One play away. It's what coaches always tell their backup quarterbacks and it rang true on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall as Joel Stave was sacked on the very first offensive play of the 2nd half, breaking his collarbone in the process. In stepped Danny O'Brien, the original week one starter, and down went the momentum that the Wisconsin offense had seemingly been building and with it the Badgers chances of heading to Indianapolis.
Now some may be thinking that's a bit of a stretch to say, but is it really? Wisconsin leads Indiana by just one game in the loss column with just three games left to play for Bucky. After a bye week it's the Badgers and Hoosiers clashing in Bloomington and the loser of that game is well behind the eight ball so to speak.
Sure, Indiana could lose to Iowa next week and this talk could be irrelevant, but the point is by dropping the game against Michigan State the Badgers have put themselves in a position to have to almost win out to guarantee their spot in Indianapolis. That proposition is far from a guarantee with the likes of undefeated Ohio State coming to Madison in three weeks and a season ending trip to Penn State also looming on the schedule.
Perform like we did on offense in the 2nd half against any of those three teams and we're in some very deep trouble.
Let's explore just how anemic the Wisconsin offense was with O'Brien at the helm, shall we? (WARNING: What you are about to see is disturbing and children are not advised to read below)
Under O'Brien's leadership the offense managed just 4 first downs and punted the ball on 5 of their 6 possessions in the half. If it weren't for recovering a fumble inside the Spartans own 20 yard line I'm sure we would've seen Wisconsin go 6 for 6 on punts for the entire 2nd half.
What's worse? Wisconsin managed to average just 12 yards a DRIVE under Danny O'Brien in the 2nd half. That's simply pathetic offense. I don't care how good the opposing defense is you should be able to garner more than 4 first downs in an entire half if you are Wisconsin or even Purdue for crying out loud. Hell, Indiana was able to do that to MSU too.
"The plays that hurt us in retrospect were the negative yard plays, we can't play behind the chains and that was causing us to play off rhythm and not get ourselves into a position to have success on third down," said head coach Bret Bielema following Saturday's 16-13 loss.
As a team the Badgers managed just 72 yards of positive offense in the 2nd half. However there were 32 yards in negative plays that cut that down to just 40 yards of total offense in the half. In fact Wisconsin only had 19 more yards rushing than it lost on the day (93 yards gained to 74 yards lost rushing) and no other drive showed just how anemic the offense was than when Wisconsin recovered a fumble at the Spartans 18 yard line halfway through the 4th quarter.
Instead of punching the ball into the end zone and putting the game away with about 6 minutes or less left in the game the Badgers managed to gain a whole 3 yards on the drive. Of course it was about as ugly as the yardage total tells you.
James White went for a touchdown on the edge on the first play, only to have it called back on an obvious holding call. Jared Abbrederis went for 7 on the next play on an end around, only to be followed up immediately by a 5 yard false start penalty. So that left Wisconsin with a 2nd and 11 on the MSU 19 yard line. Then it was the running game taking over as Montee Ball was stuffed for no gain on 2nd down and a 2 yard loss on 3rd down, pushing the Badgers out of the red zone and forcing a 38 yard field goal attempt from Kyle French.
French made the field goal and at least gave Wisconsin a touchdown lead at 10-3, but the missed golden opportunity to strike a touchdown on a drive starting at the Michigan State 18 yard line was a complete microcosm of the inept nature of the Badgers offense with O'Brien at the helm.
No doubt, give credit to the Spartans defense. They played great, but O'Brien's inability to hit a simple 8 yard pattern or get rid of the football and not take a sack stalled out just about every positive opportunity Wisconsin had in the half.
The play of the offense and the shrinking playbook with O'Brien in has me asking the question, is Wisconsin's goal of reaching Indianapolis slip, sliding away? I'll let you decide for yourself, but for me it's really tough to say we're a lock at this point.
What we saw in the 2nd half of yesterday's game was a regression of the Badgers offense to what it looked like during the opening weeks of the season and that's not good news for a team needing wins down the stretch in Big Ten play. Wisconsin could barely survive playing like that against teams from the WAC and Missouri Valley Conference let alone the Big Ten.