Grading the Badgers - Northern Illinois

Wisconsin starts off the season on the right foot with a wire-to-wire 28-20 victory over visiting Northern Illinois, although the end result made things much closer and nerve wracking that they appeared. Badger Nation's publisher Benjamin Worgull grades the Badgers position by position.

Quarterbacks

After reading about him for weeks and how he was a steady, posed quarterbacks, the members of Badger Nation were able to see what Scott Tolzien was all about.

Truth be told, he looked no different than he did through three weeks of fall camp. Whether it be delivering an 80-yard bomb on the game's first play or leading the offense on scoring drives of 11 and 12 plays in the third quarter, Tolzien looked to be the man for the job.

"That was a heck of a start," senior tight end Garrett Graham. "I thought he did great. In the huddle he was calm, he managed the game well and did a good job for his first time."

Finishing 15-for-20 for 257 yards and one touchdown, Tolzien completed his first six passes and went 6-for-8 for 115 yards on UW's two third-quarter scoring drives.

Tolzien did throw two interceptions, the second allowing Northern Illinois to trim a 16-point deficit in half with a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

"I thought it went solid, but two turnovers, you can't have that," Tolzien said. "To be the best, you can't have that in that situation. It was one of those things where I can say I didn't see him, but as soon as I left my hand, I knew it was bad news and I can't let that happen again."

Added Tolzien: "I am going to take away that it's a good start. There are a lot of games left still. You can't make this everything. You can get too high with the highs and too low with the lows."

Redshirt freshman Curt Phillips played only a handful of snaps, completing 3 of 5 passes for 24 yards and rushed four times for 34 yards with a long of 20. The players openly admitted the changing of quarterbacks didn't throw off the rhythm, even though Tolzien's second interception came after he sat on the bench for roughly 25-30 minutes.

"He handled the situation, handled playing in front of 80,000 people against good defense doing some good things and continued to make strides," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "I am excited for where he can go."

Even fifth-year senior Dustin Sherer played a part, calming the nerves of the quarterbacks and being effective from the sideline.

"He should probably go on a coach's salary," Bielema said. "He did a great job on the sidelines, helping them and talking through it. That's the difference between where we are now and (last year). When one has success, they all take success."

Grade: B

Running Backs

The run game was absent through much of the contest, simply because the passing game was extremely effective early on. Even so, with the Badgers going against a defensive front with three new starters, UW's runners got their licks.

Junior Zach Brown got dinged up roughly 10 days ago and wasn't the Brown we saw in camp. Even so, he was a grinder on Saturday, carrying the ball 14 times for 51 yards. Sophomore John Clay, the headliner of UW's offense, got 15 carries for 43 yards, but capped off UW's two third-quarter drives with a one-yard touchdown.

"It was real good to establish the running game, once again, and pound the ball," Clay said. "They couldn't stop the running game."

Originally stating that redshirt freshman Erik Smith or freshman Montee Ball would see time in the backfield, Bielema held them out from running the ball because of how the flow of the game was going.

Grade: B–

Wide Receivers

There's nothing like one play that can change the perception of a unit. While that might be a little extreme, the Wisconsin wide receivers believe that they are a force to be reckoned with.

"That definitely set the tone for us," Anderson said. "That put the receivers on the map, showed our speed and gave other teams something to watch for, game plan for."

While UW's receivers couldn't catch a cold at the beginning of last season, the Badgers decided to challenge NIU's young cornerbacks and its Cover 2 defense, both of which proved to be successful after Anderson completed an 80-yard, catch-and-run play for a score on the game's first possession.

Throw in the fact that he had 100-yards receiving by the end of the first quarter and he rushed for a 23-yard touchdown play to begin the second, Anderson's confidence level grew exponentially, with his first two career touchdowns as the driving reason.

"I knew that I had the ability to do those types of things," Anderson said. "I was able to do it in high school, and I just took advantage of that opportunity."

After missing time at the beginning of last season, tight end Garrett Graham showed he is fully healthy entering his senior year and fully aware that he's going to be a main target. Graham caught just about every pass thrown his direction, finishing with a game-high six passes for 82 yards.

