Small Step in the Right Direction

Camp Randall Stadium was devoid of energy, especially with Wisconsin's offense again in a funk and trailing by 11 midway through the third quarter. With Kenzel Doe's 82-yard punt return for a touchdown, the Badgers found the needed spark, scoring 13 unanswered to beat Utah State, 16-14.

MADISON - Excited and thrilled to finally be given an opportunity to make a play, in a primetime game under the lights nonetheless, sophomore Kenzel Doe had no idea that he kept drifting closer and closer to the sidelines to field his first punt of the season.

When he secured the fair catch and looked down, realizing he fair caught a punt on the 3-yard line inches from the sideline, Doe knew he needed to relax and let an opportunity come to him.

"You got to have short-term memory on the football field," said Doe. "That's what I tried to do, and it worked out good for me."

What he eventually did was turn around the game for the Wisconsin, if not the season. With a restless 79,332 fans clamoring for something to cheer about, Doe ignited the crowd and the Badgers with an 82-yard punt return in the third quarter, helping Wisconsin score 13 unanswered points to pull out a 16-14 nailbiter over Utah State Saturday night.

With seasoned return man Jared Abbrederis out with a concussion, Doe, who was primarily recruited to be a weapon in the return game, was given the opportunity ahead of junior tailback James White to be a playmaker in the return game. In retrospect, he tried too hard on his first attempt, resulting in a lapse of judgment and a calm talk from Abbrederis and UW coach Bret Bielema on the sidelines.

"(They) told me to get it on the next one," said Doe.

Two quarters later, Doe responded. Shifting to his left after catching the punt to make the initial tackler miss, Doe weaved through traffic along the UW sideline before cutting up field to elude the punter. Accelerating with enough speed to make linebacker Kyler Fackrell miss, Doe found the end zone and breathed new life on a suffocating sideline on just his second career punt return.

What made the run even more eye-opening was that it came with UW's base defense, not its punt return unit, on the field.

"It was very shocking," said Doe. "They (the defense) was like, ‘Kenzel, we don't know you were going to take off running.' It worked out perfect … I had been working so hard to try and get an opportunity to get my chance on the field. I'd be working all summer catching punts from the punter Drew (Meyer). I finally got my opportunity and I felt like I took advantage."

It was the longest punt return for Wisconsin since Josh Hunt's 89-yard return against Western Michigan in 2000. That team was dealing with the fallout from the infamous Shoe Box Scandal. This year's team is dealing with its own kind of issues, but Doe's return seemed to spark the offense.

"I think the crowd became alive," said Bielema. "Our bench went nuts."

After twice falling to cash in with the ball near midfield, Wisconsin gave the ball to its horse on its next drive, as senior Montee Ball was responsible for all six plays on the 42-yard drive that ended with a 17-yard touchdown run. It put Ball over 100 yards and it gave Wisconsin its first lead following a blocked extra point.

"All I can say from this game is you can see that we had a little identity," said Ball, who finished with 139 rushing yards. "We found our identity a little in the second half."

That almost wasn't enough, as Utah State (2-1) marched 49 yards in 10 plays in the final two minutes to put itself in position to win. Lucky for the Badgers, Josh Thompson's 37-yard field goal with six seconds remaining went wide right, allowing Wisconsin to survive a second-straight disaster.

Wisconsin allowed 308 yards of total offense, but no points in the second half and held the Aggies to 6-for-19 on third downs. The Badgers are limiting opponents to just 29.8 percent on third downs through three games this season.

"It feels good to be able to hold their offense, get off the field on third downs," said senior linebacker Mike Taylor, as finished with 15 tackles. "It feels good to play that way, but the season is so early and we need to keep getting better."

For a team wanting to get back to playing football and regain its winning edge, the first half showed no signs of life. The offense – despite outgaining Utah State 137-to-129 – looked disjointed and sloppy.

Bielema heralded offensive line coach Bart Miller the guy to bridge the gap from last season to this year, but the offensive line was responsible for three of four first-half false start penalties and failed to create enough running room for Ball to move the chains on four occasions when UW was third-and-2 or less.

"Their defense had a good plan," said junior center Travis Frederick. "They played the way they needed to and we got beat in a few individual spots on those plays. We need everybody to play on their best at that point. There were a couple people, including myself, that didn't play their best on (those) particular play(s) and that didn't help us."

The problems weren't limited to the offensive line. For the third straight week, a coverage bust by the Wisconsin defense caused an opposing wide receiver to score a wide-open touchdown, as tailback Kerwy Williams' catch out of the flat was not picked up by the secondary after Taylor stopped his pursuit.

Quarterback Danny O'Brien struggled again with the offense. Completing only 50 percent of his passes, O'Brien – who had an interception wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty – fumbled inside the 30-yard line on third-and-12, leading to field position Utah State capitalized with a touchdown at the end of the first half.

After halftime, O'Brien was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who played in his first career game.

"Number one reason I made transition at the quarterback was just to protect the ball," said Bielema. "For us to win at Wisconsin, we can't turn the ball over."

O'Brien went 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards and the one turnover in the first half. Stave went 2-for-6 for 15 yards in the second half, but engineering UW's only scoring drive by handing the ball off repeatedly to Ball.

"Whenever something like that happens, the whole team is looking at how you handle it," O'Brien said of the benching. "I didn't want to be a negative force on the sidelines. I had to handle it professionally and obviously support Stave. It's a team game and we don't want any deception on the team."

Quite frankly, Wisconsin doesn't need any more drama. In the past seven days, Wisconsin scored only seven points in a road loss, fired its offensive line coach and came a few feet from dropping back-to-back nonconference games for the first time since 2001.

For a team that admits to taking baby steps back in the forward direction, this was a good, small first step.

"We're coming along," said Doe. "We're going to get going good as the games go by."

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