MADISON, Wis. - A win is a win, but Wisconsin's 26-21 win over Northern Iowa Saturday was a little too close for comfort for Bret Bielema and his Badgers. After handling previous home openers with relative ease in recent years, the Badgers (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten) had trouble putting away the Panthers (0-1, 0-0 MVFC) in Camp Randall Stadium to open their 2012 season.
The Badgers never trailed in the game, but a late rally by the Panthers kept the game in doubt down to the final few minutes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw two touchdown passes to running back David Johnson in the fourth quarter, and the Panther defense forced a three-and-out on the Badgers' ensuing possession. Kollmorgen then led the Panthers 42 yards down the field on their last drive of the game on 3-of-7 passing, but a deflected pass by defensive tackle Ethan Hemer helped the Badgers force a turnover on downs on their own 41 yard line to preserve the victory.
The close contest almost spoiled what was an impressive debut for new Badgers quarterback Danny O'Brien, who was 19-of-23 for 219 yards and threw two touchdowns during the game. Running back Montee Ball rushed for 129 yards and a touchdown during the game, but the Panthers loaded up the box with defenders and limited him to just 3.8 yards per carry on the day. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis also caught two touchdowns as part of a six-catch, 84-yard day.
After the game, Bielema said that ultimately a hard-fought win would teach his team a better lesson than a blowout victory ever could.
"I made reference to our guys and told them that any win is a good win, but on the same account, what we learned today is probably one of the most beneficial teaching tells we could ever secure," Bielema said. "A lot of credit should go to Northern Iowa. I've said it before, but I think they are probably the best FCS team we've ever faced."
The Badgers opened the scoring with a pair of the field goals in the first half, after seeing their drives stall close to or in the Panthers' red zone. Kicker Kyle French went 2-for-2 from 32 and 35 yards, but it took the Badgers a little while longer to hit pay dirt in the end zone.
After the Panthers sacked O'Brien and tackled Ball for loss during Wisconsin's fourth drive, O'Brien converted a long third down with a 22-yard pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen. The Badgers seemed to hit their stride after that completion, as Ball rushed for 14 yards on 3rd-and-4, and O'Brien found Abbrederis in the end zone to put the Badgers up 13-0 at the half.
After limiting Northern Iowa to a three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, the Badgers drove right back down the field behind a 20-yard completion from O'Brien to wide receiver Jordan Fredrick, and Ball found the end zone on a one yard rush to put the Badgers up 19-0. Both teams traded three-and-outs following Fredrick's score, but the Panthers started their rally when Kollmorgen led his team on a 13-play, 75-yard drive, capped by a touchdown reception by Chad Owens.
The Badgers responded immediately, and it looked like they would be able to run down the clock and preserve a solid, if low-scoring victory. O'Brien completed a 55-yard pass to Abbrederis for a touchdown off of play action, giving the Badgers a 19-point lead with 12:24 left in the game. But two lapses in pass coverage allowed Kollmorgern and Johnson to connect for touchdowns off of the same play, and the Badgers were forced to ride out the game on a defensive stand. O'Brien said that the offense was prepared to take over and try to regain the lead in a two-minute drill scenario, but they had a lot of faith in their defense on the sideline.
"We were just trusting them," O'Brien said. "They are mentally tough guys, and they kind of got the defense rolling on a few plays and I think you have to give a lot of credit to them for stopping them right there and winning the game for us."
The Badgers didn't turn the ball over or commit many penalties in the game, but missed opportunities grew even more costly as the game went on. Both Mike Taylor and Shelton Johnson dropped passes that should have been intercepted, and Taylor had a shot at returning it for a score if he had been able to bring in the ball.
Center Travis Frederick echoed his head coach after the game, and said that he and his teammates will be able to learn a lot from Saturday's close call. The Badgers had their opportunities to put Northern Iowa away earlier in the game, but Frederick said close won't cut it from here on out.
"One of the biggest lessons that I take from this is that close doesn't cut it," Frederick said. "We were really, really close on a lot of things we were off by just a hair, and I think that having a game like this shows you exactly that close doesn't cut it. There's a lot of things to be learned."
The Badgers will travel to Corvallis, Ore., next week for their second game of the season to take on the Oregon State Beavers. It'll be a rematch from last season, when the Badgers shut out the Beavers 35-0 in Camp Randall. The game will be the first of the season for the Beavers, who had to delay their contest with Nicholls State due to the effects of Hurricane Isaac in the gulf coast.
Bielema said his team has a lot of room for improvement, but the best teams learn how to fix their mistakes from week one to week two.
"Good teams make great improvement from game one to game two, and that'll be our mission," Bielema said.