MADISON, Wis. - Nothing came easily for the Wisconsin Badgers in their 16-14 win over Utah State Saturday night in Camp Randall Stadium, but in the end they were able to stave off their second loss of the season when Utah State kicker Josh Thompson pushed a potential game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt wide right.
Despite being outgained by 74 yards in the game and substituting backup quarterback Joel Stave for Danny O'Brien at halftime, the No. 22 Badgers (2-1) were able to hold off a second upset in as many weeks at the hands of the Aggies (2-1), thanks to a stout defensive effort in the second half and key plays on special teams. It wasn't pretty, but the Badgers needed a win to try and regain their footing, and head coach Bret Bielema said as much in his post game press conference.
"Obviously to get a win feels really, really good," Bielema said. "Didn't do very well in certain phases of the game. I was excited to see some guys make plays."
Even though the Badgers fired offensive line coach Mike Markuson last Sunday to get better play out of the offensive line, the Badgers didn't see a whole lot of improvement on offense in the first half. Wisconsin had to settle for a field goal in the second quarter, and had trouble moving the ball to start the second half. The Badgers were able to rack up 137 yards in the first half, but they had trouble maintaining drives and converted just two of nine third downs.
But the game's momentum shifted just enough towards the Badgers during a three-minute span in the third quarter. Now led by Stave, Wisconsin's offense went three-and-out on their first series of the half, but were able to force a punt on the Aggies' next drive. Kenzel Doe then provided the spark the Badgers needed with a 82-yard punt return for a touchdown, which brought the Badgers to within four points of the Aggies. Doe said after the game that the team was in a punt safe formation, but he saw an opening and took advantage of it.
"I saw that he kicked a line drive and it was wobbly, and right when he kicked it, I looked to see if anybody was on the side," Doe said. "I said if there is nobody on the side, I am just going to catch it and take off with it."
Wisconsin's defense forced another three-and-out, and the Badgers were able to take advantage and scored their only offensive touchdown of the day on a 17-yard run by running back Montee Ball. Kyle French's point after attempt was blocked, but the two-point lead proved to be enough for the Badgers, who were able to shut the Aggies out in the second half. Bielema said after the game that he was pleased with how his defense performed after they gave up a 39-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route to Kerwy Williams.
"I think our defense should be patted on the back," Bielema said. "Obviously didn't give up anything after that wheel route that hit on the boundary over there, gave them their first score. I asked Chris and the coaches, just keep the ball in front of us, don't give them anything."
Wisconsin's bend-but-don't-break defense was on full display in the second half, as the Aggies got 179 of their 308 yards in the second half, despite not scoring after halftime. The Badgers relied on solid play out of their secondary to keep Chuckie Keeton and his receivers in check, as the cornerbacks and safeties broke up seven passes in the game.
But while the Badgers will try to move on quickly from yet another ugly win, it appears as though their starting quarterback job could be up for grabs once again. O'Brien went 5-for-10 for 63 yards in the first half, but Bielema decided to put Stave in at halftime to try and protect the ball better. O'Brien lost a fumble in Wisconsin's own territory late in the second half, which led to Utah State's second touchdown of the game just five plays later. O'Brien also threw an interception earlier in the half, but it was called back on a penalty.
"(The) number one reason I made the transition at quarterback was just to protect the ball," Bielema said. For us to win at Wisconsin we can't turn the ball over. And obviously the interception got nullified because of the late hit on Danny. So that was one that we kind of got back as a bonus."
And for the most part, Stave performed reasonably well in O'Brien's place. Stave completed 2-of-6 passes for 15 yards in the second half, but had a few dropped passes and ultimately didn't turn the ball over. Bielema wouldn't say after the game if Stave did enough to earn the staring job for the foreseeable future, though.
"We'll address it tomorrow," Bielema said. "I just felt it was something that we needed to do at halftime to bring our guys around."
For now it's survive and advance for the Badgers, who have just one non-conference game left before the start of Big Ten play. They averted another catastrophe on Saturday, but they might be living on borrowed time. The Badgers will take on UTEP next Saturday, giving Bielema's team one last chance to try and fine tune parts of their game before the race for the Big Ten title really begins to heat up in October.