With Wisconsin trailing at home for the second straight week, Devin Smith returned a blocked extra point over 85 yards for two points. It was a play that ignited the crowd, the sidelines and the offense, which scored 21 points in the second quarter that proved to be the difference in a 37-26 victory over UTEP, closing out a tumultuous nonconference season.
"We've faced a lot of adversity going through these games," said junior receiver Jared Abbrederis, who led the Badgers with six catches for 147 yards and a touchdown. "We've done a good job of finishing a couple of the games that were pretty close … We made baby steps and we've improved a lot from where we started."
Special teams were the death knell for Wisconsin last season, as a pair of blocked punts led to a loss of momentum and eventually the loss of two winnable games that kept Wisconsin out of the BCS national championship game. Thus far, the shoe is on the other foot.
One week after Kenzel Doe's 82-yard punt return ignited Wisconsin to score the final 13 points in a 16-14 victory, Zagzebski muscled his way through the middle to get a hand on Steven Valadez extra point attempt. Positioned on the outside for a fake, Smith picked up the ball and raced to the end zone for the two-point conversion.
It's a play that Zagzebski said secondary coach Ben Strickland scouted throughout the week and worked to perfection, resulting in UW's first blocked extra point return since the rule was adopted in 1988.
"It was a great heads up play by (Devin)," Zagzebski said. "He picked up the ball and he was gone. It was great to see and great to get a little jump start on them after a big play."
From that point forward, Wisconsin's offense – averaging its fewest points through three games since 1989 – finally woke up, and did most of its work without senior Montee Ball.
After crashing into the end zone from one-yard out, scoring his 64th career rushing touchdown, to give Wisconsin (3-1) a 9-6 lead, Ball was ruled out with a head injury after being examined by the UW staff and having him helmet stashed away.
Ironically, the running game didn't miss a beat, as junior tailback James White (15 carries for 65 yards) and freshman Melvin Gordon (eight for 112) scored three rushing touchdowns to help keep its lead.
The duo helped Wisconsin rushed for a season-high 213 yards on the ground and finish with a season-high 423 yards of offense.
"We weren't really having that much fun out there on the field (with the struggling offense) and that's something we really wanted to add into the game," said White. "We had a great performance today as an offense. There (are) still things to correct, but it's great to put that many points on the board."
Not only was the running game effective, the passing game had its moments, too. Making his first career start, redshirt freshman Joel Stave completed 12 of 17 passes for 210 yards, and especially enjoyed having Abbrederis back in the mix after missing last week with a concussion. Two possessions after his 60-yard reception set up White's first score of the season, Abbrederis was wide open for a 47-yard touchdown catch after his defender fell to the turf.
In its first three games, Wisconsin's offense had five explosive plays of 20 yards or more. In the first half, Wisconsin had four of them, two thanks to Abbrederis.
"Whenever you can stretch the defense like that, it opens up the run game and the run game obviously opens up the passing game again," said Abbrederis, who had catches for 130 in the first half to help UW lead 23-9 at halftime.
"If we can convert on those deep passes and those explosive plays, that's going to help our offense a lot."
But just when one thought the offense was finally going to find its rhythm, Wisconsin started sputtering its wheels with redshirt freshman Joel Stave at the helm. Following Abbrederis' score, Stave telegraphed an interception to Drew Thomas, allowing the Miners (1-3) to end the half with a 45-yard field goal.
The first drive of the second half lasted three plays and two yards and the offense sat on the sideline as UTEP chewed up 5:25 of game clock on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a touchdown and cut the score to seven.
After Wisconsin failed to capitalize on a 10-play drive with a missed 33-yard field goal, the UW offense again watched the Miners – suddenly a model of efficiency and ball movement – cap a 16-play drive with a 43-yard field goal, taking 7:01 off the clock.
"We just can't allow that to happen and expect to beat good people," said UW coach Bret Bielema.
Unlike in past weeks, Wisconsin responded with Stave under center. Simply telling his guys, ‘we need some points,' Stave helped engineered a nine-play drive that took 4:39 off the clock and ended with White finding the end zone. It's the kind of complete drive that Wisconsin had been yearning for all season.
"We moved the ball better than we had, we scored more points than we had and bottom line you've got to score as many points as you can," said Stave. "In that regard, we really took a step forward."
Heading into conference play following four four-quarter games, Wisconsin still hasn't hit its stride; a silver lining they've been holding on to the entire month of September.
"We're on the right track and it helped that we're continually to make paces," said center Travis Frederick. "I think we're on the right slope. That will allow us to continue to make strides this week."