Bye is bliss for Badgers
MADISON—Wisconsin used its first bye this season, after the loss at Ohio State, to heal and prepare for a diverse Northwestern offense.
The result: UW's defense gave its best performance of the season against a quality team in a 35-6 victory.
UW (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) enjoyed its second bye Saturday and the players, who began preparing early in the week for their Big Ten game at Iowa, were able to relax while the Hawkeyes were battling Northwestern in Iowa City.
With senior linebacker Chris Borland nursing a strained right hamstring and five games left on the regular-season schedule, coach Gary Andersen believes the timing of the bye is advantageous.
“We had two tough Big Ten games back to back,” Andersen said, referring to the victories over Northwestern and Illinois, “and now we get to take another break and get ready for the rest of the regular season, which the kids are excited about.
“I like where this one fell; the timing is good and maybe a little bit fortunate for us as we look to the Iowa game.
“They are a big, strong (and) physical team. You all know that and they've definitely got the respect of the Badgers as we start to prepare for them.”
UW fans wondering about the Badgers' bowl destination will have to wait until the picture becomes clearer.
The Badgers, who have yet to be eliminated from contention for the Leaders Division title, were not in the initial BCS standings. The latter development means securing an at-large BCS berth is, at best, a long shot.
Andersen said he wasn't aware of his team's absence from the BCS standings when asked about it Monday.
UW's focus during the bye week was to rest veterans and work on the defensive breakdowns that arose in the 56-32 victory over Illinois.
UW allowed four pass plays of more than 25 yards—29, 29, 39 and 51.
Two set up first-half touchdowns that allowed the Illini to recover after falling behind, 21-0, in the opening quarter. Another was a 29-yard score in the final minute.
“We can be better,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “A lot of those breakdowns come down to just fundamental things. We have to be tighter.
“We talk about it all the time as a defense—that is what holding us back from taking the next step. It is one of those things where it is two steps forward and one step back at this point.
“We're fortunate to have the bye at this point. We've got guys who have got to get healthy.
“But on the other end of it we're spending a lot of time to get these things fixed.”
Redshirt sophomore Darius Hillary was beaten cleanly off the line on a 51-yard pass play to the UW 6 to set up the Illini's first touchdown.
The pass came after quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase started to his right, toward Hillary's side of the field, as if he planned to run, and then rose up and hit Steve Hull down the middle. The Illini used a pair of quarterback runs, toward Hillary's side, on the previous series.
“I think Darius was expecting a (block),” Aranda said. “But he can't expect that. He's got to play what he sees.”
Redshirt junior Peniel Jean was later beaten for a 39-yard pass play to the UW 4, which led to the second touchdown.
Jean correctly noted that wide receiver Ryan Lankford pushed off to gain separation to make the catch. But Aranda said a defensive back must counter such a move.
“You've got to finish the play,” he said. “If they're trying to push off we're trying to (close) in. That happens.”
Another area of concern is the confusion that occurred after the 51-yard catch by Hull.
UW's coaches brought in their goal-line package, which meant cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Hilary had to come off the field.
The staff uses hand signals and large cards to alert the players, but Shelton and Hillary didn't see the call initially.
Shelton got off the field first but Hillary was still on the field when UW lined up, and the Badgers were penalized half the distance to the goal for illegal substitution.
“We were in that a couple other times and we were able to get it,” Aranda said. “Part of that is awareness. The signal for that was goal line and that only happens on the goal line. And we were on the goal line.
“But the other part is we do hold up the personnel (cards). Those things we can be better.
“I am accountable for that. I have to teach that better so guys are coming on and off the field and we are communicating and getting the right people on the field.”
After the week off UW has five games left. All appear winnable, though the road isn't as easy as it might appear.
Nov. 2 at Iowa (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten), 11 a.m. The Hawkeyes, who needed overtime to subdue visiting Northwestern on Saturday, 17-10, are dramatically more productive on offense this season.
They finished 11th in the Big Ten in scoring last season at 19.3 points per game. Their average stands at 27.4 through eight games.
Aranda labeled the Hawkeyes as the most physical offense UW will have faced this season.
Nov. 9 vs. BYU (6-2), TBA. The Cougars, who handed Andersen's Utah State team a 6-3 loss last season, have one of the more dynamic quarterbacks in the nation in Taysom Hill. The 6-foot-3, 221-pound sophomore accounted for 408 total yards and four touchdowns Friday in the Cougars' 37-20 victory Boise State. In eight games, he has rushed for 841 yards and eight touchdowns and passed for 2,019 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“They've gotten better and better,” Aranda said. “They're a lot more confident on offense.”
Nov. 16 vs. Indiana (3-4, 1-2), TBA. The Hoosiers, who had a bye Saturday, can't play a lick of defense. However, they entered the weekend first in the Big Ten in passing offense (342.7 yards per game) and passing touchdowns (22) and tied for third in scoring offense (42.4).
“Indiana has got as much skill as anyone in our conference,” Aranda said.
Nov. 23 at Minnesota (6-2, 2-2), TBA. Saturday marked the third consecutive game the Gophers played without coach Jerry Kill, who is on leave after suffering another seizure related to his epilepsy.
The Gophers didn't flinch. They rushed for 271 yards in a 34-23 victory over visiting Nebraska to become bowl eligible for the second straight season.
Nov. 30 vs. Penn State (4-2, 1-1), TBA. The Nittany Lions, who got trampled at Ohio State on Saturday night, have the talent to test UW's defense. Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 179 yards in the victory over UW last season, is back and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and junior wide receiver Allen Robinson are outstanding.
“So the challenges are still very much ahead,” Aranda said. “Our aim is to get better this week.”