So far in 2007, one of the keys to Wisconsin earning its weekly ‘W' has been how the offense performs the first time they touch the ball, as a fast start usually means glowing success.
Although they way Wisconsin won Saturday went against the trend, the Badgers opening drive gave their offense a spark once again.
With another decisive opening possession, Wisconsin marched down the field during an 11 play, 85-yard drive that consumed nearly five minutes of the game clock. Sophomore P.J. Hill rushed seven times for 38 yards and scored the game's first touchdown for the second time in three games. According to Hill, who rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns, an opening drive touchdown is the best way to "get the momentum on our side."
Prior to today's game, Wisconsin scored opening-drive touchdowns against Washington State and The Citadel. Both games resulted in clear victories for Wisconsin - a 42-21 win over Washington State and a 45-31 win against The Citadel. When Wisconsin do not score on its opening drive, however, UW faces much closer results — a last minute 20-13 win against UNLV and a seemingly elusive 17-13 victory over Iowa. It's a glaring statistic and shows how important a fast start is in determining the outcome of the game.
"We really emphasize before the kickoff that Badgers start fast," fullback Chris Pressley said. "It's one of those things in your mind that [starting fast] is what you want to do. In the game of football, all the important things happen when you start fast."
After such a fast start, however, Wisconsin's offense was shut down for the remainder of the first quarter, as the Badgers were unable to find the end zone.
"You can't really get disappointed," Pressley said about Wisconsin going three-and-out its next two drives. "You start fast, [but] sometimes the momentum is cut because maybe they make a play, or we don't make a play. You've got to come back strong."
Like good offenses do, the Badger offense eventually rebounded after their opening possession. Tyler Donovan threw for two more touchdowns and Taylor Mehlhaff added on two field goals before the end of the half, helping the Badgers put 27 points on the board.
Although Wisconsin was pouring in the points, Michigan State responded to Wisconsin's scores with plenty of their own with three touchdowns that brought the halftime score to 27-21.
"From watching them, they're a very good team," Hill said. "We knew they had a lot of good players on both sides of the ball and were going to make plays and put up points."
Unlike Wisconsin's other strong starts of the season that led to breakaway second halves and easy victories, the 37-34 outcome left things to be desired offensively. Today's victory, much like the week before against Iowa, wasn't certain until Michigan State's last drive failed with just 1:09 left. Scoring on the first drive is critical to the ‘fast start,' but the Badgers recognize the need to finish strong as well.
"We always stress that it's going to be a fourth quarter game and the guys that walk off the field are the ones who finish all the way to the end," Pressley said. "We try to prevail … We understand the importance of finishing."
It seemed that scoring on the opening drive of the Michigan State game would be reminiscent of such offensive splendor viewed against Washington State and The Citadel. Unfortunately, that trend was all but disproved in Madison. The inconsistencies in scoring and a disappointing defensive game took away from the Badger's strong start. As the teams get tougher during the remainder of the season, Wisconsin needs to round out the offense and gain the defensive support they need to pull out wins against other Big Ten teams.
"We still have to get better," said Pressley, who gave the offense a ‘B' against Michigan State. "You can never be satisfied in this game."
"If you're winning, you're doing something right," senior quarterback Tyler Donovan added. "Yet, in the back of our minds, we can be so much better. We need to feed off this game and be ready for next week against Illinois."
As long as the Badgers start strong and stick with the trend, an opening-drive touchdown would go a long way in ensuring a Wisconsin victory.