It seems Wisconsin quarterbacks have a thing about making a positive first impression. Scott Tolzien threw an 80-yard touchdown pass on his first play, Russell Wilson passed and rushed his way to 312 total yards and three scores responsible for and Danny O'Brien carved up the Northern Iowa defense.
Finishing the day 19-for-23 (he had two drops against him) for 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, O'Brien became the third straight UW quarterback to throw for over 200 yards in his debut.
"We'll take it. It's a win," said O'Brien. "There is no such thing as a bad win. I think there are some things that I have to clean up, but for the most part, I think we did a pretty good job in the passing game and the running game, and like I said, you take a win anytime you can."
O'Brien's 82.6 completion percentage was the fourth best in the NCAA in week one while his pass efficiency of 191.29 is the second-best mark of a Badgers quarterback in his UW debut (minimum five completions), trailing only the mark of 292.46 by Russell Wilson in his Wisconsin debut in 2011.
"I know that Coach (Matt) Canada is like every other quarterback and coach that I've met -- they want perfection -- and there's going to be some things that he sees after watching the film that he could pick up, but overall he made some great decisions," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "The way he handled the clock there in that last series -- there's a lot of teams that screw that up and he did a great job of managing that."
Wisconsin wanted to stretch the field a little bit in the passing game and it worked when the Badgers went to it, hitting Jared Abbrederis for a 10-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a 53-yard strike off playaction in the fourth quarter. UW also utilized some quick hits that O'Brien took advantage of to sustain drives, as UW had three drives of 10 plays or more.
"I'm excited because I think he's a kid that takes coaching very, very well," said Bielema. "My guess is you're going to see a better game out of him next week."
Hopefully the improvement is punching more drives inside the 25-yard line into the end zone, although that really wasn't the fault of O'Brien on Saturday.
Clogging the box and guarding the perimeter, Northern Iowa wanted to make sure Wisconsin didn't beat them from the outside with its run game. With that thought in mind, the Badgers just gave the ball to their Heisman finalist between the tackles … over and over and over again.
Few people probably predicted Montee Ball to carry the ball 32 times. Fewer people probably thought he'd be held to only 120 yards and one touchdown on those carries, but the senior tailback certainly was the bruiser between the tackles to help Wisconsin have a 19-minute edge in time of possession.
"I thought that was vintage Montee," said Bielema. "He was engaged, he was eager. I saw him in pregame warm-ups and he slapped me as hard as I want to be slapped. So I thought, `OK, I think 28 is ready to roll.'
"To finish the game the way he did, there wasn't going to be anyone that was going to deny him -- I don't care if that was UNI or Nebraska, or anyone else that's left on our schedule -- he was going to secure that win and you could tell that … It's hard to shake your head at 120 yards -- overall that was a pretty good effort."
One of the main reasons Ball came back was to show NFL scouts that he can be a more complete player. Playing at 215 pounds (10 pounds heavier than at the start of last season), Ball showed glimpses of that in the passing game with three catches for 31 yards, including a long of 16.
"Able to catch out of the backfield, able to line up as a wide receiver and make plays out there in open space," said Ball.
James White had the biggest run of the day on a 20-yard carry, as he finished the day with 47 yards on nine carries. Fullback Derek Watt reeled in a couple passes out of the backfield for his two collegiate catches and Melvin Gordon played on kickoff returns but didn't play on offense.
"We really do want to get him involved," said Bielema of Gordon. "We had a game plan, but we never were in the situation at the line of scrimmage."
With UW not getting real frisky in the downfield passing game, the Badgers relied on a lot of short passes to keep the chains moving. When Wisconsin did air it out, UW's two best receivers made big plays. Jared Abbrederis hauled in six catches for 84 yards and two athletic scores, adjusting to one in the corner of the end zone and zipping past the secondary on a go-route for a 53-yard touchdown.
Jacob Pedersen only had two catches, but hauled in a 22-yard reception on a crossing route over the middle, shook his defender and muscled his way for a first down on third-and-22. That catch set up Wisconsin's first touchdown of the season.
Making his first collegiate start in his first game, Jordan Fredrick had two catches for 39 yards, including a 20-yard catch-and-run down the sideline, and Kenzel Doe added three catches for 21 yards. One vital drop by Brian Wozniak in the red zone cost the Badgers a first down and had to settle for a field goal and Abbrederis coughed up the football that UW was fortunate to recover, but otherwise it was a productive start.
