Lewis: Badgers need shot of offense

What was once lost may now be found. BN's Matt Lewis finds out that the offense just needs a little bit of infectious confidence to get the ball rolling the right way again.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- As P.J. Hill bounced around the left end of the Michigan defensive line early on Saturday afternoon, it looked as if the Badger offense might be packing the punch it would so desperately need to topple the sixth-ranked Wolverines.

The run was good for 16 yards, and in just two plays Hill had already surpassed the 20.6 yards per game that the Michigan defense had allowed on the ground through its first three contests. Hill eventually caught a short pass later in the drive and opened it up for a touchdown that gave Wisconsin an early 7-0 lead, which hushed the majority of the 111,058 on hand at Michigan Stadium.

But following that successful debut, the offensive playmaking began edging towards, as John Stocco put it – stagnant.

"We've just got to make more plays," was how the senior quarterback assessed things.

Stocco is right. In a Big Ten opener that was tight throughout the first half – a tribute to the talented defenses wearing either uniform – the big-time offensive playmakers of the Wolverines set themselves apart by making significant plays at big times. The Badgers, on the other hand, often seemed at a loss for whom to turn to.

"We've got to do a better job as an offense just moving the chains and getting ourselves into a better situation," Stocco said. "We've got to help (the defense) out with that field position. Even if we don't go down and score, we've got to at least move the chains and get the ball back on their end so they don't have a short field to work with."

The heralded front seven for the Wolverines – or the "front fourteen" as Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema labeled their talent and depth – sent the Badgers' tailbacks flying tail back into the ground for much of the afternoon. Hill managed just 31 yards after that opening drive and Dywon Rowan finished in the red with negative yardage on his two carries.

At many times those backs got little help from the passing game, which produced numerous dropped balls despite the command and control of Stocco at the helm. While Stocco found some success getting the ball to Hill and his two tight ends, the Badger receivers combined for just eight of the team's 22 receptions, none of them longer than 16 yards.

"We certainly made some mistakes," Stocco said. "I thought we started off the game really well, we finished pretty well, had some momentum going there at the end and did some nice things. But like I said, I thought we stalled a little in the middle of the game.

"So we've got to take a look at why that happened and correct it this week."

One argument for why that stall occurred is that nobody in particular took it upon himself to single-handedly drag the offense out of a rut. On the other sideline, it was Mario Manningham who eventually got loose for big plays when sophomore cornerback Jack Ikegwuono was not covering him. It was also senior return specialist Steve Breaston who made would-be tacklers miss on his breaks towards the sideline after hauling in punts.

Both teams certainly had their share of defensive playmakers in Saturday's ballgame, but it was the explosive plays by Michigan that did ultimately put points on the board, even if they were set up in some instances by special teams miscues.

"They did what Michigan does," said sophomore cornerback Allen Langford – who picked off two Chad Henne passes but also found himself in the dirt while Manningham was hauling in his first touchdown pass. "They got the big plays," he added.

It was Super Mario getting all the hype leading up to the game, and Ikegwuono was able to contain him for the most part. But both of Manningham's touchdowns came when he beat other members of the secondary – Langford and safety Zach Hampton. Ikegwuono was having trouble with a knot in his calf, and had to spend some time off the field getting hydrated to keep up with the talented receiver.

"I knew they were going to attack the secondary as soon as I came out, and they did two passing plays in a row," Ikegwuono said.

Manningham personally commented during the game on how well the young Badger corner was keeping him under wraps, but eventually all that hard work came back to haunt Wisconsin when Ikegwuono could not be in to stop the playmaker from making his plays.

That is what the Badger offense seems to be lacking despite the experience of its signal-caller. In the pocket, Stocco cannot be the one to make the plays by himself. Hill has shown the potential to be a dynamic star for Wisconsin, but will need to take his beatings against defenses of a higher level in the Big Ten before anyone knows for sure where his ceiling might lie.

As long as no receiver is taking over games the way Manningham did on his routes or Breaston did on occasion with his returns, the successive three-and-outs that haunt a period of the game can turn into a trend. It was off a defensive spark that the Badgers scored their opening touchdown, and when the team had some late success it actually came with Isaac Anderson and Xavier Harris lining up at receiver to provide fresh blood.

"They've got a few games under their belt now," Stocco said. "It's a pretty hostile environment we just played in. So I think the more experience they have it's going to help. I need to make sure they know I'm going to keep coming at them. We had some mistakes out here today. But I had some mistakes out there too."

Of course, the fact that the Badgers arguably most well-known player is an offensive lineman might not bode well for their "playmaking potential." After all, that quality is not necessarily something one can teach. But it could be interesting to see if someone embraces the big-play role with enthusiasm, and brings the offense to a level where it does the "things that Michigan does."

"I think it's important just to keep guys up, because all it takes is one big play, and you never know what it's going to be," Stocco said. "It could be a run that all of a sudden breaks. It could be a big pass. You don't know when it's going to happen, but if you get that one big play it's going to change the momentum."

After Zach Hampton bobbled a first half punt that gave Michigan the ball deep in Badger territory with a raucous student section close at hand, defensive end Jamal Cooper did a seemingly funny, but important thing. Faced with the position of losing their lead despite a successful three-and-out, Cooper came back onto the field to the sound of a highly energized audience and taunted them to pump up the noise even louder.

Three plays later a pass to Breaston was mostly thrown away and the Wolverines were forced to settle for a field goal. It might have been bordering on arrogant, but Cooper appeared to state that he wanted to be the man to make the play – despite the fact that he did not indeed make it.

That kind of playmaking confidence is infectious. And it might be just what the Badger offense needs.

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