Something was a little off with the Wisconsin offense in Week 1.
The Badgers beat Northern Iowa 27-21 in a game much closer than anyone expected. Mostly because few people expected the Badgers to score "only" 27 points.
Sure, last season's team set an awfully high standard, but it never failed to score fewer than 28 in a game. And Wisconsin hadn't put up fewer than 30 points at Camp Randall Stadium since a 20-19 win against Arizona State in Week 3 of 2010.
The point total wasn't the only thing below the norms we've associated with Bret Bielema's team. Wisconsin totaled 387 yards against Northern Iowa, averaging five yards per play. That's a full two yards per play below last season's club and was the lowest total yardage for the Badgers at home since Oct. 16, 2010, against Ohio State. And even though Northern Iowa is a very good FCS team, it's still an FCS team.
So what are we to make of the Wisconsin performance, which was more workmanlike than the explosiveness we've seen in the recent past? Was it a function of four new offensive coaches on staff, including first-year coordinator Matt Canada? Did it happen because of several new starters, including Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien at quarterback? Was Montee Ball rusty from not practicing much in August?
"The biggest factor probably was UNI did an outstanding job," Bielema said. "They didn't want to see us have explosive plays. They overloaded the box and had a couple of nice plays (defensively)."
Bielema acknowledged that the new faces on offense also played a role. But after reviewing the film, he thought his team was close to putting up its usual offensive numbers, and he's not terribly concerned about the offense heading into this week's game at Oregon.
"I think we counted 13 total plays where, if we just cleaned up a block a little bit better, held it a little bit longer or were able to break one more tackle, we would have had the possibility of four more touchdowns," he said. "But would've, could've, should've."
Ball ran for 120 yards and a touchdown, but he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, well below the 6.3 yards per carry average during his fantastic junior season. Yet Bielema wasn't complaining.
"If that's an off day, I think we'd take an off day every day," he said.
O'Brien had a strong debut, completing 19-of-23 passes for 219 yards and two scores, with half his incompletions coming on drops. Bielema said O'Brien was already talking about a few plays he'd like to have back immediately after the game.
There was a time not long ago when Wisconsin fans would have been ecstatic about those kinds of numbers from their quarterback. But the record-setting play of Russell Wilson and the entire offense last season set the bar ludicrously high. Maybe this team won't reach those heights. Or maybe it just had a slightly off week, by its own standards.
"We were right there on the verge," Bielema said. "I think [it's] a little bit of detail and finishing up, and also having our guys understand how much and how hard it is to finish, to make those big plays happen."