Playing quarterback at Wisconsin doesn't require a heroic effort. The main goal of a Wisconsin quarterback is to be a game manager, handing the ball off to a talented running back behind a big offensive line and making a key throw now and then. So when turnovers start to creep into the picture, it disrupts the flow.
That's the main reason why Danny O'Brien was benched in the second half after he completed only 5 of 10 passes for 63 yards, had one center-quarterback exchange and had a costly fumble that led to a Utah State touchdown on a short field.
"You can't put the ball on the ground and you can't turn it over," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada Sunday. "Danny cares. He wants to be great. He works very hard. He cares about the program. There are a lot of things that aren't going well and by no means am I pointing the finger at one particular spot. But you can't have multiple turnovers in a couple of games."
O'Brien only committed one turnover thanks to an interception being waved off due to a roughing-the-passer penalty. Had the play stood, O'Brien would have thrown the ball right to USU defender Will David, giving the ball the Aggies on the Wisconsin 36-yard line.
"Obviously you can't do that," said Canada. "We got the play back, but you can't put the ball in their hands. You can't scramble left and throw back, and Danny knows that. He's a smart kid and wants to make plays … Offensive football is 11 men doing their job. When you have one guy on two plays not doing his job, it just doesn't work."
When asked if this was UW coach Bret Bielema's call on the change, Canada paused, smiled and deferred to the head coach.
"Bret's the head coach," said Canada. "Coach and I were in very good discussion. I'll keep it at that."
Joel Stave played in his first career game by starting the second half, a situation Canada acknowledged as not being ideal to get him his first reps. Stave surprisingly played with composure but was held on a very short leash by the UW staff, completing only 2 of 6 passes for 15 yards.
"We didn't ask him to do too much," said Canada.
Knowing that, it's kind of hard to decide who should get the start against UTEP. Hopefully this benching will motivate O'Brien to rekindle the performance he had in the opener and throughout fall camp where he wasn't known for making these types of decisions.
At this right, Montee Ball will pass out sometime next month. Carrying the ball 37 times, one would think Ball would have well over 200-yards rushing instead of only 139. At 3.8 yards per carry, that's a lot of hits and not a lot of productivity. Still, it was nice to see Canada actually use his Heisman-quality tailback. Either that or he has no confidence in UW's passing game to turn to any other option.
"There were a few plays were if they go different, it's a different day," said Canada. "Momentum is such a great thing."
The UW coaching staff tried to get Melvin Gordon the first carry of the game on an end around, but a false start penalty ended that experiment. Gordon eventually got two carries for 18 yards, including a 15-yard scamper. James White was limited to only three carries. At some point, these two players will need to receive more carries.
Hard to grade a position that only made five catches and committed a couple drops for Stave. The lack of use of Jacob Pedersen is shocking (one catch, one yard) and falls partly on the quarterbacks and party on UW's offensive coaches for its game plan.
The catch of the day has to go to true freshman Reggie Love, whose 19-yard catch on third-and-5 helped set up Wisconsin's only first-half points.
Make no mistake about it, this team needs Jared Abbrederis healthy and on the field.
There's no question that Wisconsin's offensive line came out and tried to play physical. That's a bonus and an upgrade over last week. Now the difference heading into week four is doing instead of trying, as well as being mentally smart.
The line was flagged for three false starts and two holding penalties, all tough things to overcome for an offense that is struggling to score points and move the ball.
"We can't get ourselves behind the change to where we are," said Canada.
The lack of success on third-and-short is shocking. Actually, it's somewhat embarrassing for a school like Wisconsin. It's not like the offensive line couldn't get push on a few third-and-short situations; they couldn't get push on four separate occasions and went 1-for-5 on third and less than two.
"That's something we really need to focus on this week, the short-yardage stuff (and) being sharp mentally," said offensive line Bart Miller.
The important thing for Wisconsin is finishing its blocks and being crisp in its movements, as a couple bodies ran into each other and a couple missed angles caused a good defense to take advantage. As Miller said, the scheme is there, but little things need to be fixed to help Wisconsin get back to being a better offensive line.
On O'Brien sack and fumble, Miller said the protection was correct, but it was slid the wrong way, a decision he put on himself by telling Travis Frederick to slide the protection to the stand-up defensive end. That side had been yielding most of Utah State's pressures. According to Miller, had UW slid the other way, it would have picked up the extra rusher and the turnover likely would have been avoided.
