After a two week absence, Wisconsin's quarterback play finally became consistent. Whether that was credited to Joel Stave or the level of opponent remains to be seen, but the redshirt freshman did look good in his first career start.
Stave finished the game 12-of-17 for 210 yards, a 47-yard touchdown pass and an interception. Stave finished with a pass efficiency rating of 182.0, the fifth-best mark in a starting debut by a UW quarterback.
"He's going to be a good quarterback," UW coach Bret Bielema proclaimed, obviously thrilled that his switch at the position paid off. "He's tall, athletic, he's smart at the line of scrimmage, he doesn't hide things. When he comes over to the sideline he tells you the truth what he really sees, and as a coach you can make that better, if a kid is telling you something that he wants to avoid getting yelled at or corrected in the right way, he tells it the way it is."
It appeared the playbook was a bit more open for Stave, who got to take advantage of junior receiver Jared Abbrederis back in the lineup and UW going against a bad run defense. Knowing those two things, it's not a surprise Wisconsin was able to have a balanced attack that opened up the play-action pass.
Give Stave some credit though. He took some pretty good licks in the first half and continued to play solid football. He made one bad turnover by telegraphing a pass that can't happen, but Stave used his legs to create some plays down field and to move the chains, including a 16-yard scramble set up UW's first touchdown.
"Great quarterbacks are the guys that can make plays when there isn't an answer," Bielema said. "He made some scrambles and plays in the first half that kept drives alive and I think that's huge for him confidence-wise for him to move forward because everything is not always going to be as clean as you want."
It's a good start, but Stave will need to play better next week if UW wants to win in Lincoln.
Despite being given the open forum to air their grievances, both James White and Melvin Gordon declined to say the Wisconsin coaching staff has underused them throughout the first three weeks of the season. They didn't need to say anything, as their play spoke for itself.
With Montee Ball unavailable for the final three quarters after suffering a head injury, White and Gordon made sure the running attack stayed productive.
"As soon as Montee went down, he came out and said it's yours and Melvin's turn," said White. "I knew that we had to come out and help lead the team to victory."
White was certainly part of that solution, rushing for 65 yards without losing a yard on a team-high 15 carries and two touchdowns. White and Gordon were also effective in the two-back sets, with White catching a 14-yard pass and Gordon doing a lot of his damage in motion.
"It was a good game plan," said White. "We have a very talented backfield and everybody has confidence."
Carrying the ball eight times for a career-high 112 yards and a touchdown, Gordon is averaging 13.0 yards per carry, third-best in NCAA among players with at least 10 carries, but believes he can get better with his reads and his cuts with more experience on the field.
"I've been used well," said Gordon. "You've got to wait your turn. I am not going to pout about it but when an opportunity comes, you have to take full advantage of it."
Ball – who lost his first fumble of his career on his 711th career touch (rushes and receptions) on UW' opening drive – finished with 40 yards and nine carries before exiting. Even if he can't go next week, Wisconsin fans should realize that the running game is in good hands.
If it wasn't evident before, it is now … Abbrederis is the most important player on Wisconsin's offense. Abbrederis caught 6 passes for a career-high 147 yards and a TD. His previous career high was 113 yards at Ohio State on Oct. 29, 2011. All other UW receivers had a combined two catches for 13 yards.
"Our coaches did a great job this week with the game plan and I think they called great plays today," said Abbrederis. "Coach (Matt) Canada did a great job."
Abbrederis is a dangerous weapon, as he showed on both of his big catches. On his 60-yard catch and his 47-yard touchdown, Abbrederis used his speed, experience and moved to make a big play that jump started the offense.
"When he is able to separate like that, he really can give you a good window to throw it into," said Stave.
Jacob Pedersen grabbed two catches for 32 yards, but still needs to be more involved in the offense for Wisconsin to be really effective.
The strides continue to be made by the front five of the University of Wisconsin. Responsible for 40 rushing attempts, the front five paved the wave for 213 rushing yards (a season high), a 5.3 yards per carry average and four rushing touchdowns.
"I think we're on the right track," said center Travis Frederick. "I think this week, we did better with our technique. We were just as physical this week as we were last week. When we carry that physicality forward and play with good technique, I think it worked out well with for us."
Added Gordon: "Those guys have been working hard, and we all gave. They clearly improved and you could see that. We improved as a team, so those guys have definitely been working."
After allowing three sacks and some blindside hits in the first half, the Wisconsin line made the necessary transition and didn't allow a sack in the second half.
