BY JEFF BERNIER
For all the knocks the critics can put on the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) football team, one thing they cannot deny is their ability to overcome adversity. They are simply resilient.
The Badgers headed into a hostile environment Saturday afternoon in College Park, Maryland to face a Maryland Terrapins (2-7 0-5 Big Ten) team anxious for their first conference win. Stud tailback Corey Clement ended up sitting this game out for Wisconsin dealing with ankle pain.
With their familiar use of the proverbial ‘next-man-up’ philosophy, the Badgers overcame the absence of Clement once again, outlasting a spirited effort from the Terrapins by a score of 31-24.
It wasn’t the start the Badgers, or for that matter the Terrapins, had imagined heading into this one. Maryland gashed the Badgers #1 nationally ranked defense in the first quarter, rushing for 75 yards, outgaining Wisconsin 126 to 90 in total offense. Alas, football is a game of four quarters. Like most of Wisconsin’s opponents this year, the Terrapins just were not able to hang with a far superior Badgers squad as the game wore on.
Both Maryland and Wisconsin went three and out to open the game. Things would heat up white hot from there.
Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer, who’s been miserable at times this year, shanked a 24 yard punt that set up Maryland at the Badgers 32 yard line. The Terrapins took full advantage. Junior quarterback Perry Hills and junior tailback Wes Brown shouldered the load. With the help of a Badgers passing interference call, Brown would cap the short drive with a seven yard dash to opening the scoring 7-0.
Wisconsin sophomore reserve defensive back Natrell Jamerson exploded for a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff, knotting the game at 7-7.
After a Terrapins punt, the Badgers executed an 87 yard drive completed on just five runs. Joe Schoebert rumbled for a 57 yard run on 4th and one from their own 22 yard line, setting up Dare Ogunbowale’s 21 yard score.
Ogunbowale has been a savior for Wisconsin in the wake of Clement’s season long injury problems. Maryland kicker Adam Green would convert from 44 yards out, making it 14-10 Wisconsin. The sophomore would miss a crucial one from 46 yards out on the very next drive after Maryland linebacker Jalen Brooks picked off Badgers quarterback Joel Stave on 2nd down and 10.
Wisconsin prides itself on having a bevy of versatile players. Paul Chryst believes in his players’ abilities to play multiple positions and its positive effect on ballgames. The Badgers most versatile player is without a doubt, the position-less Tanner McEvoy. He’s run out of the backfield. He’s lined up at wide-out and in the slot. He’s lined up at quarterback and cornerback. But McEvoy mostly plays safety. And he does it very well. McEvoy intercepted Perry Hills on 3rd down and long, setting up a Rafael Gaglianone 28 yard field goal.
Later, Wisconsin was facing a 4th and one from their own 22 yard line with just over a minute remaining in the first half. Despite the earlier conversion, the Badgers wisely chose to punt. Unfortunately, the punt was blocked netting only 11 yards.
Special teams play and their inability to convert third downs absolutely killed Wisconsin in the first half against Maryland.
The Terrapins faced a 3rd down and 17 from Wisconsin 40 yard line with 49 seconds remaining in the first half. Perry Hills lofted a perfect throw deep down the left sideline to receiver D.J. Moore who hauled it in for the game tying touchdown. The play sent a confident and engaged College Park crowd into a frenzy.
Maryland won just about every statistic in the first half. The Badgers were very fortunate to just be tied. But as the saying goes, you have got to play a full four quarters to complete an upset.
The Badgers looked like the Badgers again after intermission. The defense did a 180. The offense moved the ball with relative ease, and the special teams’ squad looked like a completely different unit.
Badgers quarterback Joel Stave, who had just 20 yards passing in the first half, found his groove in the second half. Stave would go 4/5 for 63 yards on the Badgers second drive of the third quarter. The 8-play 69 yard drive was punctuated by Wisconsin’s goal line specialist Alec Ingold. A converted big back from linebacker, Ingold punched it in from 1 yard out.
Terrapins Perry Hills and Wes Brown could not find any of their first half magic in the second. The Badgers are the nation’s top defensive unit for a reason. They just shut teams down.
Wisconsin’s second half defensive effort was the MVP in this one.
Following yet another Maryland punt, Wisconsin would put together another long efficient drive going 71 yards on just 7 plays. Joel Stave or Dare Ogunbowale had a hand in all 71 yards. Ogunbowale would scurry in from 7 yards out on a delayed pass play into the left flat from Stave, with no Maryland defender in the vicinity.
Just like that, Wisconsin was up 31-17 early in the fourth quarter. Maryland finally was able to score with 2:39 remaining. Caleb Rowe, backup quarterback who took over for Hills connected with Levern Jacobs on a 27 yard pass and catch bringing Maryland within one score, 31-24.
Near disaster ensued on the onside kick attempt by Maryland. A very fortunate off sides call negated a Terrapins recovery and touchdown return, a play that would have tied it. The referees determined a Terrapins player was just slightly over the line. Replays showed it was very close.
From there, Bucky and company were able to run out the clock.
Badgers senior quarterback Joel Stave, who has faced a fair amount of criticism for his turnover issues, again made just enough plays for Wisconsin. Stave finished the game 15/24 for 188 yards. Stave really stepped it up in the second half.
Six different receivers caught a ball from Stave on Saturday. Senior receiver Alex Erickson, as steady a presence the Badgers have had this season, once again was Stave’s go to guy. Erickson finished the afternoon with 5 catches for 83 yards, both tops on the team.
While Wisconsin was just 3/13 on third down, they were 2/2 on fourth down. Both of the conversions were huge, helping Bucky to another stepping stone win.
Maryland outgained Wisconsin 316 yards to 305. This hadn’t been done since the Badgers week one loss at Alabama. The defense, as always this year, made the difference.
Wisconsin will now embark on a long overdue, much deserved bye week. Injuries have piled up after ten straight weeks of football, and the Badgers will look to get healthy over the next fourteen days. From there, Bucky and company will play host to #21 Northwestern (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) in the biggest game of the year for both teams thus far.