Becoming the sixth QB in Wisconsin history that threw for over 200 yards in his debut, O'Brien finished the day with 219 yards and two touchdown passes and, more importantly, no turnovers in the 26-21 victory over Northern Iowa Saturday.
"I like the fact that he didn't turn the ball over," said UW head coach Bret Bielema of O'Brien, who had approximately 30 friends and family in attendance. "I know that Coach (Matt) Canada is like every other quarterback and coordinator I've ever met- they want perfection - and there are going to be some things that he's going to see that he can pick up. The way he handled the clock in the last series, a lot of teams screw that up."
Most of O'Brien's passes, however, came in the first half of the game. UW's first drive ended in a field goal after junior tight end Brian Wozniak dropped pass that would have given the Badgers a first down inside the 15. That was the extent of the scoring in the first half, as offensive coordinator Matt Canada pounded the running game in the first half.
"I thought for a first-time quarterback to throw up those kinds of numbers I thought it was very, very impressive," said Bielema. "One of the things we stress is trying to create touchdowns, not field goals, in the red zone. So we've got to modify that, but bottom line is we kicked the field goals which hadn't been a standard in our fall camp."
The Badgers failed to convert on two red zone chances, which UNI head coach Mark Farley said was the goal.
"The object was to not let them score touchdowns and give up field goals, and that's what we did…we didn't give up the ‘big play' per se."
Coach Bielema gave a lot of credit to UNI, calling them ‘the best FCS team we've faced.'
"I think Matt had a good game plan," said Bielema. "I thought we we'd be able to run the football a little bit and obviously we were able to do that. I was happy to come in at halftime and we had (42) snaps to 15. That's Wisconsin football. If we snap the ball 80 to 90 times offensively, it usually means we're playing our kind of football."
UW didn't stretch the field too much in the passing game, but many of O'Brien averaged 9.5 yards on his 23 attempts. The short throws helped the young Badgers' receivers get into a rhythm.
"I feel like we can do it. You know coming into the game you've got first year receivers so you don't really want to go deep on the first time," said sophomore wide receiver Kenzel Doe. "You want to get their feet wet, and now that people can see that we can do it all, you can send the running backs on ‘go' routes [and] they'll catch the ball."
Senior WR Jared Abbrederis led the team with six receptions 84 yards and two touchdowns. Doe had three receptions for 21 yards in the game and was one of five other Badgers with a reception.
It wasn't until the very end of the first half that the Badgers scored their first touchdown. O'Brien lofted 10 yard pass that landed right into Abbrederis' hands to put the Badgers up 13-0.
"You only get so many of those in the game where you know pre-snap a good idea of what you're going to do and execute it," O'Brien said.
The touchdown wouldn't have happened though if not for a 22-yard strike to junior tight end Jacob Pedersen running a slant on third-and-21.
"I think that completion to (Jacob) Pedersen on third down was crucial," said Bielema. "He waited for Pedersen and saw the play open up – we gave him the protection and he hit it. The only way you learn that is by doing it so I think a lot of positives there. And then just the way he handled the clock in that last series – there are a lot of teams that screw that up and he did a great job of managing that."
O'Brien's second touchdown of the game stretched the field and went right back to Abbrederis for a 53- yard score in the third quarter. O'Brien only threw the ball nine times in the second half, but he completed eight of them for 114 yards.
"It was an unbelievable home atmosphere to play under, and I finally got to see what Camp Randall is really like," said O'Brien. "I was pretty excited coming out of the tunnel. I got goosebumps for sure."
With his stellar start, one never would have known.