"It was just a matter of a guy getting an extra bounce, picking up a guy or switching the protection," said Frederick.
The only strange curiosity with the offensive line this week was the fact that redshirt sophomore Kyle Costigan got the start at right guard and took a majority of the snaps. After originally saying Costigan and redshirt junior Zac Matthias – who started the first three games at the spot – would split reps, Bielema admitted he fibbed to get the opponent off balanced.
"Costi, he's engaging, as far as before the game and everything he puts in a lot of preparation" said Bielema. "He's thirsty for knowledge, and I think the linemen liked having him in there."
Without two experienced defensive ends before the game even started and losing two other experience ends before the game ended, coach Charlie Partridge has to piece different combinations together. It was a productive lineup, as Jesse Hayes and Konrad Zagzebski kept outside containment and was a solid two-man punch.
Ethan Hemer played solid throughout the game, finishing with five tackles and a half tackle for loss.
"He doesn't always look the prettiest, but he's always in the right place," Bielema said. "He's intelligent, a great character kid … He's a fun kid to be around. He benefits as a hockey player, all around athlete, he's good at staying on his feet. He never is on the ground, he's got good balance and I think that gets him in a lot of plays."
Beau Allen has been impressive since the start of fall camp. Taking over the reps left by Jordan Kohout, Allen registered two tackles for loss and one sack, helping the defensive line put pressure on quarterback Nick Lamaison and holding the UTEP rushing attack to only 77 yards.
Junior LB Chris Borland recorded 12 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs for 20 yards and two sacks, as well as two pass breakups. It was his first double-digit tackle game of the season and the 10th of his career. While admitting that his defensive teammates had an aggressive game plan, Borland admits that Wisconsin's defense has been inconsistent and needs to improve.
"We've shown flashes," said Borland. "We've been inconsistent and that has to stop. We're making strides in that category and this week we let up a few plays that are really going to hurt us in the big picture."
One of those plays fell on Borland when he pushed Lamaison from behind after he released the UTEP quarterback released the ball, resulting in a 15-yard personal foul penalty that Borland called ‘stupid' and eventually a UTEP touchdown.
"The only time he gets in trouble is when he tries to do something he didn't need to do," said Bielema. "He had a hit today that would have been a big hit, and he blitzed the wrong guy and as a true linebacker, the plays come to you. You play your scheme, inside out to the football, the way you're supposed to flow to the football, and you will make plays. But he has a knack for it, to bat it out of bounds the way he did at the end of the game is freaky. "
Junior Ethan Armstrong registered six tackles and two pass breakups while senior Mike Taylor registered four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups. As a unit, Wisconsin's defense finished with nine tackles for loss and eight pass breakups.
"I think we were doing a good job this week of pressuring the quarterback," said Borland. "We were able to get in there."
Darius Hillary played well with a career-high eight tackles, second-best on the team, and Dezmen Southward added six tackles, a half tackle for loss and a pass breakup, but the defense still hasn't created a turnover through four nonconference games. That is a concern.
In his second game filling in for senior safety Shelton Johnson, Michael Trotter finished with six tackles and a pass breakup, but gambled when he tried to make the perfect deflection on a deep route with less than a minute left. He failed, and UTEP scored a touchdown. That will be a valuable learning tool.
Devin Smith got burned in one-on-one coverage for UTEP's opening touchdown, but recovered to play decent after that.
As a whole, the secondary played OK, but the unit will have to play much better.
It appears for the third straight week that somebody on the Wisconsin roster will lose their job. First Mike Markuson, then Danny O'Brien and now Kyle French. After hooking a kickoff out of bounds for the second straight week early in the second quarter, Bielema went with true freshman Jack Russell for the remainder of the game.
Russell kicked off five times with a 60.4-yard average. He also missed his only field goal attempt from 33 yards.
"We can't spot the ball on the 35-yard line, one last week and one this week, and the good news is Jack is confident and he made the kicks, getting hang time on those kickoffs," Bielema said. "He had four kicks Thursday night and he was confident he was going to make 'em all so he did a good job."
The return game was OK without Abbrederis on either unit and freshman punter Drew Meyer averaged 45.2 yards on his four punts against UTEP. Meyer is averaging 41.7 yards per punt on his 24 kicks this season.
Zagzebski's blocked extra point on a well designed play was one of the turning points of the game, as it earned that Badgers two points after Devin Smith's return and jumpstarted the offense.