I understand the typical Badger fan arriving home from some prior engagement to see a final score of 36-27 in a game against a team like UTEP -- the 108th best team in the nation according to Jeff Sagarin's ratings -- and feeling a bit of disappointment. UTEP is bad and Wisconsin is supposed to good, so they should win by more points. It's pretty simple.
What I don't understand is how the throngs of people watching this game can be so united in their stance that this was yet another supremely disappointing performance in line with the previous three, whether that idea is born from watching the game or merely perusing the box scores.
I mean, I understand -- the Badgers were within a touchdown to a bad team in the fourth quarter and the miasma surrounding the team has even the most optimistic predisposed to unhappy thoughts. But both the numbers and the play that produced said numbers suggest this was by far the best performance of the season, and I can't help but feel like the general response would reflect that if not for a 62-yard touchdown to close the gap with 50 seconds left.
Does that one play with very little on the line really reflect on the quality of the Badgers? I'm not so sure it does, and I think Badger fans would feel much more comfortable with a 37-19 victory and the performance that came with it.
Hark! An offense!
Montee Ball was forced out of the game early, but it really didn't matter. If anything, the Badgers offense was better without Ball.
The offense clicked in a way it hasn't the entire year. The team averaged 7.3 yards per play (including penalties) , eclipsing it's season-best mark against Northern Iowa of 5.5. The team posted a season-high success rate of 53.3% after languishing in the low-30s the past two weeks.
The passing game practically exploded, locking in 9.4 yards per play including plays of 60 and 47 yards. Joel Stave threw a telegraphed interception at the end of the first half, but sacks were a bigger issue -- Stave took three for 22 yards, something the Badgers probably won't be able to handle next week against Nebraska. But overall, there was just much more to fear with this passing game -- Jared Abbrederis makes his quarterbacks better, and he offered Stave a comfortable target both over the top and in the possession game.
The running game didn't skip a beat without Ball. To be sure, the offensive line pushed much better than in all three previous contests (perhaps helped by a passing game finally worth some fear), but Melvin Gordon in particular stood out. Gordon picked up 112 yards on just eight carries and is getting to the point where Bret Bielema and Matt Canada must find a way to get the ball in his hands. In 30 career rushes, Gordon now has 228 rushing yards, 7.6 per carry. James White didn't show nearly the burst or power Gordon did on Saturday, managing just 65 yards on 15 carries (4.3 per).
For the defense, it was a tale of two halves. UTEP had a frigid 22.2% success rate in the first half, only scoring on the Obligatory Big Play allowed by the Badgers defense, a 39-yard touchdown to Michael Edwards. The Miners ran just four other successful plays in the half.
In the second half, the UTEP offense managed to chip away, pairing runs of five-to-eight yards with passing towards the sideline for medium gains. It worked for a touchdown in the third, but short-yardage offenses have a tendency to stall if given enough chances, and that allowed the Badgers to force a field goal in the fourth with a seven-point lead. But it wasn't until the game was in hand and a Badger safety tried to gamble for the interception with 50 seconds to go that the Miners found another big play, the aforementioned 62-yard touchdown.
UTEP finished with a 36.5% success rate, still an excellent showing for the team. So why did the game end up so close? If the offense and defense dominated as the numbers suggest they did, why was it a four-point game in the fourth quarter?
The turnover battle. Montee Ball's fumble and Joel Stave's interception directly led to 10 of the Miners' points. Once the Badgers forced their first turnover -- of the game and the season -- on the kickoff following the Badgers' penultimate touchdown, the game finally started to reflect the per-play performance. The Badgers closed the game swiftly once the turnover battle swung in their direction.
The thing about turnovers: early season turnover success tends to have little correlation to turnover success the rest of the game. So much is luck -- which way did the oblong leather thing bounce? But the Badger secondary has yet to show a penchant for playmaking either, and if that proves to be a trend, the Badgers will struggle in conference play.
If the turnovers start coming? The Badgers could surprise. The conference isn't good, and the Badgers have been the better team on a per-play basis (both by average gain and average success rate) in all four contests so far this season.
Although I understand why the perception of this game is as negative as we've seen, I think it's a bit of pessimism for pessimism's sake. If the Badgers had forced their first turnover in the second quarter instead of the fourth, this game is never in question and the Badgers roll to a victory. Regardless, the team managed to outplay UTEP significantly on both offense and defense.
Sure, it's exactly what the Badgers were supposed to do. Seeing as we haven't been able to say that all season, I feel pretty comfortable calling it progress.