Fiammetta: Finding 2 (small) Badger weaknesses

first_imgCHICAGO – Russell Wilson threw his first interception Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field, and Badger Nation … was perfectly fine.This earth-shattering event occurred with 9:42 remaining in the fourth quarter of Wisconsin’s 49-7 dismantling of Northern Illinois, and it was noteworthy because it was Wilson’s first interception in 66 pass attempts as a Badger. Wilson was looking for tight end Jacob Pedersen on the play, but a breakdown along the offensive line allowed the NIU pass rush to alter his throw. After pump-faking once, Wilson threw the ball as he was being brought down, steering it directly into the hands of defensive lineman Zach Anderson (a Ladysmith, Wis., native, no less).Don’t worry – this won’t be a 1,000-word analysis of the first mistake Wilson’s made in a Badger uniform. The interception certainly wasn’t a crucial mistake, and Wilson’s numbers for the game – 23-for-32 passing for 347 yards and three touchdowns, with 37 rushing yards on five attempts – speak for themselves.Rather, the turnover was a very gentle, subtle reminder that neither Wilson nor the UW offense is perfect. Prolific and quite often dominant, sure. But not perfect. The Badgers have beat up on all three of their opponents thus far, but as head coach Bret Bielema said after Saturday’s game, Wisconsin has yet to play a full four quarters. That’s why Wilson and the first-team offense were still in the game with less than 10 minutes remaining in such a one-sided affair.With the widely-asserted game of the year against Nebraska looming just two weeks away, Bielema knows Wisconsin has barely been tested through weeks – if at all. It’d be shocking if that changed against South Dakota Saturday, and while a 135-24 combined margin of victory, the nation’s No. 11 scoring offense and No. 4 scoring defense through three games is tremendous, Wisconsin is a team that still needs refinement before tougher competition arrives in October.Six penalties every game?Conspiracy? Of course not. But for a team carrying a reputation built on words like “headstrong” and “cerebral”, 18 penalties that have cost UW 148 yards are somewhat unnerving. Not so much in a “that will come back to hurt them” manner, but as more of a curiosity.If not for the six penalties committed in each of their first two games, the Badgers’ six on Saturday could largely be excused. Regardless of the weak attendance (reported as 41,068, despite Soldier Field’s listed capacity of 61,500) and a very friendly road crowd, Wisconsin anticipated a difficult atmosphere and spent the week preparing for it (crowd noise in practice, week-long quotes to the media about preparing for the first game outside of Camp Randall Stadium, etc.).But in the first half alone, the Badgers committed six penalties that cost them 45 yards. Five of them came from the offensive line, four of which were false start penalties. The other two were holding and an illegal block.All together, the penalties were the lone puzzling aspect of an otherwise dominant game for the Badgers, who racked up 14 points in each of the first two quarters.“We have really smart kids, so I think we might have tried to outsmart ourselves,” Bielema said. “We had a silent count and a one-count, and obviously we weren’t communicating on the same page there. We were able to overcome it, which was huge, but yeah, it was a little bit embarrassing. My face probably matched my jacket; I was very upset.”As Bielema alluded to shortly thereafter, UW didn’t commit any penalties in the second half. Perhaps the Badgers were truly anticipating a much louder crowd than what showed up, and the silent count and one-counts just weren’t perfected throughout the O-line. Regardless, Wisconsin was able to fix the issues after halftime and play a remarkably clean second half.But still, what happened in Weeks 1 and 2 at home? Sure, early-season issues are legitimate and even expected. But Bielema made clear that he was paying extra attention to this first test away from home. And if there were problems with penalties against a 1-2 Northern Illinois squad, what will happen when Wisconsin travels to Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois?“One of the things that I stressed on Sunday was this was our first road test; it’s a different environment,” Bielema said. “I learned that early on in my head coaching career, how difficult it is to win on the road. I realize the crowd might have been 50-50 today, but it was a new venue that wasn’t Camp Randall.”Kickoffs remain a work in progressKicker Alec Lerner continues to improve on kickoffs, a spot he earned even before last year’s starting kicker, Phillip Welch, was sidelined with a quadriceps injury.But, as Bielema said Saturday, Lerner’s consistency must be improved. In Week 1 vs. University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Lerner averaged 65.5 yards per kickoff, though he had zero touchbacks. Against Oregon State, his average fell to 59 yards, though he did have one touchback. Saturday, Lerner averaged 59.4 yards, though his final kickoff was a mishit that went out of bounds at NIU’s 25-yard line. Prior to that kick, Lerner was at 65.5 yards and two touchbacks.“Obviously, we’ve got to get our kickoffs with Lerner more consistent with what we’re doing,” Bielema said. “But we’ve got some guys flying down the field and doing good things.”Depth on kickoffs might seem like the smallest of gripes for a team that’s been as overpowering as Wisconsin, but come those crucial Big Ten matchups – again, mainly the road trips Ohio State, Michigan State and Illinois, as well as the Nebraska home game – any special team’s advantage (or disadvantage) will be critical.Just ask the Buckeyes what they thought of David Gilreath’s opening kick return for a touchdown last year.Mike is a senior majoring in journalism. Where do you think the Badgers need to improve? Let him know on Twitter @mikefiammetta and be sure to follow @BHeraldSports for all the latest Badgers news.last_img