Redemption at Last

Despite being dismal on third down and allowing over 300 yards of offense to UNLV, Wisconsin, somehow, survives in the desert.

As Wisconsin began its first road game against the UNLV Running Rebels at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday night, the Badgers had several problem spots on the defense that needed to be fixed.

The Badgers could not have the same type of defensive performance that they had against Washington State from the week before. The Badger's defense, while not horrible, certainly needs to play much better.

The Badgers had to worry about their defense because if they could not control a mediocre offense like UNLV, they will be in trouble against the much more explosive Big Ten offenses.

Against UNLV, while PJ Hill ran wild against a porous rush defense, the Badgers defense was tested often, and in many ways.

The first defensive series for the Badgers quickly resulted in a punt. Rebels' quarterback Travis Dixon made two consecutive blunders, including a fumbled fake option and an overthrown pass, which resulted in the Rebel's first drive being over before it began.

The second series was much worse for the Badger's defense. Several plays by the Badgers could have stopped the series if they had made the necessary plays on third down. Wisconsin safety Aubrey Pleasant blew a tackle by not wrapping up Rebel receiver Rodelin Anthony, who ran downfield for 18 yards. On another third down play, Dixon scrambled around for what seemed like an eternity and threw a long pass to receiver Casey Flair for 21 yards. The drive resulted in a touchdown pass to Flair in the corner of the end zone against Wisconsin cornerback Allan Langford. On the 14-play drive, Dixon went 6-for-7 and gave the Rebels the lead by seven.

After finally getting on the scoreboard, Wisconsin tried to recuperate after underperforming in the previous drive. The Rebels had several plays that worked well against the Badgers defense, including a shuffle pass to running back Robert Paulele for nine yards and a delayed rush by Ryan Wolfe for five more yards. Yet, just like their first series, the Badgers were bailed out by the Rebels' offensive mistakes. Dixon overthrew a wide open receiver, in which safety Shane Carter had a blown assignment, by at least five yards. If the pass had been competed, the Rebels could easily have taken the lead with a long touchdown reception.

On the next drive, the Badgers fell victim to another big third down conversion. With the Rebels facing a third and ten, Dixon completed a screen pass to Paulele for a 34-yard gain down the middle of the field. The play should have been cut off much quicker than it was, especially because Paulele rushed past all three levels of the Badgers' defense. On a positive note, the drive finished with the Badgers making two tough stops on Dixon rushes to force a punt. Both plays, the Badgers found success because the defensive line stepped up and controlled the line of scrimmage.

The previous drive was an emotional rollercoaster because there were extreme lows and few highs. What the Wisconsin defense lacked at this point was consistency.

With UW still down one, the Rebels ended their next drive by not making plays when they needed to. Dixon went 1-for-4 and killed the series by overthrowing passes. The Badger secondary played much better to cause bad throws by Dixon, including cornerbacks Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu shutting down the sideline passes.

At the end of the first half, the Badgers were up 9-7. Overall, their defense played in one of two ways, either they allowed the Rebels to pass remarkably well against a younger Wisconsin secondary or the Rebels' offense stalled badly.

The reason the Rebels' third down attacks were so disparaging for the Badgers is because the Rebels hadn't faired well in their previous game against Utah State. On third downs they went 3-for-4 for 21 percent.

The Rebels' running game in the first half was completely shut down. On several plays the Badgers were able to penetrate the line and stop quarterback scrambles by Dixon before they were able to take place. He rushed eight times for only eight yards, and running back Frank Summers rushed six times for 22 yards.

On the first defensive play in the second half by the Badgers, they gave up a 35-yard completion to Flair down the right sideline. No Badger can really be faulted for what was a perfect pass. After a 14-yard rush by running back David Peeples and a nice eight-yard completion to Wolfe, the Badgers were beginning to look like they were in trouble.

Yet, the Badgers shut down the Rebels' running game when they needed to in the Badger's redzone. On second and two, Summers only managed to get one yard, and on the next play running back Chris Brogdon was stopped in the middle of the Badgers defense for no gain. Wisconsin held UNLV to only a field goal after such a large gain right off the bat, but they needed to halt the drive and they did.

Two series later, the UW defense finally delivered that game-changing play they were hoping for. On a second and six, Matt Shaughnessy had a quick pass rush on Dixon and made him overthrow his receiver. Carter, who was playing deep coverage, intercepted the pass and returned it for 25 yards.

After the Badgers had taken the lead, the defense had to come up big and keep the lead. Twice the Badgers allowed a third and long completion by the Rebels. Wisconsin linebacker Jonathan Casillas allowed receiver Wolfe to fall forward, instead of backward, and get the first down for a 10-yard gain and Langford continued the bad drive by allowing a long 14-yard completion to Flair. Both plays needed to be stopped and the Badgers failed by allowing the Rebels to retake the lead.

After a heroic touchdown by Wisconsin quarterback Tyler Donovan late in the fourth quarter, it was do-or-die time for the Wisconsin defense and the unit had no excuse to not perform well. The Badgers had to step up to the plate and, fortunately for all those Badger fans that made the trip, they did.

With Rebels beginning their drive on their own 14-yard line, the first play was a throw by Dixon to Flair on the left side for a first down. On the next play, Chapman sacked Dixon for a four-yard loss. The play finally gave the Badgers a glimmer of hope after coming up short on previous third downs.

On third down with time winding down, Kirk DeCremer delivered a huge sack to set up a crucial fourth-down.

With the game's outcome in the hands of the Badger defense, they came through when it mattered most. With the Rebels facing a fourth and 15, Dixon threw a good pass, but it fell incomplete and sealed the Badgers the win.

The play defined the Badger's defense for the whole game - unnecessarily too close for comfort. If they had just limited the Rebels offense in previous plays, the drama at the end of the game would not have been there.

During the game, the Badgers defense had multiple opportunities to stop a lesser offense and just didn't come through. They didn't lose the game, but by no means did they play well.

Dixon, who made plays with both his feet and arm, went 23-for-36 for 258 yards. He had one touchdown and one interception. He easily had the best overall game played of either team, and that doesn't speak highly for a team that entered the game as the fifth best team in the nation.

If the Badgers pass defense was poor, then the rush defense was stellar. The Badgers held the Rebels to 48 rushing yards. Nothing really worked well on the ground against the Badgers, including the multiple options and reverses by the Rebels.

The Badgers proved on Saturday night that they could play well when they have to, but they played to their level of competition. The game never should have been that close if multiple third downs had been stopped.

If this had been a better opponent than UNLV, the Badgers would have lost. If there's anything to be learned about the Badger's defense, it's that they need to get better now and stop waiting until the last chance to shut an opponent down. Beating UNLV by a touchdown just wasn't good enough for the number five team in the country.


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