What did Wisconsin learn against Arizona State?
The question three games into a season of Sonoran-vast expectations is whether the Badgers are lucky and good.
The Nevada-Las Vegas experience was anything but clean. The San Jose State game was mostly a mess. And the 20-19 nerve challenger against two-touchdown underdog Arizona State?
Well, let's see . . . the Sun Devils missed a 25-yard field goal, dropped a touchdown pass, had a score off a punt return called back, a kickoff returner brought down inches short of the goal line as the first-half clock bled out and an extra point blocked on their final possession.
Think of it as Cal Poly revisited, only with better, faster players.
Maybe the answer is U-Dub should cease and desist from playing anyone west of Iowa City, which is basically what it'll do next in the virtual bye week against the Governors from Austin Peay. But please, don't put it up for referendum, not with this bunch, not quite yet.
Then again, there is another way to look at a team that the voters and computers and such insist on placing at or near the top 10.
Somebody had to make those game-saving plays against an above-average Pac-10 lineup that was adamant about exploiting the myth that its league runs a whole lot faster than the your basic Big Ten plodder. Jay Valai, who blocked that kick, and Shelton Johnson, who ran down a Devil from behind in a highlight for the ages, are the sort of heady, A-list athletes the Badgers have been trotting out there ever since they've been showing the West Coasters what's what in the Rose Bowl.
Still, if you're wondering whether Wisconsin should be celebrating its verve or running the Camp Randall steps today in attrition for its football sins, as usual, the answer is teetering somewhere on the 50-yard line at this point.
It's like asking if Valai and Johnson salvaged the season in Week 3. All we really know right now is they saved the Badgers a whole lot of face in this particular game.
Fact was, the locker-room mood was considerably more elevated than after the San Jose snooze-fest. After all, the crowd was red-lining at the thrill of finally having a legit out-of-conference team in town — at least when the faithful wasn't cheekily applauding the occasional kickoff-return stop — what with Arizona State packing a quarterback who's slinging at his third big-time school and a coach who has made more stops than a Long Island commuter train.
So give the Badgers a whole lot of credit for ultimately coping with Steven Threet, because, goodness knows, they sure couldn't two years ago when he was making a 19-point lead disappear at Michigan.
And give the coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, a gold star for one-upping Dennis Erickson. That play-action call — Scott Tolzien to Lance Kendricks on third-and-two when most expected UW to run out the clock with John Clay — was as gutsy and smart as you'll see in a month of Saturdays.
So the Badgers have that going for them, the ever-steady Tolzien at quarterback, a tight end in Kendricks who is as good as any who has played the NFL-stocking position at Wisconsin and a go-for-it attitude.
And, yeah, they let the Sun Devils run wild on kickoffs, gave up gobs of yards and ceded what could've been the OT-maker late in the game. To all that, head coach Bret Bielema had some questions of his own:
"What did we do to win? Who reacts better to what happens? We did enough good things to win the football game. I guess it's nice if you win. It makes you stronger."
Whether it makes them better is also a reasonable question.