Travis Frederick didn't mince words when he said he wasn't happy with how Wisconsin's offensive line played. It's understandable why many would think that. With a group playing its first game together as a unit (a unit that wasn't finalized until Thursday), the Badgers only managed 5.5 yards per play and 387 yards of total offense. If you take out the big 53-yard play to Abbrederis, Wisconsin averaged only 4.8 yards per play.
"We just weren't getting enough vertical push on our blocks," said Frederick. "Back-side blocks were a little off at times. We were falling down a little bit with our movements. That just comes from experience."
It wasn't all bad, however. Wisconsin only allowed one sack, but that was due to O'Brien holding on to the ball too long. The Badgers also didn't allow one quarterback hurry and just 11 lost yards on runs between the tackles.
"I think there (were) some good things up front for us going on," said Bielema. "We were getting some hats on hats, but we weren't really finishing there the way we needed to in the fourth."
It's almost a guarantee that finishing will improve moving forward.
There wasn't a ton of pressure being brought by Wisconsin's defensive line in the opener, a fact that Bielema said was a result of what the Panthers were doing on offense. Even so, it's still a concern that the group was so quiet, especially from David Gilbert (no solo tackles) and Ethan Hemer (no tackles). Beau Allen (three tackles, one tackle for loss, one breakup) probably played the best out of the group followed closely by Brendan Kelly (three tackles, two QB hurries, one personal foul penalty), but the group didn't register one sack against a redshirt freshman quarterback.
"It seemed like we were right there like 15 times on all those third down (and) fourth-down conversions. It sounds stupid. You do pass rush every day, but you have to learn game-speed pass rush and how much more intense it needs to be."
Wisconsin limited Northern Iowa to only 41 rushing yards but the pressure needs to be better. The prime example is when Warren Herring and Hemer got leverage on their blockers, causing the pocket to collapse and Hemer to bat down a fourth-down pass to help seal the victory.
"We were surprised by some of the things we were seeing," said Hemer. "We shouldn't have been surprised. Those were things we had reped in practice. A couple of new things, but nothing we shouldn't have been able to handle … Guys needed to come out and make plays. Thankfully we were able to do that."
It should be no surprise that Mike Taylor (13 tackles) and Chris Borland (7) were the team's top two tacklers, as the duo appeared everywhere in the opener. Taylor had 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup (which could have been an interception returned for a touchdown) while Borland had a sack, a breakup, a quarterback hurry and forced a fumble that UNI recovered, improving his school record to 11 career forced fumbles.
"I feel like we played well in the first half," said Borland. "We did everything we should have done. We didn't necessary make plays or force any turnovers."
As always, the linebackers get some credit with the run defense and the pass defense. The run defense was good throughout the game, but the two blown assignments (we'll get to that in a minute) put a black mark on the defense's performance.
The aerial assault was nonexistent at halftime, as Northern Iowa had only 27 passing yards and one first down in the first half. The Panthers were much better after taking advantage of miscommunication in Wisconsin's secondary in the fourth quarter to put Wisconsin on upset alert.
The first strike – a 55-yard wheel route – came when the Badgers were in their 3-3-5 defense and lost the receiver along the sidelines. The play could have been prevented had Dezmen Southward made the tackle or pushed himself out of bounds, but he was shook loose by the receiver.
"The great thing is it (happened) to one of our best players and he's going to be able to take that coaching and move forward," Bielema said of Southward. "It's a great lesson for our defense that every play matters."
Seven plays later with Wisconsin in its base defense, the same play occurred and the results were eerily similar, as the Panthers receiver was untouched as he headed in for a 31-yard touchdown.
You take away the two blown assignments on wheel routes, the pass defense looks pretty good with allowing only 179 passing yards. Add those plays in, Wisconsin gives up 265 yards and makes the fourth quarter a whole lot tougher on itself.
"We wanted to be solid, consistent and crisp," said Southward. "On 90 percent of the plays we were that, but it's not about those 90 percent. It's about those 10 percent and that's the ones we've got to go get. Those are the ones we really got to work on … because we really do care and we understand this can be a great defense."
Breaking in a new kicker and punter for the first time in four years, Wisconsin got good performances from both Kyle French and Drew Meyer. French kicked a 32-yard and 35-yard field goal in the first half and averaged 64.5 yards on his six kickoffs (four of which were touchbacks and a couple that landed out of the end zone). His only flub was getting an extra point blocked on a kick that came off his foot low.
"I think I had a pretty good day," said French. "On my kickoffs, I think I showed the coaches I can take over that role. You can always build from it."
Meyer averaged 41.8 on his four punts with a long of 46 yards, striking the ball solidly on a windy day at Camp Randall. White and Abbrederis both looked good in the return game and the Badgers' punt and kickoff coverage was solid throughout the game.