Poll position doesn't reflect UW's success

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Jeff Potrykus, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, November 4, 2013

IOWA CITY, Iowa—With four regular-season games remaining, beginning with a non-conference game this week against visiting BYU, Wisconsin’s bowl picture remains murky.

Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) isn’t going to lose two of its last three league games, so the Leaders Division title and a berth in the league title game seems out of the question for UW (6-2, 4-1).

A Bowl Championship Series at-large berth?

UW on Sunday moved up one spot in each top 25 poll, to No. 21 in The Associated Press poll and to No. 22 in The USA Today poll. However, the Badgers stayed put at No. 24 in the BCS standings, reinforcing the notion that an at-large berth remains a long shot.

The Badgers could win out to finish 7-1 in the Big Ten and 10-2 overall, be left out of the BCS and wind up in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando to face an SEC team.

No matter where UW lands for postseason play, what should be obvious eight games into Gary Andersen’s first season in Madison is that a new coaching staff and veteran players have worked together to forge a team that is physically and mentally tough and capable of competing against most teams in the top 25.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team suffered a 28-9 loss to UW on Saturday, believes the defensive unit is the cornerstone.

“They made it hard for us; we weren’t moving the ball consistently,” Ferentz said after his offense was held to 294 yards, its second-lowest output of the season. “We weren’t throwing or running with great proficiency. That’s a credit to them.

“There’s been a lot of talk about their offense coming into the game. And I looked at their defensive stats and more importantly you watch their tape and it’s not like people were getting a lot of points off these guys.

“They’re a good defensive football team. Utah State was a good defensive team a year ago. Watching them against Wisconsin, they held Wisconsin to 16 (points) last year. You take a good coaching staff and good players, that’s what happens.”

Iowa’s offense is skittish, but UW’s ability to keep Iowa out of the end zone despite the absence of linebacker Chris Borland and defensive end Tyler Dippel and considering the Hawkeyes’ early advantage in field position was remarkable.

“For our defense to hang in there and force them to kick those field goals was big,” Andersen said.

UW sits in the top three of the Big Ten in scoring defense (15.0 ppg, second), total defense (286.1 ypg, second), rushing defense (91.0 ypg, third) and pass defense (195.1 ypg, third).

A secondary that features three first-year starters had given up big plays, but the staff’s ability to use sub packages and devise schemes for spread and pro-style offenses has been impressive.

UW is 2-0 after its byes this season. The combined margin of victory in those games: 63-15.

Those numbers suggest the staff and players have used the bye week to their advantage.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has effectively found ways to get the ball into the hands of the playmakers with screens, jet sweeps and play-action passes.

UW entered the season with a quarterback (Joel Stave) with six starts and a corps of wide receivers bereft of threats beyond Jared Abbrederis. Yet with Ludwig calling the shots, UW is in the top three of the Big Ten in three of the four major categories.

UW is third in scoring (38.4 ppg), third in total offense (494.6 ypg) and second in rushing offense (287.0 ypg). The passing offense (207.6 ypg, seventh) needs to improve, but remember UW finished last in the Big Ten in passing last season at 156.9 yards per game.

The return games need a boost, but the staff doesn’t appear inclined to risk Abbrederis on either unit. That means Kenzel Doe needs to make better decisions on punts and kickoffs.

The coverage units have been solid, however, thanks in large part to the work of kicker Andrew Endicott and punter Drew Meyer.

Perhaps most noteworthy is that UW has responded well when faced with adverse situations.

The loss at Arizona State didn’t linger the next week in an easy victory over Purdue. UW didn’t buckle when it fell behind by 17 points at Ohio State. Instead, the Badgers cut the deficit to seven points and got the ball back with a chance to drive for a tying score.

Northwestern had no chance in Madison with UW coming off its first bye. Then UW jumped on Illinois early en route to a 24-point road victory.

The victory over Iowa wasn’t pretty, but the play of the defense and the ability of the players and coaches to deal with the personnel losses resulted in a satisfying result.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who have seen a lot, understand the importance of playing the same way and conducting yourself the same way regardless of what is going on,” Borland said.

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