recovered by Chris Borland to win the game. Nonetheless, the Gophers were able to approach the final drive more methodically because Wisconsin gave them an extra 40 seconds at the end of the game.
Secondary - Every team that plays Minnesota this year knows it cannot hope to shut down star wide receiver Eric Decker. Still, 140 receiving yards and a score is not acceptable. Devin Smith, Niles Brinkley and Aaron Henry got turned around, burned deep and manhandled more times than one would like to see. The secondary has been a weakness all season and it doesn't figure to improve any time soon. Safeties Jay Valai and Chris Maragos have generally played well but are on the field way too long, thanks to the ongoing suspensions of Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant.