Russell Wilson wasn't super crisp early with a couple passes off the mark and his wide receivers had a pair of first quarter drops, but Nick Toon reeled a spectacular one-handed 22-yard catch that set up UW's field goal. Both players took over after that.
"Russell has a lot of nice things," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "As long as I've been around him, he has all the throws. I think that's the comment a lot of scouts (say). He's got the soft pass, he's got the hard pass, the deep 20-yard dig with little to no air underneath it and also has the ability to lob it up and play that kind of game."
Wilson completed 19-of-25 passes and continues to show leadership on the field for the Badgers. Fortunately, we'll finally get a chance to find out how good he is next weekend.
"We always joke on the sidelines and I tell him to calm down because his (yards) average is better than mine," Ball said. "That's just the competition we have, but it's good. I go in and beat them up inside a little bit and James goes out for 30-yard gains. It's just a good offense."
Coming off what he called the worst game of his season (if one can call 91 rushing yards and two scores poor), Ball was relieved in the post game locker room with his performance against South Dakota. Why shouldn't he be? It seems all Ball does these days is score touchdowns. Scoring a touchdown for his 10th straight game with a 5-yard scamper midway, Ball passed 30 for his young career.
"It's a pretty big number but it's touchdowns for the offense," said Ball, who added a 2-yard run in the third quarter. "Coach Chryst does a great job calling plays."
White was just as effective Saturday against South Dakota's overmatched defense. White ran for a team-high 95 yards and a 49-yard touchdown run, the longest run by a Badgers back this season. Wisconsin improved to 7-0 when both backs find the end zone.
With the game in hand, the Badgers were able to get both redshirt freshman Jeff Lewis and true freshman Melvin Gordon some reps and both responded admirably. Both players scored their first career touchdown – Lewis a 41-yard run and finished with a career-high 49 yards; Gordon on a 4-yard run – and showed that the future is bright for both of them.
Toon set a career high with seven catches for a career-best 155 yards and two touchdowns and has caught a touchdown pass in the last three games.
"Nick's healthy," Bielema said. "We've seen him makes plays like that in practice. He plays big. He's catching the ball in my opinion as well as he can with his hands; very few things are getting near his body. He just plays big. He's a guy that when he's healthy and playing well, he's as good as any wide receiver in the country."
Not to be overlooked, sophomore Jared Abbrederis recorded his first career 100-yards game, catching five passes for 101 yards and a score. More important, Abbrederis levied two key blocks that sprung White and Toon for touchdowns, showing that he can make a big impact even when he doesn't have the ball.
"He's a work in progress," Bielema said. "Every day, he's trying to get himself better. He's got a lot of talent."
In a stride to be the Badgers No.3 receiver, Manasseh Garner took a step forward Saturday with a leaping 27-yard catch. More importantly, he landed on his back and popped right back up.
"That was hopefully a huge growth for him," Bielema said.
Not everyone was as productive. Jacob Pedersen had just one catch, matching one drop, and missed an assignment on a blitz that caused a blindside hit to Wilson, only the second time this season the UW quarterback has been sacked.
"We saw a look and … we kind of just threw (that play in) to run it," Pedersen said. "They called the right play and I have to be aware of it and help Russell there."
Wisconsin's offensive line has open up a lot of gaps for runs and really helped sell the play-action pass, pretty impressive considering Wisconsin has had three different starting offensive lines. Still, junior center Peter Konz is a little surprised on how the offense has been functioning.
"I didn't expect this much passing this year because traditionally, it's been a heavy run school," Konz said. Whatever works, I am not complaining. I am happy for our teammates."
In his first career start, Rob Havenstein had a lot of family members in attendance and did nothing that stood out in a negative light when re-watching the game.
The offensive line didn't allow one quarterback hurry and the two sacks were more assignment issues by other players. Still, Wisconsin's offensive line needs to have a better start. The Badgers weren't super crisp in the opening quarter, and they'll need to be against the Cornhuskers' defense.
"We just want to start strong, especially against good opponents," Konz said. "Nebraska is going to come in here and obviously have something to prove, so we've got to be mentally focused."
The pressure up front was OK, but not great, as Wisconsin allowed a lot of yardage on the ground to South Dakota because of missed tackles. Marcus Sims rushed for 64 yards, including a long of 22 that came on a third-and-2, and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. The Badgers were able to hold quarterback Dante Warren in check on the ground. Warren rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns in last year's upset over Minnesota, but was held to just 14 yards on seven carries.
The depth of the defensive line may get tested with Eriks Briedis (ribs) and Kyle Costigan (stress fracture) being out for an undisclosed period of time, but the group of Allen, Butrym, Hemer and Kohout are getting things done despite not registering a lot of sacks and tackles for loss.
"The four guys that we have rotating through there right now are playing as good as we've had," Bielema said.
The line was active with three sacks, but the pressure needs to be continuous instead of up and down.
Wisconsin's linebackers get a lot of credit for their work in the center of the defense, as junior Mike Taylor had a team-high 10 tackles and Chris Borland added eight. Throw in the fact that Wisconsin's defense had eight tackles for loss and the defensive line had three sacks, the group was active and will be even better when it gets the tackling under control. It was also important for Kevin Claxton to get back on the field and get some repetitions after his wrist injury in the opener. The senior looked good in his reps, finishing with six tackles, as UW's three starting linebackers made 24 tackles, three tackles for loss, one interception and one quarterback hurry.
Taylor's play was solid but his attempt to recover a first-half fumble wasn't, pouncing on it the wrong way and allowing it to scoot out of bounds, thus giving the ball back to South Dakota.
"He jumped on it like a junior high kid," Bielema said.
That's a play that has to be made going forward.
Turnovers come in bunches, and they were prevalent in the first quarter for Wisconsin, as Shelton Johnson and Borland both picked off Warren in the first quarter in Wisconsin territory. Pressure from the Badgers helped on a number of fronts, as Warren, managed only 41 yards on 8 of 15 passes, a far cry from the numbers Gophers fans remember from a year ago.
Dezmen Southward stepped in well for Shelton Johnson (3 tackles), but the Badgers are a better team when the junior safety is on the field, who emphasized that point with his first career interception in the first quarter. Having some worries of some internal bleeding, Wisconsin is hopeful Johnson will be available Saturday.
"Shelton has been making nice plays," Bielema said. "Steady improvement."
It's going to be interesting to see what Wisconsin does with its kicking situation when Philip Welch is fully healed from a nagging right quadriceps injury, as neither kicker was outstanding Saturday. Kyle French split the upright on a 25-yard field but didn't have the distance on a 50-yard field goal with the wind at his back.
Alec Lerner continues to struggle with his kickoffs, as the sophomore walk-on averaged just 59.0 yards and booted two out of bounds. Bielema made the decision even to put French in on the last two kickoffs.
"It kind of got a little mental on himself," Bielema said of Lerner.
The Badgers also had a punt return for a touchdown wiped off the boards when Dezmen Southward was whistled for an illegal block in the back. In addition to his receiving skills, Abbrederis is showing a knack for punt returning, and could be a player to watch heading into the conference season.