It turns out there’s a downside to opening the season as the fourth-ranked college football team in the nation.
People expect you to play like the fourth-ranked team in the nation every single game. If you don’t dominate opponents, poll voters and fans think something must be wrong.
The University of Wisconsin has yet to play like the fourth-ranked team in the nation, one reason it is now the sixth-ranked team in the nation despite posting 31-point victories over Western Kentucky and New Mexico in its first two games.
Ohio State and Oklahoma leapfrogged UW in the polls largely because the Buckeyes are averaging 66 points per game and the Sooners 56 points per game. UW has put up “only” 39.5 points per game despite playing weaker opponents.
If that makes the Badgers or their fans nervous, it shouldn’t. True, UW didn’t bury its two mid-major opponents, but nothing that has happened so far has given even the slightest indication UW can’t be everything people hoped it would be this season. It’s just going to take a little longer to get there, that’s all.
That’s nothing new for UW, which has never been a fast starter under coach Paul Chryst, who views a season as a growth process. So far, the Badgers have been good, not great.
“There’s a lot to work on this week,” Chryst said. “I think it is normal and I think it’s our job to always find areas that we can work on and improve.”
If it’s any consolation, the UW players are well aware of that. They know they haven’t hit the ground running, especially on offense, which was expected to dominate from the get-go with nine returning starters.
Their assessment entering today’s game against BYU at Camp Randall Stadium?
“I would say we’re close,” guard Michael Deiter said. “I don’t think I’ll ever say we’ve hit on all cylinders because you’re never going to play the perfect game. Football won’t allow you to do that. I think we’re playing well. But that was the past. We have to play well again this week. We can always get better. That’s always got to be the approach or you’ll just start going backward. I like the way we’re playing. ... We’ve just got to keep improving.”
Any improvement needs to come sooner than later. Like, say, in today’s game.
BYU has split against Pac-12 Conference opponents so far, beating Arizona and losing to Cal. Like last year, when UW went into Provo and dominated BYU 40-6, the Cougars are offensively challenged. But they’re also big and physical, not unlike the Big Ten Conference opponents UW will face starting next week.
UW must accelerate its growth process because BYU is a significant step up from Western Kentucky and New Mexico and next week’s game at Big Ten West Division rival Iowa might be its most important game of the season. For that reason, there had better be a bit more urgency this week.
“I think we have that feeling every week,” tight end Zander Neuville said. “But I think there is something where as the season goes on the margin for error just gets smaller and smaller. It’s something we’ve just got to keep working on.”
The first thing UW has to do is find a way to start faster. Due in part to turnovers, the offense struggled early in the first two games. Against Western Kentucky, the Badgers held a 10-0 lead late in first half before winning 34-3. In its 45-14 victory over New Mexico, UW led by only 10-7 midway through the third quarter.
In both games, opponents with nothing to lose threw some exotic schemes at the offense and it took time to adjust. It was the same on defense, where New Mexico’s unusual triple-option attack briefly confused the Badgers.
“No matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to start fast,” Deiter said. “You want to start fast. But if you don’t, it’s not like a panic or anything like that. It’s football. Stuff’s going to happen. It can always get weird. But when you’re playing really good teams, they’re not going to let you just come right back into the game if you have a slow start.”
Unlike the first two opponents, BYU has the size and physicality to slug it out with UW. One plus is UW is basically back to full strength after Neuville and defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk returned from injuries last week and wide receiver Danny Davis comes off suspension this week.
“(We’ve played) pretty good overall, but there’s some inconsistencies that we’ve got to clean up, whether it’s turnovers or just finishing drives,” Neuville said. “I think that’s got to be a big point of emphasis for us this week because it’s only going to get harder as the weeks go on and we can’t afford to make mistakes like that going forward.”
There’s no reason to lose sleep over that because it’s not unusual for UW to be inconsistent early.
“Every team’s going to have that to start the year,” Neuville said. “I guess the thing for me is the inconsistencies we’ve had has been stuff that we can control. I feel like it’s not necessarily something the other team has taken away from us. It’s more (like) we’ll watch the film and whether it was one guy missing a block or just being off page and not knowing who our assignment was, it’s all stuff we can control. That’s the kind of stuff we’ve got to clean up moving forward.”
Today would be as good a day as any to start.