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Wisconsin vs. Nebraska: Badgers need answers on offense, along with adjusted expectations

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UW's offense needs to respond from its rough outing on Saturday, even with the possibility of two more starters out with injury.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If you like "defensive football," and you weren't a Wisconsin fan, Saturday's game was for you. On the other hand, one could easily argue that the low total was because both of offenses were really just not that good. Wisconsin's defense was very good, but Iowa's offense was anything but great, what with its two scoring drives coming on short fields courtesy of two of the four turnovers coughed up by the Badgers.

Quarterback Joel Stave, making on Saturday his 33rd start, had at least a hand in all four turnovers. The disastrous goal line fumble, coming after redshirt freshman guard Micah Kapoi stepped on Stave's foot (not a first for Stave), was lost when the quarterback simply didn't eat the ball and redshirt freshman running back Taiwan Deal couldn't fall on it. A touchdown there, from Iowa's 1 yard line on second down, likely would have won the game.

The turnovers were just a part of one of the worst performances Stave's turned in as a Badger. The fifth-year senior was inaccurate, continued to lock on receivers that may or may not have been open, and even tripped over field turf running for a certain first down. It just looks like he's made little progress in 2015, especially following a less than sparkling game against Hawaii the week before.

Stave had plenty of help playing poorly against Iowa. Even when Stave was on target, multiple passes were dropped, including right up to the last drive of the game when running back Dare Ogunbowale began running toward yards of daylight before catching the ball. Pass protection was poor at times - the strip/sack fumble leading to Iowa's field goal, was solely on left tackle Tyler Marz. The line ineffective run blocking, too, with Iowa holding the Badgers to just 86 yards rushing.

The 10 points conceded by the defense would almost certainly guarantee a win with a "normal" Wisconsin offense. In nearly every aspect, the offense to this point bears little resemblance to which Wisconsin fans are accustomed. We're seeing now that 30 points and 400 yards each game is not a UW entitlement. We're also seeing what happens when you don't have a Melvin Gordon on your team.

Missing Gordon's heir apparent and top running back, Corey Clement, makes matters even worse; Clement was also the Badgers' only known offensive playmaker going into the season. The hits then kept on coming: UW lost Alex Erickson to a concussion early in third quarter, and then Austin Traylor in the fourth quarter. By the time it was over, the Badgers were without their top RB, top WR, and top TE.

Moving the ball with a quarterback who's a B-minus on his best days (and only then when he has a typical Wisconsin offensive line and running game) is tough enough. Doing it without Clement, Erickson (who may be back for Nebraska), and Traylor, who's blocking is as critical as his receiving, is herculean.

As Wisconsin moves past this loss, starting against a Nebraska team who's even more deeply quagmired than are the Badgers (UW has its defense), adjusted expectations might help gain some perspective. Head coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph have their work cut out for them with this roster, even as their play calls or game plan against Iowa could be criticized by reasonable people. But everyone's kind of in the same boat -- figuring out just who right now can make this offense go.

Will Stave have another one as bad as this last one? It seems doubtful based on his track record - this was well below his average game - and it's more certainly doubtful that he'll be pulled any time soon for another quarterback now on the team. There's a variety of good reasons for that, all of them open for debate, but Stave is basically a known quantity. He also needs help from his teammates, starting with the offensive line.

It's difficult for everyone to adjust to a Wisconsin offense with a less-than-classic line.

It's difficult for everyone to adjust to a Wisconsin offense with a less-than-classic line. It should improve as the season goes on (and the defenses they play against won't be Iowa's, with the probable exception Northwestern), but it will be a work in progress past Thanksgiving. The point is that, for this season at least and against all recent historical tendency, nothing regarding line play can be taken for granted.

Clement may or may not be back, but Deal, Ogunbowale, and maybe true freshman Alec Ingold are the running backs right now. If these guys were playing behind just about any line of the past five or 10 years, they too might look like the backs of those seasons. But they don't, even if they have and will continue to flash this year. There is, unlike the quarterback position, plenty of potential for growth. Also unlike at QB, the turnovers that kill(ed) an offense like this one, with such a razor-thin margin for error, have not come from this group.

If a playmaker emerges elsewhere on this offense, it will be someone who wasn't expected to be that kind of contributor before the season and up to this point. Maybe there's some excitement in that, but can players like Reggie Love, George Rushing, or Jazz Peavy start to show things that they just simply haven't before? Tanner McEvoy, the erstwhile prime break-out candidate in this role, is still on the team, but perhaps his presence at safety is too demanding and critical for him to give much of anything on offense.

It's distinctly possible that there just isn't an offensive playmaker available this season; and even if there is, an inconsistent and topped-out quarterback would have difficulty getting him the ball. Still, if it does happen, especially if it's an underclassman, it will be a pleasant surprise that could carry the teaThe offense needs to respond from its rough outing on Saturday, even without the possibility of two more starters out with injury.m into 2016 and beyond on a positive vibe.

But 2015 isn't over just yet. Every single game remaining on Wisconsin's schedule is "winnable," even with this offense; UW still had multiple opportunities to beat Iowa even after all that went wrong on Saturday. This week isn't really an "elimination game" either - is it irrational to think that the B1G West winner will have 2 or even 3 losses?

If the Badgers can start to find some answers on offense, capitalize on what's shaping up to be Dave Aranda's best defense, and get out of Lincoln evened up in conference play, looking forward to what the rest of 2015 brings will be a whole lot easier.