An Early Wake-Up Call

The last time Wisconsin got a wake-up call, the Badgers were flying back from East Lansing with their undefeated season being a memory. After surviving upset-minded Northern Iowa in the 2012 opener, No.12 Wisconsin knows what is required to be a perfect team.

MADISON - In the admitted twisted mind of head coach Bret Bielema, this was the perfect scenario for No.12 Wisconsin to deal with to begin its 2012 season.

For a team with expectations of repeating as conference champions for the third straight year and returning to a BCS bowl game, Bielema saw it an important experience for his team to get its hand burned a little bit by the imaginary stove in a winning effort.

"From my point of view as a head coach, it could not have worked out any better," said Bielema. "Once you get burned, you aren't going to do it again."

From the fans' and other outsiders' point of view, Wisconsin's 26-21 win over Northern Iowa to open the season was anything but comforting. There were issues with consistency on offense, not to mention breakdowns on defense and a blocked extra point on special teams that almost caused the Badgers to lose their first conference opener since 1998.

On the other hand, Wisconsin got a wake-up call by being in a close, physical affair and still getting a win, something that wasn't afforded to them last season in games at Michigan State and Ohio State that cost them a shot for a national championship.

"This game was a little bit of an eye opener for us," said junior defensive tackle Ethan Hemer. "We came up short at times when we shouldn't of. That's going to create an atmosphere in practice where we know that saying you want to do it is different than doing it."

Bielema said he made reference to his team that any win was ‘a good win,' and it looked like through three quarters that Wisconsin (1-0) would dominate the annual FCS team that was on its schedule. Entering the fourth quarter, Wisconsin had limited Northern Iowa to 131 yards and just 3.85 yards per play, but shortcomings on offense made UW's lead only 19-7.

It was so one sided that the Panthers only ran 15 first-half plays (47 total yards) and didn't run their first play in Wisconsin territory until there was 4:27 remaining in the third quarter.

It was at that point that memories of 2011 started to creep in, as two missed assignments on wheel routes created touchdown passes of 55 and 31 yards to David Johnson, trimming a comfortable 26-7 lead to an uncomfortable 26-21 nail biter.

"It's not good enough to be great 54 out of 60 plays," said free safety Dezmen Southward, who missed a tackle that would have prevented the 55-yard score. "We want to get those other (six) plays, and we're going to do everything we can this week in order to take it into next week … We understand that we left plays on the field that never should have happened."

With a chance to take the lead with 5:30 remaining, Northern Iowa (0-1) drove as far as Wisconsin's 41-yard line, but was stopped on fourth down when Hemer batted down an attempt at the line of scrimmage. Wisconsin ran out the clock from there.

"We just needed someone to step up," said Hemer, "and the thing with our defense is we've got guys who can do that."

Wisconsin won the time of possession battle 39:05-to-20:55 and outgained Northern Iowa 387-to-306, but gave up four plays of 18 yards or more in the fourth quarter that forced the Badgers to sweat it out.

"The score doesn't always reflect what happened, but we gave up two blown assignments on the wheel route for touchdowns and even a third blown assignment on the touchdown in the red zone," said junior linebacker and captain Chris Borland. "We tighten up those things, it could be a shutout."

The defensive gaffes became great teaching points in a win thanks in part to junior quarterback Danny O'Brien, who was impressive in his UW debut by becoming the sixth quarterback in school history to eclipse 200 passing yards in an opener.

He finished 19-for-23 with 219 yards and two touchdowns, including a 55-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis (six catches, 84 yards, two touchdowns) in the fourth quarter.

"You only get so many of those in a game where you know pre-snap what (the defense) is going to do and execute it," said O'Brien. "I think we did a good job of that on the two touchdown passes of knowing what we were probably going to get and executing it."

Wisconsin running back Montee Ball moved within 17 touchdowns of tying the NCAA record, grinding his way for 120 yards on 32 carries (3.8 yards per carry) and one score; a satisfying performance for him considering his frustrating offseason and that the Panthers were often stuffing the box to prevent the run.

"Adversity struck a lot early this year than it has previous years, so it was an eye-opener for us," said Ball. "I am not sure that (32 carries) isn't the plan for any team in the nation for their starting running back first game of the season, but it happened and I am coming out perfectly healthy."

After averaging 44.1 points per game last year but going through turnover on the field and in the coaching box, the Badgers' offense sputtered inside the 25-yard line. Wisconsin went 14 plays on its opening drive, but a third-down drop by Brian Wozniak inside the 10 forced a Kyle French 32-yard field goal.

The same situation played out in the second quarter, as Wisconsin couldn't convert a third-and-12 inside the 25 and had to settle for a 35-yard field goal.

"You could tell that we aren't extremely happy with how things turned out … but I think we can put that in the books and we can learn from the mistakes we made from this game," said junior center and captain Travis Frederick. "I think we were a close on a lot of things, but close doesn't mean that you are going to be able to win with that."

Finally with the clock at 6:18 in the first half and UW up 6-0, the offense perked up, especially on third down. With O'Brien completing a 22-yard pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen on third-and-22 and Ball's 14-yard run on third-and-4, the Badgers' third drive of at least 10 plays and six minutes ended with Abbrederis catching a 10-yard touchdown.

"The pass to Ped, he waited for that play," said Bielema. "He could see it happening. We gave him the protection and he hit it. The only way you learn that is by doing it."

With that thought in mind, consider week one a successful learning lesson.

Badger Nation Top Stories