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Roundtable: Assessing the Badgers 35-14 win over Georgia Southern

The Wisconsin Badgers bounced back with a victory over Georgia Southern in Week 3.

The Wisconsin Badgers bounced back in Week 3 with a 35-14 victory over Georgia Southern, overcoming a 14-7 deficit with six turnovers generated and 28 unanswered points.

There were many storylines for the Badgers, with adversity being highlighted again after the comeback victory, and they now approach conference play in Week 4, starting off on the road against Purdue.

For this roundtable, I combined with our football writers, Scary Alvarez(yes, the one and only), Ritvik Gudlavalleti, and Nick Snow, once again to answer some critical questions.

Q: What do you take away from the Badgers slow starts?

Rohan: The Badgers need to figure some things out offensively, and the idea of “complementary football” that head coach Luke Fickell has preached needs to be more consistent. Speaking with offensive lineman Tanor Bortolini after the game, he noted how Wisconsin settled in after getting accustomed to the different looks that a blitz-happy Georgia Southern threw in the first half.

I feel that the “accustomed to” period should come in practice, and that the preparation issues have led to some slow starts. But, there needs to be a mix of a better balance and cleaner execution early. This group has adversity, there’s no doubt about it, but these slow starts won’t cut it fully going forward. However, I will say that these slow starts were also to be somewhat expected, as it’s a huge overhaul on both sides of the ball, with live reps only starting recently.

Scary: I take away that Wisconsin is going to lose several games against solid or better Big Ten teams if they continue to start this slowly. This isn’t pessimism, it’s a fact. The team arrived at Camp Randall later than the students yesterday. The three first-half performances we’ve seen so far in 2023 would likely translate into losses in more than half of the Badgers’ remaining games.

Just how marginally things started vs. Georgia Southern was ketchuped over by three takeaways by the defense(which the D obviously deserves credit for). That easily could have been a 14-17 point deficit at halftime. At home. Against the third-best team in Georgia. This coaching staff strikes me as highly competent in the motivation game, so I’m more than a bit surprised at the slow starts. While Purdue at night won’t be as hostile as Pullman(and Purdue isn’t as good as the Cougars), Wisconsin will lose that game if they’re not ready to go at kickoff.

Nick: It’s concerning that this coaching staff doesn’t seem to have the team ready to play. The defense has looked very confused to start each game and it was no different today. It shouldn’t look that easy for a team like Georgia State. The offense has also struggled to get going early. A big part of winning in the B1G is getting out in front early and controlling the game with a lead. Trying to dig yourself out of a hole each week is not going to work against better competition. I just hope that today was enough to get the offense clicking and that the defense will slowly get better.

Ritvik: The Badgers' slow starts have been quite frustrating this season, but they’re understandable. The team is only two games in and the offense simply needs more time together to get on the same page. The issue is how these slow starts drain the defense and absolutely kill the Badgers' game momentum and self-confidence. As the season progresses, the team will get more comfortable together and hopefully put an end to slow starts.

Q: Which side of the ball is the bigger concern?

Rohan: As I mentioned earlier, it’s not just on one side, but rather an issue with “complementary football” early for the Badgers. I do think that the offense is close to figuring things out, and that has been seen with their strong performance in the second half over the past two weeks.

But, the defense has some questions that I’ve yet to see the answer for. Talent-wise, it’s coming together, but I have questions about whether Mike Tressel’s defensive scheme is a good fit for the current group of Badgers. The Badgers ran a ton of man-coverage concepts defensively, which led to a number of chunk plays and 383 yards from Davis Brin. I’m not sure that the secondary can consistently handle downfield passing attacks, which have been an issue for two consecutive weeks.

Additionally, I have questions about the run defense, specifically over the middle, which was an issue in Week 3. With a 3-3-5 front, the Badgers need really stout players up front that can move offensive linemen and allow linebackers to plug in the gaps for stops. Too many times have they been moved away, allowing gaps to open up over the middle, and providing space for rushers in the run game. Against Big Ten opponents, I’m not sure how sustainable that can be.

Scary: Both the offense and defense have shown tantalizing flashes of what could be, and the fact that Wisconsin hasn’t been consistent on either side of the ball is due, in part, to the growing pains of a new system. That is very understandable. But Ohio State and Iowa don’t care if you’re doing new stuff. They will happily pummel you(Iowa on Defense, not offense) into oblivion if you don’t execute.

Teams sometimes make big jumps after a few games(the 1999 Badgers are an example), and it’s very possible that this 2023 team does just that—one day things just click and it’s game on. I think that switch-flipping possibility will be a bit trickier with the defense, which has fewer established playmakers, but I’ve seen very encouraging moments from a number of guys on Tressel’s unit that give me hope that they will put it together. They’re just going to have to do so without early NFL Draft pick type guys outside of Wohler. There is no Herbig or Benton on this squad, so it will take a true team effort and some inspired coaching to keep this Defense growing.

But, six takeaways vs. GSU? Very encouraging for a team with zero turnovers generated in the first two games. Teams will absolutely be able to get their yards against the Badgers, so forcing turnovers will be vital for them to be successful.

