Saturday's loss at Northwestern featured several of what President Obama might call "teachable moments." Indeed, mental miscues were largely to blame for the Badgers' third defeat of the season. Blown kickoff coverages, confusion in the secondary and ill-timed penalties all contributed to the failure, not to mention two devastating turnovers in the final minutes.
So, what do we make of it all? That Wisconsin is a year away. Losses like this last year - and there were plenty of them - were viewed as inexcusable. The Badgers were loaded with veterans, including six seniors on the starting defensive unit, and should have been a factor in the Big Ten race. But this is a different team, a younger team that, by and large, has exceeded expectations this season.
Wisconsin ran into a streaking team that has had a solid season of its own and wanted to win badly. Northwestern's students rushing the field as time expired indicated how much this game meant to the Wildcats, and they played like it.
This was a maddening loss, no question. The Badgers got off to a sluggish start, and then wasted a handful of chances to make a comeback late. Bret Bielema's dubious record away from Camp Randall Stadium fell to 6-10 since 2007.
It can be argued, though, that this loss may ultimately be beneficial for Wisconsin. In all likelihood, based on Saturday's other Big Ten results, the Badgers would not have played in a BCS game this season even if they had won. After playing a soft schedule with no BCS non-conference opponents and no Penn State, would it really have been in the best interest of a team that has struggled with overconfidence under Bielema to finish with five straight wins and go 10-2, especially when so many of the key players are young and impressionable?
Let this loss sting a bit. Let the coaches feel compelled to spend a few extra hours dissecting the film from this game. Because the mistakes are fixable - and the players making them will be back. It might pay off in 2010.
Let's check in on some of the highlights and lowlights:
Front Seven - The Badgers' front seven held stiff again, limiting the Wildcats to 73 rushing yards. Wisconsin held each of its Big Ten opponents below 100 yards rushing, a remarkable feat for a defense that graduated six starters. Northwestern gained just 2.9 yards per carry and did not reach the end zone on the ground. Its leading rusher ran for 28 yards. Chris Borland forced a fumble that Jaevery McFadden recovered, and the front seven combined for three tackles-for-loss.
David Gilreath - Gilreath has become a staple of the less flattering category of these recaps, but he deserves credit for the way his perseverance paid off Saturday. Gilreath fielded a third-quarter punt cleanly, found a crease, followed his blockers and outran defenders on his way to a critical touchdown. It was the first return touchdown of Gilreath's career, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The score pulled the Badgers within three and gave them a much-needed injection of energy. To call this a rough season for Gilreath would be an understatement, as he has slid down the depth chart at wide receiver, looked lost on returns and battled injuries. Saturday, though, he caught two balls to go along with his magnificent punt return.
Nick Toon - In just his sophomore season, Toon has become a bona fide go-to receiver for Scott Tolzien and Wisconsin. He caught seven passes for 80 yards Saturday, including a 25-yard reception. Toon ran crisp, accurate routes all day, and he seems to be building on his performances from week to week. He is also an effective blocker, which will always be a factor in playing time decisions for a team like Wisconsin. Toon has a promising career as a Badger, provided he continues to develop.
Running Game - While Wisconsin's passing game has been efficient this season, the Badgers still cannot get away with rushing for under 100 yards as a team if they want to win on the road. John Clay, the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year, averaged 4.3 yards per carry, but much of his production came on a 20-yard burst. The Badgers seemed to abandon the running game at times, rather than commit to it, and it seemed the play calling demonstrated a lack of faith in the backs' ability to succeed against the Wildcats. The decision to put the ball in Tolzien's hands on a 4th-and-2 at the Northwestern 33, rather than send the conference's leading rusher up the middle, was particularly curious. Clay's critical fumble on one of Wisconsin's potential game-winning drives was demoralizing. With the Northwestern offense giving Bucky's secondary fits, this was a game Clay needed to take over. Not only did he fail to do that, he may have given the game away.
Secondary - Observers of this team knew that, at some point, Wisconsin's secondary was going to singlehandedly give away a game. It took nearly three months, but it finally happened. The Badgers surrendered an astonishing 364 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air. Mike Kafka was impressive, but he spent most of the day exploiting the horrible coverage skills of Devin Smith. The secondary absolutely hamstrung the entire defense Saturday. The unit's ineptitude forced Dave Doeren to let the linebackers help in coverage, rather than rush the quarterback, giving a mobile Kafka all the time he needed to pick the Badgers apart.
Special Teams - We've said it before, and we'll say it again. Regardless of whether it is fair, Bielema will continue to receive heavy criticism for his decision not to hire a full-time special teams coach, as long as that unit continues to perform poorly. Gilreath's punt return for a touchdown aside, Saturday was another bad day for Bielema's troops. Wisconsin gave up 33.4 yards per kickoff return and did not muster much of a challenge to Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos, as he nailed all four of his field goal attempts. In addition to giving up a 64-yard return, the Badgers muffed one of their own, as Isaac Anderson let the ball hit him near the goal line, picked it up in the end zone and only gained five yards. Northwestern decidedly won the field position battle Saturday and, in a two-point game, that could have been the difference.