Why do I have to come so close to being right? Last week I called out the Badgers for their sloppy play in a game against non-conference cupcake San Jose State, saying they might start to see blown victories if they kept playing the way they had. I also picked them to be the most likely team to be upset in my weekly Big Ten Digest feature. It was a painful selection to make, given my loyalties, but I had no idea how accurate I would be.
It's great, of course, that the Badgers managed to hold on. An upset would have really put this team in a bind as far as conference championship hopes go. However, just as with last week, this victory just makes me all the more worried about how Wisconsin will play when they actually do get to games against conference opponents.
Let's take a look at some stats, shall we?
Here's three sets of numbers from Arizona State's box score:
211 yards, 0 TD
170 yards, 1 TD
261 yards, 1 TD
The first two are the totals for Arizona State's passing and rushing offenses, respectively. The third? That's the amount of yardage gained by Arizona State's kick returners. It says something when you're better off as a team kicking into the end zone than actually trusting your special teams to stop a return. I'm not sure who is in charge of special teams now that Bielema has finally turned the coaching duties over, but it's almost enough to make me want Bret back at the helm. Almost.
All day on special teams, and really in the entire game, the Badgers had botched coverage and missed tackles. It got a little bit better after the half, but as a total performance it's still troubling. You expect this sort of thing out of a team fielding a freshman defense like, say, Minnesota. But out of a team that returned almost all of its starters? It's unacceptable. I expect that some of this was due to the early defensive injuries. Chris Borland, Culmer St. Jean, and J.J. Watt were all out for various points during the game. Still, though all of those guys are crucial pieces, the defense shouldn't completely fall apart just because they aren't on the field.
The truth of this game is that it really should have been a loss. I say that because much of the reason the Badgers hung on was because Arizona State beat themselves. The Sun Devils' dumb penalties, poor kicking, and a seeming inability to connect on deep routes are really why the Badgers came away with a victory today. At least, more so than anything that Wisconsin actually did as a team. It's also true that the Badgers got a few lucky breaks. A pass interference call in the end zone that wasn't, and another touchdown incompletion that really might not have been kept at least seven, and perhaps 14, points off the board for Arizona State. The blocked extra point by Jay Valai on Arizona State's fourth quarter touchdown drive was also crucial, as it ended up being the difference in the final score.
This type of reliance on other team's mistakes and luck will get victories against bad teams. It will not work against the better teams of the Big Ten.
Amidst all this mess, there were a few bright patches. John Clay played well again, rushing for 122 yards and a TD. He probably would have had more than that, though, if the Badgers had given him the ball more often in the first half. In the first two quarters of today's game, the Badgers offense rushed 14 times and passed 18 times. Of the 14 rushes, eight were by John Clay, good for 57%. In the last two quarters, the ratio changed. The Badgers passed only nine times, and rushed 22. Of the 22 rushes, John Clay touched the ball 14 times, good for 63%. Perhaps a small difference, but Clay's only touchdown came in the third quarter.
Look, I'm a proponent of a balanced offense as much as anyone. I know that Wisconsin can't survive on the run alone, even if that has been the identity of this team for as long as I can remember. But at some point during a close game you need to do what works for you. It seems that for this team that would be rushing with Clay.
Regarding the passing game, Scott Tolzien had a better game today than he's had the previous two weeks, even if it did seem that he was telegraphing his preferred targets to the defense a bit too easily. He threw for 246 yards and a touchdown, but more importantly he had no interceptions and no fumbles. Truthfully, given the way they played in other aspects of the game, I'm not sure that the Badgers would have survived had he turned the ball over.
Lance Kendricks also had another productive game, with 131 yards receiving and a spectacular touchdown catch. It was a good day for him to do it, as there were apparently quite a few NFL scouts in attendance.
Today's eked out victory will probably drop Bucky in this week's polls, but I'll take that over a non-con loss any day. Next week the Badgers host creampuff Austin Peay out of the Ohio Valley Conference. Hopefully they can get healthy and remember how to tackle in the days before then.