1,Joel Stave must settle in
This has ramifications for several aspects of the Badgers football team. For this game it means not turning the ball over, which could lead to an unexpected early deficit. Additionally if Stave doesn't settle in, it will cause heartburn for Coach Bret Bielema. Bielema yanked starter Danny O'Brien at halftime against Utah State and it won't reflect well on that decision if Stave starts the game against a clearly inferior opponent (almost certainly the weakest team the Badgers will face all year) in a shaky fashion. The passing game has yet to develop after a decent start against Northern Iowa. If Stave does settle in, it could lead to a four-touchdown victory. More importantly it could be a key to the season, let alone the game. If he doesn't settle in the game will be much closer than it should be and the questions will swirl.
2, A Healthy Abbrederis
The second key is no more a mystery than the first. The Badgers have one deep threat on the team: Abbrederis - the leading returning player at his position in the conference. Reggie Love and Jordan Fredrick both caught passes against Utah State, but at this point in their careers neither runs the routes or manages to separate himself from defenders like Abbrederis. With Stave making his first start at QB, the Badgers offense will need that ability for a wide receiver to find separation. Stave has been inconsistent targeting the ball in practice; an open Abbrederis, running sharp routes, will make Stave's task much easier.
3, The Health of Nathan Jeffery
Jeffery is the Miners star tailback and ran for 177 yards on 21 carries … against Oklahoma. But that was three weeks ago. Jeffery did not play last week during the Miners victory over New Mexico State. A 100 percent healthy Jeffery could cause problems for the Badgers, but it doesn't appear that Jeffery will be at full speed. UTEP Head Coach Mike Price was quoted as saying Jeffery practiced in a non-contact jersey on Tuesday.
4, The Badger O-Line
There was some small improvement from the Badgers offensive line against Utah State. The hole opened up for Montee Ball's touchdown run was reminiscent of 2010 and 2011, but further improvement needs to be demonstrated against the Miners. Calling it as we see it: Bielema's (and presumably offensive line coach Bart Miller's) thought process that gives some playing time to second-string right guard Kyle Costigan, over current starter Zach Matthias, is counter-productive. Matthias can use all of the snaps possible against an inferior opponent to gain confidence in his first step, to gain a sense of balance and to develop his timing with his teammates on the O-line. Costigan has had opportunities and did not perform, even to the substandard current level of Matthias. This key is as much for the Big Ten season (a mere eight days away) as it is for Saturday's game with UTEP.
5, More consistent play from Special Teams
The kicking game was a strength for the Badgers in back-to-back Rose Bowl seasons, while kick coverage sometimes was not. Against Utah State the Badgers had good to very good kick coverage, returned a punt for a touchdown and in general punted well, but the kicking game against the Aggies also produced one shanked punt, a missed PAT and a missed field goal from short range. If those points are on the board, the Badgers aren't in the position to lose on a last-second field goal, in the end mercifully wide right.
Rain (in the forecast) and first-half inconsistency from Joel Stave means the passing game is not better in the first half than in the previous game. But the O-Line develops some traction for the Badgers as Montee Ball makes some under-manned defenders miss on a few long runs. The passing game looks a little better in the second half. The defense continues to impress, and there is a chance for a shutout if Jeffery doesn't play for the Miners. For now BadgerNation will predict a victory, closer than it should be, of 21-7.
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Badger sports news, notes and discussion, especially on game day, follow Badger Nation on Twitter @TheBadgerNation