Wisconsin romped Illinois Saturday, and the Badgers did so in typical fashion: Dominate with the run game, get the play-action pass going to Jared Abbrederis... boom, win.
But after allowing a mediocre Illini team to throw for 300-plus yards, it's clear there are some screws that need tightening during what is now Wisconsin's second bye week of the season.
As good as the Badgers have looked at times over the past two weeks, there are some inconsistencies this team can work through to maximize its potential. Especially when you consider most pundits are projecting Wisconsin to win out and possibly garner an at-large BCS berth, things can get better.
I would certainly love to see this season end with the Badgers' fourth consecutive trip to a BCS bowl, and so would all of you, but there is still a ways to go before we say this team is firing on all cylinders.
I'll accept a 56-32 victory on the road over an improving football team, but Saturday's final score should have indicated even more of an onslaught. Overall, we saw some good things and some bad, so let's get to it -- here is your Monday-after diagnosis.
What we liked
The consistent production of the Melvin Gordon-James White running back tandem is getting to be a redundant talking point, but it continues to dominate opposing defenses, so the two backs must be mentioned here.
Gordon became the third tailback in the country to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark this season on his third touchdown run against the Illini. He's second in the country in rushing with 1,012 yards on the ground, and I grow fearful each week that this might be his final year in cardinal and white. I know we keep hearing reports about his mother saying he won't go pro, but c'mon... he's the clear favorite to win the Doak Walker Award and when the big leagues come calling, he'll at least listen. Running backs have such a short shelf life at the next level, and Gordon has already had a couple of knee injuries in his career. I'm not saying he's gone, but be wary of the possibility.
I loved the pressure from the front seven in the first and third quarters, but it wasn't consistent all the way through.
My final note for this category is in relation to special teams. To be honest, I thought the unit was awesome Saturday. Those guys hit hard when making tackles on kick coverages, and even kicker Andrew Endicott made a tackle streaking all the way down the field. Kenzel Doe had a great return across midfield in the fourth quarter, as well. Kyle French is no longer kicking, so I also give the unit some additional bonus points for that simple fact.
What needs to improve
First off, what needs to improve the most off the field is the health of Chris Borland. Marcus Trotter filled in admirably in relief of the Badgers' star linebacker, but you can sense that the defense simply has a different presence on the field when Borland isn't in the lineup.
As good as the pressure was from the front seven in the first quarter especially, it was terrible in the second quarter. In fact, the entire Wisconsin team played terribly in the second quarter. Joel Stave threw a few ducks, and the secondary was burned multiple times.
What needs to improve most in between the white lines is the overall consistency from quarter to quarter. The Badgers won each of their last two games handily, but not by near the margin that they should have. I'm not saying I want to see Gary Andersen run up the score a la Bret Bielema, who seemed fond of 70-point barrages on inferior opponents, but Wisconsin needs to stay crisper throughout a game's entirety.
I know it's easy to have a lapse in focus when you're throttling an opponent, but that shouldn't happen each week. It's happened twice in a row now, and the coaching staff will address that during the bye.
Which players impressed?
Gordon is option A here and it seems like he is each week at this point. I don't know if there is a more indefensible play in college football right now than a Gordon fly sweep. Book it for about 30 yards each time he takes the handoff and turns the corner.
I mentioned him above, but I thought Trotter was really solid when he replaced Borland. Trotter hasn't gotten much playing time in his Wisconsin career, but you love to see a guy come in and produce at a high level when he gets the opportunity. Trotter led the Badgers in tackles Saturday with nine, and he also recorded a half-tackle for loss and recovered a fumble. He obviously doesn't carry the same leadership or presence on the field that Borland does, but if Borland goes down again, I'm more than comfortable with what Trotter brings to the table.
A final name I'll note is Brendan Kelly. Especially in the first and third quarters, Kelly was sent to the quarterback in Dave Aranda's creative blitz packages almost every play, and he seemingly was in the backfield every play. Kelly ended the night with a sack and a tackle for loss, but he too can produce on a more consistent basis than he has so far. Even on Saturday, there would be a streak of plays where he was disruptive with each snap, and then he'd go silent for an extended period.
Down-by-down consistency, that's the key for Wisconsin moving forward.
Which player underwhelmed?
Two candidates for me in this category: Stave and nickel back Darius Hillary.
Stave had a respectable day at the office, finishing 16-of-21 for 189 yards and two touchdowns, also without an interception. I know I can be a harsh critic of the guy, but he's got great ability in him that we just don't see every week.
Of Stave's five missed throws, I marked four of them down in my book as bad throws. The one that sticks out most is the severely underthrown deep ball to Abbrederis in the first half. In classic Abby fashion, he had the corner and safety beat by a good 8 yards, and Stave essentially threw a wounded duck.
Another facet of Stave's game that really stuck out Saturday was how much his accuracy dips when he goes into a straight drop-back situation versus play-action. On play-action, Stave is money. But when it's a passing down and teams send pressure, he struggles to keep his eyes downfield when he steps up in the pocket to get away from blitzes. This is something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Ultimately, though, my vote for this category goes to Hillary. He is clearly the weakest link on the Badgers' defense right now, and especially in that secondary. Teams throw at him almost every chance they get, and it works for them more often than not. He had a blatant pass interference penalty in the 4th quarter and twice allowed long gains on deep balls in the first half. Illinois threw for 319 yards Saturday, and he's the main reason why.
The Badgers visit Iowa City in two weeks to take on the Kirk Ferentz-led Iowa Hawkeyes. This will mark the first contest between these two teams in three years, and the battle for the Heartland Trophy is finally back. Being that I'm originally from Iowa and now bleed red, this is one I've had marked on my calendar from the season's outset.
These two programs are about as evenly matched as you'll find, with the all-time series being literally deadlocked at 42-42-2.
Iowa is an improving football team that gave Ohio State all it could handle Saturday at the Horseshoe, and the Hawkeyes will certainly have a chip on their shoulder for the Badgers' visit after having to relive Brad Nortman fake punt memories over and over again for the past 36 months.
The Hawkeyes also have a solid, bend-but-don't-break defense, and Wisconsin might struggle establishing its ground dominance early on. But eventually, I think Gordon and White will break a few of the long runs we've grown accustomed to seeing each week, and the Badgers will come out on top.
Final score: Wisconsin 31, Iowa 21