Statistics would say that Saturday's victory was Scott Tolzien's best performance of the season.
Completing 19-of-25 passes for 246 yards and a score, Tolzien was solid running the two-minute offense (6 of 7 for 64 yards and a touchdown) and overcoming the fact that he was without his top two receivers. Still, Tolzien knows that there are still problems plaguing his group.
"One thing I take away is there are still a lot of areas of improvement," Tolzien said.
Like third down, where Wisconsin was just 6-of-14 on the money down.
"Third down bit us from behind," Tolzien said. "We weren't very efficient on third down and that's something as we move forward, we'll have to convert those … to keep the chains moving."
Wisconsin's offense was better in the red zone, converting 2-of-3 attempts, and the group racked up over 400 yards for the third straight game. More importantly, Wisconsin converted chances into points and avoided the mistakes, going turnover free for the first time this season.
"If you have to take three points, sometimes that what you need to do," Tolzien said. "Everybody wants touchdowns, but field goals aren't a bad thing either, especially in field position and putting points on the board."
With John Clay slicing through the Arizona State defense, racking up 42 yards and a 5.2 average in the first half, it was an odd sight seeing the junior Heisman candidate get only eight first-half carries. The end-of-game numbers were much more appropriate.
Rushed 22 times for 123 yards, Clay has nine consecutive 100-yard games, the longest current streak in the nation, and second-longest in UW history. Clay made something out of nothing in the third quarter on his 19-yard touchdown run, especially when senior guard John Moffitt admitted to multiple missed blocks on the play.
With Clay still recovering from off-season ankle surgeries and getting in shape, was eight first-half carries enough for UW's budding star?
"I would say yes because we won," UW Coach Bret Bielema said, "but there's always going to be that question when he's on. We are thinking long term here, too. We've got three quality backs … and want to get all three of those guys involved with."
One of those players was freshman James White, who kicked himself after getting stripped at the goal line and turning the ball over. White showed his potential on multiple runs, bouncing, twisting and speeding his way to 40 rushing yards and a 6.7 yards per carry average.
"I thought there was a couple plays where he was gone," Bielema said.
With David Gilreath out, Jared Abbrederis ran two end arounds for 19 yards, including a long of 17 yards, while Montee Ball struggled to only 11 yards on five carries but caught four passes for 38 yards in the passing game. Still, Clay enjoyed getting the first-half breather so he could grind down the clock in the fourth quarter.
"The rotation was good enough, just staying fresh and thankfully, the fourth quarter came and I had fresh legs to finish the drive off," Clay said. "I had Montee and James coming in, giving me spells here and there to give me the extra energy that I needed."
With Gilreath (concussion) and Nick Toon (turf toe) out, there was no secret where Tolzien was going to go. Targeting Lance Kendricks on 10 throws, including eight in the first half. Kendricks had five catches for 104 yards and a TD in the first half, and finished with a career high 131 yards and an acrobatic touchdown at the end of the first half.
"Lance is playing great football," Bielema said. "He has played a lot of good football here, and he just goes about his business … What he's done this year, he's probably had the most ferocious hit on the team this year. He's hitting people left and right. He has great hands to make that catch in the end zone with the guy draped all over him. If you know Lance, that's kind of who he is. He works incredibly hard. We've had a lot of great tight ends here and he's probably playing as good or better than we have."
Isaac Anderson got his most extended time of the season, registering five catches for 41 yards and Abbrederis recorded 76 all-purpose yards in the victory.
"It was a normal week, but knowing you're going to start, you have to step it up," Abbrederis said. "I was really excited, just the anticipation of the game."
A lesser player might not have taken the beating J.J. Watt endured. The junior defensive end left twice with a bruised thigh and wore a tightly-wrapped ice pack as he hobbled around in the media room.
Even with his quad locked up, Watt had a smile befitting of a hard-fought victory.
"His attitude and his desire is unbelievable," Bielema said of Watt, who finished with three hurries and one pass breakup. "J.J. just continues … (to) be a special player."
On the opposite end, Louis Nzegwu played his best game of his tenure. Nzegwu, a junior from Platteville, finished with a team-best and career-high seven tackles, adding two tackles for loss and a quarterback sack.
"Louis is a guy I am excited to watch grow because he gets better with every game," Bielema said. "He's really grown under Charlie (Partridge)'s coaching."
It was a tough week preparation wise for the UW defensive tackles, having to quickly run on and off the field to keep a fresh rotation and not get flagged for too many men. Still, Jordan Kohout registered four tackles and Patrick Butrym added three in the middle, and weren't directly responsible for ASU tailback DeAntre Lewis getting 122 yards on nine carries, ending a 13-game streak of UW holding an opposing player under 100 yards.
Lewis got a lot of runs to the outside, but the tackling and pressure up front needs to keep improving.
The Badgers surrendered 17 plays of 10 yards or longer (12 passes and five runs), 380 total yards and 20 first downs. That number isn't very good, but UW allowed just two touchdowns on only 10 possessions, so there is a silver lining there.
Best play of the day was a third-down sack by Kevin Rouse, where the junior came around the left end and absolutely flattened ASU quarterback Steven Threet. Culmer St. Jean gutted through an ankle injury to register six tackles and Blake Sorensen was pressed into increased duty and added four tackles.
The big problem now is what is going to happen with Chris Borland.
Hurt on an arm tackle and got caught at the wrong angle. Borland, who wore two braces on his surgically-repaired right shoulder instead of his usual one, doesn't know what his prognosis is or is a redshirt is in his future.
"I don't want to do that, but it may be what I have to do," Borland said.
After getting plastered by the San Jose State passing attack, the numbers were much better for the UW secondary, limiting Threet to only 211 yards and no passing touchdowns.
"Today, we're still not happy with the yards they got, but everything they caught was bang-bang," said senior safety Jay Valai, who added three solo tackles, one TFL and the key blocked extra poins. "They catch it, they go down, and that's the way we've got to play in the secondary." It could have easily been worse. Senior Niles Brinkley played pretty well, registering six tackles and two pass breakups, but got away with a pass interference penalty in the end zone. Arizona State settled for a field goal which came back to haunt them. Antonio Fenelus added five tackles (four solo) while Aaron Henry and Devin Smith each added three stops a piece.
Take away Valai's extra point block, the special teams unit would have no way to save face. Take away that play and Shelton Johnson chasing down Kyle Middlebrooks lengthy kickoff return and stopping him as time experienced, the special teams unit would have been directly responsible for the loss.
UW allowed a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Middlebrooks' 95-yard scamper that almost was the first-half dagger. In five kickoff returns, Arizona State racked up 261 yards per return … simply unacceptable.
"The kickoff coverages that broke were fundamental breakdowns and fortunately, for us, we've been pretty good at that," said Bielema. "(The Sun Devils) found a weakness, and (exploited) it. The part about kick coverage is if one guy breaks down, everybody suffers. We'll definitely take a look at what we're doing."
Philip Welch missed his first field goal attempt of the year when he pushed his 44-yard attempt in the first quarter, but he bounced back with makes from 49 and 44. Welch also shared some of the blame on the kickoff returns, whiffing on the 97-yard return and miss hitting the 95-yard return, hitting a line drive instead of the ordered squib kick.
Knock Gilreath all you want, but it helps to have experience back there. I am sure plenty of people were pulling their hair out when Abbrederis fielded a punt on his own 4. James White looked pretty good returning kicks, taking his four returns 93 yards, including a long of 31.