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Wisconsin emerges from bye week in solid Big Ten shape

After an early bye, Wisconsin approaches an intriguing non-conference game in decent shape relative to the rest of the Big Ten.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin's first bye of 2014 came a bit sooner than usual, but after digesting the Badgers' first two outings this season, the timing is probably opportune. The final results of those games were pretty much chalk for those making predictions, but how it all happened? Since Wisconsin's three-score lead midway through the third quarter against LSU, terming fandom of this team "a roller coaster" is almost exclusively apt.

Two weeks ago, the ether was filled with reactions, over- and otherwise, to UW's disappointing last 20 minutes against LSU. Was Tanner McEvoy the right choice, and when he (and his teammates) faltered against a rejuvenated LSU defense, why didn't Gary Andersen just go to Joel Stave? And just where exactly was erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon in that second half? The guy breaks off a 65-yard run on Wisconsin's opening drive and gets two (!?!) more carries the rest of the way? And by all that's holy, will Wisconsin ever win the big one and stop it already with these kicks to the groin? Is Andersen really all that different from Bret Bielema at the end of the day?

When the smoke cleared after Week 1 -- and after some ill-received public relations by Andersen on consecutive days, concerning first Gordon and his hip flexor injury and then Stave and his continuing shoulder struggles -- all that was left was to wait and see if the ship could be righted in a get-well game against overmatched FCS Western Illinois in the home opener. The crowd at Camp Randall last week was ready, and a WIU kick returner/knucklehead gave the Badgers the quickest points in history, but then, a big, ol' pfft. Wisconsin suddenly couldn't run the ball and here's this McEvoy again throwing an interception in the first seven minutes of the game. My God, where is this season going? Seriously.

But not to worry, right? Well no, not quite. Passes continued to fall incomplete when they were either errant or dropped. Western Illinois' defense continued to snuff out Wisconsin's run game, including at the empty culmination of a 17-play, 90-yard drive when Corey Clement was stuffed on a 4th-and-1. Even a Michael Caputo interception deep in Wisconsin territory couldn't jumpstart the offense.

But then, starting with just over three minutes before the half, McEvoy completed a 37-yard pass to Sam Arneson, scrambled himself for 10 more yards and then hit paydirt with another scramble from 7 yards out. Just like that, Wisconsin was finally in the endzone. The relief in the stadium had to have been palpable. Could it be that McEvoy, the focal point of the offense now, was coming alive?

Indeed he had, and he was just getting started. At one point, McEvoy completed 17 straight passes (many on screen passes), no mean feat against anyone who's trying to stop you, and finished with a line of 23-of-28 for 283 yards and three touchdowns. It would've looked better without Rob Wheelwright blowing his route on the interception and Reggie Love dropping a sure touchdown in the second quarter (neither wideout was heard from again, as Alex [Abbred]Erickson -- 10 catches for 122 yards, besting his 2013 season total, and Arneson -- were the go-to guys). Western Illinois forced Wisconsin to win with its quarterback and that's exactly what happened. Plenty has rightly been said about the strength of the opponent (and in FCS, Western Illinois is quite average), but McEvoy showed he can do it.

For its part, Wisconsin's defense never let Western Illinois in any range to score after Caputo's interception and an efficient two-minute drill that ended the first half with just a field goal. The Leathernecks' offense is no juggernaut, but a final tally of three points is right about where Wisconsin wanted to be. If the trend stays in place to close out the conference season, this young-ish defense should be confident and sound by the time conference play begins and the opposing offenses become a little more difficult to stop.

The victory was Wisconsin's first in four tries, going back to the mess against Penn State that unceremoniously closed last year's regular season. The Badgers should have a winning attitude going forward, which is critical for a college team. As far as fans can tell, the coaching staff and the players are now on the same page. Teams may try to execute the Chicago Bears "46" defense and sell out wholesale against the run like Western Illinois did, but at least it looks like McEvoy can make them pay for that choice. If this defense continues to look like it's supposed to (and Warren Herring returns at something close to full health), there's no reason at all to back off predictions that Wisconsin will play for the conference title.

Weird as it sounds, the Badgers actually stand out right now against their conference and division brethren

Weird as it sounds, the Badgers actually stand out right now against their conference and division brethren. They didn't need a "Heisman moment" at the last minute to get past FCS McNeese State (Nebraska did rebound nicely vs. Fresno State) and they didn't need two touchdowns in final two minutes while their quarterback attempted 55 passes against a MAC team (Iowa, of course, then went on to lose to purportedly weaker in-state rival Iowa State).They also didn't lose to a MAC team, either (add Indiana to that list). The Big Ten East favorites all lost by at least two touchdowns in national games, not by four points (Virginia Tech wasn't ranked and then promptly lost to East Carolina). The conference's College Football Playoff hopes may be on life support, but for fans of teams in this conference and fans of this team in particular, there's still plenty to play for -- and the Badgers now look as ready as anyone to join the fray.

Ohio State and Michigan rebounded against vastly overmatched MAC teams and, as mentioned, Nebraska looked more like what you'd expect. But Bowling Green, Wisconsin's next opponent, took down Indiana in a full four-quarter effort, so the Badgers may well have their hands full. Illinois and Iowa did the conference and division no favors at all and Purdue, while showing signs of life like it usually does against Notre Dame, just came up short in the end. No reason to worry about these Badgers during the bye week, and afterward, the division looks to be there for the taking. Let's just hope this Saturday doesn't bring a whole new set of worries.

Lache pas, as Bill King likes to say.