"We're perfectly capable," said Miller. "We just have to make some plays, get some big hits. We'll get this thing going."
Better. Not great, but better.
David Gilbert finally broke out and it came at a needed time. With Pat Muldoon out 2-3 weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, Gilbert got more reps and finished with seven tackles, including the defensive line's first sack of the season (and the team's only sack of the game).
"There was some really good pressure on the quarterback," said defensive line coach Charlie Partridge. "We were hassling (the QB) all the time. Against a quarterback that can move like that – Braxton Miller and Taylor Martinez are coming down the pipe – we have to do a good job with our range to not allow them to extend plays."
Brendan Kelly returned to the lineup following a pulled hamstring and made three tackles. Tyler Dippel, Jesse Hayes and Konrad Zagzebski also got reps, meaning the Badgers are building depth in Muldoon's absence.
"I feel a lot better than I did a month ago," said Partridge.
Although the defensive tackles haven't gotten a sack yet this season, the work Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer are doing on the interior is impressive. Tailback Kerwy Williams only managed 43 rushing yards.
"I think they are doing a nice job," said Partridge. "They are really strong against the run. I don't feel at this point there is a lot of push in the middle. They are impacting run plays and getting a couple hits on the quarterback from the middle is good to see. I want to see that continue to increase."
The Badgers lost containment four times on quarterback Chuckie Keeton, leading to a big chunk of his team-leading 75 rushing yards, so there's room for improvement like every group.
Senior linebacker Mike Taylor had 15 tackles, his ninth career double-digit tackle game, and junior Chris Borland had seven tackles, but junior Ethan Armstrong appeared to play the best out of the three. Armstrong had seven tackles, a pass breakup and snuffed out a fake punt on fourth-and-four. Not bad for a guy who got x-rayed at halftime for what the medical staff thought was a broken bone in his hands. "I am really impressed with everything that kid is going," said Partridge. "He's such an effort guy."
Kerwy Williams was Taylor's responsibility on his 37-yard touchdown on a wheel route, but UW coach Bret Bielema was candid after the game that the Badgers will have to fix their alignment to take pressure off of Taylor.
"You know what, he can't cover that," Bielema said. "I don't have to stress that enough. If we put him in that position again, we have problems. So we've got to protect him in that scenario and make sure that we don't put him in that because he's a really good football player. But we're asking him to do too much in that situation and take care of the problem. He did cover it later in the game. They tried to come back to it."
Wisconsin gave up a lot of yards at times, but one touchdown came on a short field and the defense held the Aggies without a point in the second half.
"There's a lot we can improve on." Borland said. "But you like the work ethic, you like the heart. We always fight, you know just out always playing our best. Guys are showing a lot of resiliency, a lot of effort throughout the entire game. And that's something you can build on. That's something that you have to have."
Partridge said the secondary had the best game of the season, and he's likely correct. Although the defense failed to generate a turnover, Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie were incredibly active with five pass breakups between them. Cromartie did give up a touchdown, but appeared to be slightly pushed by the receiver that resulted in separation. According to Partridge, the breakdown play happened on the defensive line, which lost containment.
"We felt like we were playing OK, but we felt like we weren't doing enough in the first half," safety Dezmin Southward said. "We really wanted to go out and put our stamp on this game and show we can be a defense that can win games, and I think we proved that today. We didn't play perfect, but we played with heart and we never lost heart and it showed in the second half, we came out and we really worked. To keep a team like that off of the board, it's definitely a confidence booster."
Kenzel Doe's kick return was special, but it also came in a losing effort because Kyle French finally had some issues. French battling hooked a 36-yard field goal attempt from the right hash, kicked one kickoff out of bounds and had his second extra point blocked of the season.
"It was a low kick on French's field goal," Bielema said. "No question about it. I thought at first he might have hit the laces, but at least the guys upstairs said the laces were to the side, so it was just a low hit."
Last season the issue Wisconsin dealt with was the kickers getting tired legs with the large amount of kickoffs the unit was forced to handle. Now the issue is with punter Drew Meyer being overworked. After punting seven times against OSU, Meyer punted nine times against Utah State and while he averaged 41.4 yards per punt with a three inside the 20 and a long of 55, he hit two punts under 35 yards in the fourth quarter.
According to Partridge, Wisconsin is going to limit Meyer's reps throughout the week in hopes of keeping him fresh.