Lucas' Last Word: Badgers feel growing pains in Lincoln

<b>Joel Stave and Jared Abbrederis were in sync, but UW needs another threat.</b>

Joel Stave and Jared Abbrederis were in sync, but UW needs another threat.

Sept. 30, 2012

After turning off the microphone as the analyst for the Badger Radio Network, UWBadgers.com Insider Mike Lucas offers some final thoughts on Wisconsin’s 30-27 loss to No. 22 Nebraska at Memorial Stadium.

BY MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com

LINCOLN, Neb. -- For the better part of 30 minutes Saturday in Lincoln, the Badgers played like the team that many envisioned they could be.

To a player, they said the same thing in the postgame locker room. But there was an undertone of disappointment in each of their voices, knowing they had failed to protect a 17-point lead and had fallen short of playing a four-quarter game -- which is what it would have taken to beat a quality opponent like Nebraska on the road.

Despite leaving four points on the field in the first half with their kicking game and their inability to get on track offensively, or off the field defensively in the second half, the Badgers showed signs of becoming the team they want to be, and need to be, if they're going to reach the goals they've set for themselves in the Leaders Division.

They got better. But Nebraska was a little better.

Still, they showed far more improvement between games four and five than they had at any stage of the non-conference portion of their schedule. That bodes well for Big Ten play because they took some positives steps against the Cornhuskers, especially in the first half.

And let's not forget that this was a game Nebraska had circled for a payback based on what happened last season in Madison. The Huskers had all the motivation in the world, so they told us, and yet it was the Badgers who came out swinging and landed most of the blows early. But to their credit, the Huskers took the fight to Wisconsin in the second half and the Badgers wouldn't muster a counter-attack.

Mike Lucas
MIKE LUCAS
UWBadgers.com Insider
mlucas@uwbadgers.com

A little help from my friends
Offensively, the Badgers had two sustained touchdown drives of 71 and 65 yards in the first half, both of which revolved around quarterback Joel Stave and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis. On the UW's second offensive snap of the game, Stave hooked up with Abbrederis for a gain of 54 yards that set the early tone for Wisconsin. Stave and Abbrederis connected again on a 29-yard touchdown pass that lifted the Badgers into a 20-3 lead.

Abbrederis finished the half with five catches for 107 yards. But the Huskers made the necessary adjustments at halftime, largely playing a safety over the top and limiting Abbrederis to only two additional receptions.

This is another example of how the Badgers have to identify another threat to complement Abbrederis and relieve some of the pressure that he is facing.

In looking back on this game, there will be questions on the usage of both running backs Melvin Gordon and James White. In previous weeks, the Badgers were able to get them engaged in the offense. They were unable to do so against Nebraska. Saturday in Lincoln, White had as many pass attempts as he did rush attempts -- one.

Halves, and halve-nots
In the second half, the Huskers seemed to match their uniform in that they utilized more of a Nebraska retro-option than we had seen in the first half. Martinez created and took advantage of the defense flowing in one direction, stretching the field for big gains up the middle with his ability to break the pocket and run.

Part of the run defensive discrepancy between halves one and two was the fact that the UW defense was on the field a lot longer.

Nebraska can be its own worst enemy, but this has been characteristic of the Huskers for years, they'll put the ball on the turf. They were able to overcome it and got a couple of lucky bounces on Saturday night. In the end, Martinez proved to be far more effective with his feet than his arm -- which is not a surprise. He made plays.

Running back Ameer Abdullah seemed to spark Nebraska. For now, with Rex Burkhead still coming back from injury, Abdullah makes them a far more explosive team on offense. Later in the year, the combination of Burkhead and Abdullah is going to be tough to defend.

It was a good classroom setting for Wisconsin to learn from, especially some of the younger players who had not been in this type of environment before against a Big Ten opponent. We'll see if it pays dividends down the road.

Environment for success
One of the biggest concerns coming into Lincoln was the noise level generated at Memorial Stadium, especially given that Wisconsin's offensive line had been jumpy in a few games earlier this year. Reacting to sounds and putting themselves behind the chains in first-and-15s that are often insurmountable holes.

The Badgers handled the crowd by silencing it in the first half. They took advantage of the big hit on the first drive between Stave and Abbrederis and then cashed in the Burkhead fumble for another score. When you're playing with a lead, it makes it a lot easier to deal with the surroundings.

But two total penalties and zero turnovers is a credit to the offensive line that has gotten a little better each week. Some of the improvement can be traced to Kyle Costigan at right guard. He's given Wisconsin a lot of toughness -- he was playing hurt after sustaining an injury early in the game. The personality of the O-line is getting closer and closer to what they want it to be.

The biggest mistake anyone can make now is to rush to judgment on where that O-line is after only three games since the change that installed Bart Miller as the group's position coach. But if the improvement continues at the current rate, they should be back to where they need to be when they face the Big Ten's top teams later in the season.

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