Oct. 29, 2012
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Before exiting the Wisconsin locker room Saturday night, Danny O’Brien stopped to grab a couple of sports drinks that were on ice; not unlike O’Brien has been since losing the starting job to Joel Stave.
Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Over the next two weeks, though, it will be up to O’Brien and Curt Phillips to fill a void and re-energize the offense now that Stave has been sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
“I’ll be ready, absolutely,’’ said O’Brien, the Maryland transfer, who started the first four games of the season and came off the bench in two others prior to Stave’s injury against Michigan State.
“I have a lot of confidence in myself, and the guys know that. But I’ve got to be the same exact guy I was when I was the starter -- and the back-up -- and now back as the starter again.
“They know I’m going to be the same in terms of how I approach the game. I’m going to prepare the same way each week. I’m going to keep working really hard.’’
After getting benched, he said, “The competitor in you is really upset, and I was very frustrated.’’ But he takes pride in being a good teammate and “you have to be positive around the guys,’’ he added.
O’Brien knows how important that body language can be because “guys are looking at you to see how you’re going to react when changes are made at the quarterback position.’’
Moreover, he knew that he had to stay ready “for days like this.’’
O’Brien was referring to Saturday, when Stave was injured on the first play of the second half.
“You never know what your name is going to be called,’’ he said. “It’s the nature of playing quarterback. My thoughts and prayers are with Joel. But the next guy has to be ready to step up.’’
When Stave was shaken up in the fourth quarter of the Big Ten opener at Nebraska, O’Brien was called on to run the two-minute offense. In the Purdue rout, he got mop-up snaps.
The offense has taken some positive strides since O’Brien started on Sept. 15 against Utah State. After the first half, O’Brien was pulled in favor of Stave, who has held the No. 1 assignment ever since.
Stave, in fact, opened last Saturday’s game by completing his first eight throws against the Spartans, including a 31-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Pedersen that gave the Badgers a 7-0 lead.
His first incompletion was costly in that he overthrew Jared Abbrederis, who was running free in the MSU secondary on what potentially could have been a 70-yard scoring play, upping the lead to 14-3.
On the very next play, Stave kept the chains moving by connecting on a 25-yard pass play to Abbrederis. But the drive stalled due in part to a Max Bullough sack, one of five by Michigan State.
Through the first eight games, the Spartans had only six quarterback sacks.
After O’Brien replaced Stave -- who was knocked out of the game by MSU defensive end William Gholston -- the Spartans continued to apply pressure and sacked him three times.
“We knew that they were going to pressure more in terms of the different blitzes,’’ O’Brien said, “and they threw some good ones at us. The main theme for me was, ‘Don’t turn the ball over.’
“It has been a field position game all day -- kind of a ping-pong type of a game. I just didn’t want to turn it over and we didn’t do that. But, at the same time, we’ve got to make some plays.’’
Wisconsin’s defense made plays for about 54 minutes, but they couldn’t get a stop on Michigan State’s final possession of regulation -- which covered 75 yards on 12 plays -- nor the overtime period.
“As well as we played, I just wish we could have done a little more in a few situations towards the end of the game,’’ said UW safety Dez Southward. “It’s a little disappointing but not disheartening.
“What was really frustrating was that they kind of hit us in some holes in the defense (on the final series) which they hadn’t done all game. I wish we could have regrouped a little faster.’’
In the second half, the UW defense was dominant -- forcing four straight Michigan State punts and a turnover. “You see a defense that is playing some really good football,’’ Southward said.
But after letting the Spartans off the hook, he conceded, “We need to make those last few plays in order to be elite. Still, there are a lot of great things we can take away from this game.’’
Mostly, they were still hurting Saturday when they walked away from Camp Randall. “It really doesn’t get any more frustrating than losing at home in overtime,’’ said defensive tackle Beau Allen.
Asked which hurt more -- the Hail Mary loss in East Lansing last year or an overtime loss to the Spartans -- linebacker Mike Taylor said, “This does, because it’s the last game we played and it definitely hurts to have the lead like we did with a few minutes left. Yeah, I’d say this one hurts more.’’
Pedersen felt the same way. “Last year was pretty brutal,’’ he said. “But this year being on our home field -- defending Camp Randall (and a 21-game winning streak) -- it hurts a little bit more.’’
A bye in the schedule could not have come at a more opportune time.
“Guys are banged up and dinged, and it should help the team,’’ Taylor said. “Every time we play Michigan State, it always seems to come down to the wire.
“They played tough, they played physical. You wish that you could change some things but you can’t. All you can do is move forward and try to get better.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed. But there’s still a lot to play for. This isn’t going to slow us down. We still have big goals and we’re going to continue to work towards them.’’
Echoed Allen, “We have to get healthy and close out the season right.’’
That resonated with Pedersen even though the circumstances are challenging.
“It’s easier going into a bye with a win when spirits are high and everybody is in a good mood,’’ he said. “But this gives us time to reflect and see what we did wrong and make sure we get it fixed.’’
The Badgers have two road trips -- to Indiana (Nov. 10) and Penn State (Nov. 24 -- sandwiched around their final home date of the season against unbeaten Ohio State (Nov. 17).
“We still have everything we want out there,’’ O’Brien said. “All of our goals are still attainable. We’ve got to take it one week at a time.
“We can’t let Michigan State beat us at Indiana.’’