This week in our weekly Q&A segment, we got a chance to talk with Mike Fiammetta, of our SB Nation sister site Bucky's 5th Quarter. Make sure to check out Mike and all the other guys over at Bucky's 5th Quarter for all things Wisconsin Badger sports.
MinerRush: There were some off the field issues for Montee Ball in the preseason, do you feel that has affected his play thus far?
Bucky's 5th Quarter: Ball's numbers, like the rest of the offense's are clearly down, but I don't believe the offseason issues have been at play. Sure, Ball, might have had to shake off rust after missing much of fall camp due to the concussion he stained in that attack on campus. But when you look beyond his numbers -- certainly hard to do, considering he's averaging just 3.8 yards per carry so far -- you'll see widespread problems throughout the offense. The quarterbacks have not lived up to the hype, and now Joel Stave will reportedly start in place of Danny O'Brien on Saturday. The offensive line has been remarkably porous, and the first notion that something might be off with this offense came when first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired after two games.
So there's been plenty of factors at play. Aesthetically, Ball hasn't looked any different rushing the football. In fact, I'd argue that he looked just fine against Utah State, despite gaining only 139 yards on 37 carries (3.8 yards per). With Wisconsin's offense nothing more than a machine desperately attempting to plod along despite several units not working properly, all offensive coordinator Matt Canada could really do is have his Heisman Trophy finalist running back pound the rock, and pound it hard. With greater holes -- like the gigantic one he found on his lone touchdown -- Ball surely could've found greater success.
MR: Danny O'Brien hasn't been terrible at the quarterback position, but it does seem like there is somewhat of a controversy brewing there. What are your thoughts on that, and who should be the starting quarterback?
B5Q: As mentioned above, this morning's reports have Stave starting over O'Brien on Saturday. Though O'Brien's transfer came with the proclamation that he, indeed, was not Russell Wilson, many Badgers fans held on to hopes that his inclusion to the offense would automatically repeat last year's dominance on that side of the ball.
As far as who should start, I admittedly have waffled back and forth this week. Now that Stave's starting, I can say I'm happy to see him get another shot, because he's been a quarterback that's been touted since his arrival on campus -- he's now a redshirt freshman -- and increasingly more so since a strong showing in the spring. The coaches say Stave has the best arm of the bunch and it seems fair to accept the praise of his "football I.Q," or whatever you want to call it, since he is starting this early in his career. But O'Brien has two full years of eligibility, and he will not be going anywhere. So it will certainly be interesting to see how he handles the backup job if Stave seizes hold of this opportunity, or if he bounces back if Stave struggles.
MR: Wisconsin has been in three close game so far, with opponents that weren't exactly expected to give them such fits. What would you credit this to?
B5Q: In all honestly, I believe each of Wisconsin's three opponents are stronger than nearly everyone believed. Northern Iowa is a top-tier FCS squad, while Oregon State and Utah State both flashed signs of promise. Oregon State's defense was awfully impressive, as was Utah State's quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Granted, it still feels easy to say Wisconsin should've beat all three by a wide margin, but it's clear certain flaws, whatever they may be, have thus far made this year's team inferior to last year's Rose Bowl squad.
MR: The defense has done a great job holding opponents to only about 15 points a game. Who are some of the playmakers on that unit that we should look out for this weekend?
B5Q: A pair of talented linebackers, senior Mike Taylor and junior Chris Borland, have as expected anchored Wisconsin's defense. Aside from an odd vulnerability to wheel routes, Taylor has been the leading playmaker this season with a team-high 36 tackles (three for loss). Borland is second in tackles with 22 and has also added one of the defense's three sacks so far.
In the secondary, senior cornerback Devin Smith has had his moments after recovering from a broken foot last year, while the senior cornerback opposite him, Marcus Cromartie, has been more up-and-down. The defense has yet to record an interception this year, but both Smith and Cromartie are more than capable of making plays on the ball.
I haven't really touched on the defensive line yet because in my opinion, it's been a little lackluster. Head coach Bret Bielema praised junior end David Gilbert after last week's game, though Gilbert (11 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack) is still working up to his potential. The same can be said for the rest of the line, which has dealt with injuries to ends Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon. The interior, with Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer as the tackles, is still coming along.
MR: In your opinion, what are the "keys to success" this weekend for the Badgers?
B5Q: Against UTEP, more than anything, Wisconsin needs a solid showing from Stave. He doesn't need to shred the Miners to the tune of 300+ passing yards and 3 TDs, but a mostly mistake-free, efficient game would be a huge boost moving forward. Particularly from the wide receivers, Stave needs a strong showing. Jared Abbrederis will be back after sustaining a concussion and bruised chest on a nasty hit against Oregon State in Week 2, and without him the receivers have dropped passes and looked thoroughly outmatched. A Heisman-worthy game from Ball would also be nice, though at this point the Badgers will just take a nice, clean win.
I touch mostly on the offense here because for the most part, the Badgers' defense has been solid. Finally forcing some turnovers would also be big.
MR: Any finals thoughts/predictions for the game?
B5Q: My final thoughts pretty much wind down to a lack of knowing what really to expect from this game. Through three games, UW's fan base has already largely given up trying to predict games, given how each one has went so far. I am confident Wisconsin pulls out a win, but I don't feel comfortable predicting anything beyond something like a 31-17 win. I think Stave will look solid but won't do enough to really take charge of the No. 1. QB spot, meaning the quarterback "controversy" won't be going anywhere any time soon.
Thanks to Mike Fiammetta for taking time out to participate in this Q&A session.