I don't even know where to begin.
Just a week after we didn't even have anything to break down against Austin Peay, we're going to need two separate posts just to get through Wisconsin's 34-24 loss at Michigan State Saturday.
In this first post, we'll just go over what I saw after rewatching the game and point to key plays and trends that ultimately pointed this game in Michigan State's favor. In Part II, we'll look at a few different plays and I'll show you why James White might not being ready to take over as UW's starting running back.
We're going to go over a number of different aspects of Saturday's game, but the three that really stood out to me were special teams, UW's third down defense and the offensive play calling for both teams.
But first, let's go back to two key moments in the first-half when I really thought the Badgers let the game slip away:Holding a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, the Badgers had a chance to really jump out to a good start when Keith Nichol fumbled the ball after an eight yard reception on 3rd-and-5. Aaron Henry recovered and UW got the ball at the MSU 35.
But Paul Chryst called for a pass on first down and Scott Tolzien was forced to throw it away and nearly got called for intentional grounding. It was the third time in the game that UW threw the ball on first down and it clearly wasn't working. All-in-all, Wisconsin threw the ball nine times on first down and only completed one pass -- Tolzien's four-yard completion to Bradie Ewing on the first play of the game.
The Badgers went three-and-out and Welch hit a 49-yard field goal to make it a 10-3 lead. This came right after the Badgers only threw the ball once on their previous drive, which was an eight-play, 74-yard touchdown drive that only took 3:43. Why not stick with what was proving to work?
Then, even after the Badgers gave up the lead thanks to their shaky special teams play, they were handed another break and this time failed miserably to take advantage of it.
After Watt made a tremendous play to tip Kirk Cousins' pass right to Devin Smith for an interception, UW went to work at the MSU 48.
This time the Badgers ran the ball on first down but John Clay's five-yard run was wiped out by an obvious and pointless block-in-back by Nick Toon. On the very next play, Gabe Carimi had one of the worst downs I've ever seen him have as he let defensive end Denzel Drone go right by him and sack Tolzien, forcing a fumble which Peter Konz eventually recovered for a loss of 22 yards.
On the next two plays, Toon dropped a pass and Kevin Zeitler was called for a hold.
Talk about self-destruction. After punting, MSU went on to score a touchdown (more on that drive later) and the Spartans had a 10-point lead at the half.
Wisconsin hardly ever loses when they win the turnover battle. Saturday they won it 3-0, but did not do enough to take advantage of those mistakes.
After the game it was really easy to point to Keshawn Martin's 74-yard punt return for a touchdown and say Wisconsin's special teams unit let them down. But after watching the film, UW's special teams was even worse than I thought. Get a load of all these mistakes:
- James White bobbles the opening kickoff. Wisconsin opens the game at their own 13-yard line.
- Kyle Zuleger misses the tackle on Martin and he is able to reverse fields and gain 25 yards on the return. Devin Smith gets called for a facemask as he finally takes Martin out of bounds and another 15-yards is added to the end of the return. Michigan State starts the drive at UW's 45-yard line and ends up with a field goal to cut UW's lead to 10-6.
- Punting from their own 33-yard line, Wisconsin is called for a false start (they called it on No. 49 Brian Wozniak, but I'm pretty sure it was No. 48 Jacob Pedersen). On the re-kick, Brad Nortman kicks a line-drive right to Martin despite having the wind at his back. The kick coverage hardly has a chance and Martin takes it back 74 yards for a touchdown. MSU takes a 13-10 lead and never trails again. That's 10 points on UW's special teams unit in just a matter of minutes.
- On his next punt, Brad Nortman shanks it off the side of his foot and only gets off a 14-yard kick.
- White bobbles the squib kick at the end of the 1st half, negating a decent chance at a return because it was hit right to him on a line drive.
- On UW's final kickoff of the game, Zuleger is called offsides and Philip Welch has to re-kick.
Did you get all that? There is no need to go into more detail. The impact of all these mistakes is clearly evident and for all them to happen in one game -- actually all of them but the last one was in the first half -- is really a reflection on how bad the unit continues to be since Bret Bielema took over as head coach. It's really that simple.
Third down defense
At this point, everyone probably knows the stat. Michigan State came into Saturday's game 103rd in the country on third downs after only converting 31.8 percent of them in their first four games. Then Saturday, against the best team they had faced all season, they converted 9-of-18 third downs.
But honestly, Saturday's 50 percent conversion rate for the Spartans does not do it justice. We can't forget MSU converted on fourth down twice after failing on third down and their average yards-to-go on third down was 6.7 yards. The Spartans converted five of their last seven third down conversions, including 3rd-and-9, 3rd-and-11 and 3rd-and-5 on their final game-clinching drive. Wisconsin gave up a total of 58 yards on those three plays alone.
The one conversion the Spartans missed on that drive was when they had 3rd-and-goal at the seven, but Larry Caper still managed to pick up six yards on the play. That allowed them to go for it on 4th down from the one-yard line, which they of course resulted in the touchdown to B.J. Cunningham, essentially sealing the game.
It's safe to say Wisconsin's "Badger Package", which we broke down in our first Monday Film Session this season, failed miserably Saturday. That's where the loss of Chris Borland hurts the most. Wisconsin needs another play maker in there besides J.J. Watt and they aren't getting that from anyone right now.
Wisconsin got beat at their own game
It only takes a quick glance at the numbers to see why Wisconsin lost this game. The Badgers rarely win games when they lose the time of possession battle 36:24-23:36.
Most will point to MSU's final 7:57 drive as the one that hurt the most, but don't overlook the fact that the Badgers only held the football for 2:58 in the third quarter. After cutting Michigan State's lead to 20-17 in just three plays on their first possession of the second half, Wisconsin only touched the ball one other time in the third quarter and that was a three-and-out when they were pinned at their own one-yard line.
It seemed pretty likely that if the Badgers ever got the ball in a position where they had room to move it, they would score. That happened twice in the second half and indeed, the Badgers scored touchdowns both times. But they only had the ball on two other possessions the entire half. The first being the one I just mentioned when they were pinned at the one-yard line and the other not coming until they were down 34-24 with 2:37 left in the game.
That's how Wisconsin usually beats teams, but on Saturday the Spartans gave the Badgers a dose of their own medicine.
Meanwhile, give MSU offensive coordinator and acting-head coach Don Treadwell a ton of credit for outcoaching the Badgers Saturday. His play-calling was terrific. All day long the Spartans beat up the Badgers defense on the stretch run play and they came up with creative ways to get tight end Charlie Gantt open.
But Treadwell dialed up the best plays for the most crucial times in the game. That started in the second quarter when the Spartans went for it on 4th-and-1 at the UW 48-yard line. Treadwell called for a misdirection pitch to La'Veon Bell and as the entire Badger defense got sucked in, Bell ran off with the football on the left side and gained 23 yards. Michigan State went on to score a touchdown and took a 20-10 lead to the locker room at the half. That was a huge play in the game.
The screen pass on 3rd-and-11 on MSU's game-clinching drive was also a great call. Larry Caper gained 35 yards on the play after not touching the football the entire game up to that point.
And of course the two play-action passes on the 1-yard line that went for touchdowns speak for themselves.
Treadwell usually calls plays from the coaching box and for him to go down the sidelines as acting-head coach and still call the game the way he did was very impressive.
Still to come in Part II, we'll try to answer a number of questions including: Why didn't the Badger Package work Saturday? What's wrong with UW's offensive line? And how was MSU so successful on those short yardage situations? I'll also show you a big reason why James White might not be able to take over as Wisconsin's No. 1 running back.