Nick Toon came into camp with the goal of being a starting wide receiver and looked like the same man-on-a-mission person he was throughout camp. Not only did he catch five passes for 72 yards, he threw a big block on a bootleg by Phillips in the second quarter, allowing the freshman some added room to run.

Junior Maurice Moore also made his presence known, going up to catch a 21-yard pass from Tolzien that set up Wisconsin's third touchdown in the third quarter.

Grade: A

Defensive Line:

With Brendan Kelly (groin) already scheduled to miss the opener, defensive ends Louis Nzegwu injured his shoulder on Wednesday's practice and was deemed unavailable by the medical staff on Thursday, the Badgers were as thin on the defensive line as they have been since camp started.

Combine the nagging injuries to defensive tackles Dan Moore and Patrick Butrym, UW needed big plays from its starting defensive ends. Thankfully, the Badgers got solid performances from both senior end O'Brien Schofield and sophomore J.J. Watt.

Schofield was active against the run and the pass, registering 5.5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry while Watt registered 4.5 tackles and deflected a key third-down pass at the line of scrimmage that forced a Huskies punt. The duo also combined for a sack, one of three sacks registered by the UW defense.

UW used five tackles in the opening half, as Butrym and senior Jeff Stehle started, but Moore, Dan Cascone and Jordan Hein all rotated in, helping UW create some depth and limit NIU's three running backs to 90-yards rushing.

"They are survivors," Bielema said. "They played their tails off and that's something to get excited about. I felt that group had a lot to prove coming into today's matchup."

Grade: B

Linebackers:

So that's what a healthy Michael Taylor looks like. Healthy and able to push his way into the starting lineup over the past 10 days of camp, Taylor did a touch of evening for UW's defense – having 4.5 tackles, two quarterback hurries and forced a fumble, which he proceeded to recover.

NIU tailback Me'co Brown was stood up at the line by two UW defenders when Taylor came in and simply ripped the ball from Brown's arms.

"Mike was all over the place," Bielema acknowledged. "I know on a couple of occasions he wasn't in the right alignment or right call, but he was fast, he plays hard, he's a Wisconsin kid and I think Mike takes a lot of price being a Badger and playing the way out there that he did. He's got four years in front of him."

The other Badger backers weren't as productive. Jae McFadden finished second on the team with six tackles, but looked out of position at times, Culmer St. Jean showed some promise and Blake Sorensen showed some jump when he was able to bring down QB Chandler Harnish for a seven-yard sack.

Not a bad starting point for this group, but there is a lot of room for growth.

Grade: C

Cornerbacks:

Although he proclaimed he was ready to go, there still appeared to be a list rust on Aaron Henry's technique. The sophomore missed a crucial tackle in the first quarter that resulted in a 47-yard run for Me'co Brown, NIU's longest play from scrimmage, and committed a pass interference penalty.

Antonio Fenelus was also whistled for a pass interference penalty, although this was in a much more dire spot, committing in on fourth-and-goal from UW's 2 in the fourth quarter, allowing the Huskies to score on the next place.

Devin Smith made the start over Niles Brinkley and made 4.5 tackles and showed solid coverage. Although his counterpart was relatively quiet (Jav Valai – three tackles), Chris Maragos came up with the big defensive play, batting away a fourth-down pass with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter to preserve the win.

Even so, after allowing NIU to gain just 151 yards through three quarters and score only six points, the Huskies scored 14 points and gained 123 yards to make the game more interesting than it needed to be.

Grade: C-

Special Teams:

It was a dose of both positive and negative concerning sophomore kicker Phillip Welch. The good was that, at least for one game, he improved on his kickoffs, sending two of his first three into the end zone and finished the game averaging 67 yards on five kicks with one touchback. The bad news was Welch missed both of his field goal attempts, missing wide right on his 55-yard attempt in the first and wide-right on his 41-yard attempt in the fourth. Welch made 20 of 24 field-goal attempts last season.

Sophomore punter Bradley Nortman placed his only two punts inside the 20, his second courtesy of a solid roll that stopped inside the 10. David Gilreath was generally ineffective retuning kicks, returning two punts for only 10 yards and three kickoffs for 62 yards. His best return came on his first try, going 34 yards to the UW 42.

Grade: D


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