Nick: The defense. They are struggling to get pressure and these fast-paced shotgun offenses that make it even harder to get pressure aren’t going to go away when conference play starts next week. Purdue, Rutgers, and Ohio State all run something similar. I am also worried that, when they start playing power offenses, they won’t be able to stop the run on early downs.

Ritvik: The offensive side is of bigger concern. Getting that fast and high-powered running game going is an issue for the Badgers, and it is really not helping the defense. The offense needs to get on the same page, but, as I mentioned earlier, it will just take time. I have full belief in Phil Longo’s offensive scheme and talent on the Badgers to really strike teams as a high-scoring, high-powered offense. We already saw traces of this in last Saturday’s game with Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi running all over Georgia Southern in the second half. So, this concern should be mitigated soon.

Q: What were the biggest positives from the win?

Rohan: For the second consecutive week, the Badgers showcased adversity, which will be key in close games. With the criticism going towards the coaching staff for the slow starts, there needs to be similar praise for the way they’ve gotten players to respond in the second half, leading to a 48-7 disparity thus far in third-quarter scoring through three games.

Additionally, for the offense, we’ve seen glimpses of how dominant the attack can be when everything works. Running game-wise, there have been some major explosive plays, created by the holes up front with lighter boxes, while Tanner Mordecai has looked really comfortable when the up-tempo offense gets moving. It may take some time, which the Badgers can’t afford as much given the start of Big Ten play, but there’s certainly promise with the offense going forward.

Scary: I liked the ball-hawking moments from the defense and the way Wisconsin fought hard after halftime. Of course, the latter feeds back into my response to the first question about slow starts. The Badgers should not have needed to be so good after halftime against Georgia Southern.

But only the most jaded fan could have watched that game and not come out of it feeling good about some things. Tanner Mordecai’s legs are certainly an added dimension to the offense from last season that will come in very handy against athletic teams like Ohio State.

And although there has been a notable, and surprising, lack of deep ball wins for Longo’s unit, the short to intermediate passing game has flashed a ton of potential that should really help Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi find success running against honest boxes.

Finally, for anyone concerned that TE as an important Badger position would fade away under Longo, Hayden Rucci and Tucker Ashcraft have shown us this is very much not the case, via massive blocks and timely catches.

Nick: Mordecai was fantastic in my opinion. He didn’t necessarily push the ball downfield today, but he’s just consistent and despite a few batted passes, his ball placement has allowed receivers to make plays after the catch.

Ritvik: The two biggest positives from the win were the ability for the Badgers defense to force turnovers and a great second-half offensive comeback. The Badgers defensive line really pressured the quarterback this week forcing five interceptions, and recovering a botched snap in the red zone. The offense went on an absolute tear in the second half scoring 28 unanswered points, showcasing their true offensive potential. The team is resilient, to say the least.

Q: What’s your confidence meter from 1-10 heading into conference play?

Rohan: Probably around a 7. There’s a lot, and I mean a lot, to clean up for this Badgers team to reach their potential. But, we’ve seen glimpses of the potential offensively, and a big factor is the schedule, which frankly is pretty weak. There’s still a good argument for the Badgers winning the Big Ten West, especially if they can start solving some of their mistakes sooner rather than later. The talent doesn’t seem to be the issue with this team, at least offensively, and even defensively. It’s just a matter of putting it together.

Scary: If the Badgers were able to start every game at halftime, I’d be very bullish.

But in all seriousness, as long as Fickell and his staff can get the guys’ heads in the game earlier, I feel confident that Wisconsin can be a serious Big Ten West contender, with an upside that could bring even more if the pieces fall into place.

The West is filled with deeply flawed teams: Minnesota has a typically good defense under Joe Rossi, but suffers from a pedestrian offense with no bellcow back or their customary strong OL. Nebraska has taken a huge coaching leap forward and has a game defense, but still lacks talent, has a turnover-prone QB, and is trying to establish a new system that will take some time. Iowa is getting a ton of love from the national media, and has a knockout D, but their offense is still marginal, even with McNamara. It’s a Brian Ferentz problem, and I wish he’d get a lifetime deal, because Iowa with a good offense is a CFB Playoff contender. Northwestern is abysmal and may not win a conference game. Purdue, itself learning a new system, has a good young coach and QB, but is probably a year or two away from being what they can be. Bielema’s Illini are still worlds better than when he took over, but have taken a step back from 2022 as I expected they would. However, as long as Bret’s there, they’ll be a solid program that can occasionally poach a recruit or two from Wisconsin.

So the west is wide open. There are probably 3-4 teams who could possibly win it, but I think Wisconsin has one of the best chances along with Iowa.

Nick: I’m not feeling good, but I’ll say 5 because part of me thinks that everything is going to click at some point. But, that could be fool's gold.

Ritvik: My confidence meter going into conference play is probably around a 6. The offensive capabilities are yet to be unraveled and once they are, they’ll be tough to stop. Our defense needs to continue to put pressure on the quarterback and force turnovers, otherwise, it will be easy to pick this team apart. It is important for the Badgers to continue to stay resilient and believe in the system that Luke Fickell and Co. have put into place because as soon as things click, this team can become very dangerous.