[caption id="attachment_44" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Montee Ball eludes an Illinois defender last week during a 31-17 victory. Ball will play a key role tomorrow if UW is to come out on top."][/caption]
The Badgers entered the 2012 season with high expectations, something that has become an annual occurrence in Madison.
After capturing the Big Ten title and heading to the West Coast for the Rose Bowl in each of the last two years, those expectations were not lowering anytime soon.
Of course, when you return a running back in Montee Ball who ran for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2011, why would they?
Wisconsin’s sluggish 4-2 start is as puzzling as it is disappointing.
Issues were apparent from the very beginning in a 26-21 victory over Northern Iowa of the FCS. Ball – as has been the case for the majority of the year – wasn’t able to find running room. He ran for 120 yards but needed 32 carries to get there, an average of 3.8 yards a carry.
The following week, UW traveled to Oregon State and shockingly left with a 10-7 loss. Although the stench of that defeat has evaporated quite a bit (the Beavers are now ranked No. 10 in the country), it became apparent that a historically dominant and overpowering offensive line wasn’t getting the job done.
So much so that Bret Bielema canned OL coach Mike Markuson after his second game on the job.
Bucky had to rely on a botched field goal attempt in the final moments the following week to avoid being upset at home by Utah State.
Bielema was so desperate for offense that he benched transfer Danny O’ Brien for redshirt freshman Joel Stave under center.
He has been the starter ever since.
Wisconsin hit rock bottom two weeks ago, blowing a 20-10 halftime lead at Nebraska. They were outscored 20-7 in the second half and fumbled near midfield on their final drive of the game to drop their opening conference game.
College football teams aren’t much for silver linings, but Ball and the Badger offense appeared ready to turn the corner.
Despite averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, Ball found the end zone three times and Stave threw for 214 yards and a touchdown on 12-of-23 passing in his first Big Ten contest and only the second full game of his career.
Last week against Illinois, the Badgers turned in easily their best performance to date.
Wisconsin unloaded on the Illini with a 31-14 victory. Ball ran for 116 yards on 19 carries and a pair of touchdowns. UW ran for 173 yards – 96 of those coming in the fourth quarter.
Stave went 16-for-25 for 254 yards and two scores. As a starter, he has completed 42-of-71 (59 percent) for 693 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Each quarterback has started three games, but the job is Stave’s to lose. Perhaps the biggest difference between them is that Stave is averaging 9.76 yards per attempt while DOB averaged just 6.93.
Bielema has stated that his team has improved every week, which brings us to this weekend’s showdown at Ross-Ade Stadium.
The winner of tomorrow’s contest could very well represent the Leaders division at the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis (they can thank Ohio State and Penn State for that).
Take those two banned programs out of the picture and you’re looking at the two teams with the only real chance to win the division.
Purdue is 0-1 in the conference while Wisconsin sits at 1-1. If UW prevails, they’ll jump two games in front of any eligible team on their side of the standings.
All signs point to running back Ralph Bolden making his season debut for the Boilers, who is coming off of his third ACL surgery.
His presence in the backfield will surely be a welcome sight after Purdue was trounced 44-13 last week against Michigan and only managed 56 yards on the ground.
Looking past this week, Wisconsin has three of its final five games at home where they have won their last 20. Their two toughest remaining tests – dates with Michigan State and Ohio State – will take place at Camp Randall.
If UW reigns victorious, Purdue would have to win five of their last six to win the division. Four of those games are on the road.
The Badgers’ road has been anything but smooth. With a win tomorrow, it can still lead to Pasadena.
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