Wisconsin went into Corvallis, Ore., Saturday listed as an 8.5-point favorite over middling Oregon State, a fairly conservative spread considering Wisconsin easily trounced the same Beavers last year, 35-0, and led the Big Ten in scoring in both 2010 and 2011 at more than 40 points per game. If the Badgers have proven anything over the last three seasons, it's that they can run the ball and score points on just about anybody, and especially on the likes of Oregon State.
Obviously, 2012 is not the last three seasons. Just a week after stumbling out of the blocks in a 26-21 win over Northern Iowa in the season opener, the defending Big Ten champs failed to even score 8.5 points against Oregon State in a 10-7 flop that marks Wisconsin's worst offensive effort in years, and instantly erases assumptions about the Badgers as high-powered frontrunners to return to the Rose Bowl.
Even as major upsets go, in this case, there's not much room for interpretation. In the first half, the Badgers punted on all six of their offensive possessions, going three-and-out without a single first down on four of them. In their first five possessions of the second half, they turned it over twice (one fumble, one interception), punted once and gave it away twice more on downs. Not only did it take them nearly 59 minutes to finally put the ball in the end zone on their final, desperate drive of the night: Prior to that march, they hadn't even been within field goal range.
Historically, Wisconsin's 206 yards of total offense was its worst number in a single game since it was held to 201 in a 17-14 win over Arkansas in the 2007 Capital One Bowl; it was the worst in a regular season game since 2004. The last time the Badgers were held to single digits on the scoreboard was October 2008, in a 48-7 loss to Penn State; since 2010, they'd scored at least 20 in every game but one, a 21-19 loss to TCU in 2011 Rose Bowl. For All-American tailback Montee Ball, held to 60 yards on just four yards per carry, it was his worst night since he moved to the top of the top of the depth chart in November 2010, and ended a 21-game streak with at least one touchdown.
But the seething resentment in Madison this week isn't going to be directed to the star running back, even if Ball's star nationally is about to wane significantly. It's going to be directed at a) Quarterback Danny O'Brien, the first-year starter who transferred over the summer from Maryland, and b) Offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the first-year play-caller who called for O'Brien to put the ball in the air about ice as often as he handed it off. That equation has never worked for Wisconsin, and it didn't on Saturday.
On 42 called passes, O'Brien hit barely 50 percent of the throws that actually his hand (20 of 39) for a paltry 4.4 yards per attempt, with one touchdown and one interception; the other three times he dropped back, he was sacked. Including the sack yardage, the Badgers wound up rushing for all of 35 yards on 23 carries, with a long gain of 14 from Ball, a grimly predictable fate for a ground attack that has no air support: O'Brien completed exactly one pass all night, a 26-yarder to Jared Abrederis, that covered more than 12 yards. Last year's starter, Russell Wilson, set a new NCAA record with a pass efficiency rating of 186.2 over the course of the entire season; in Corvallis, O'Brien's rating (91.5) was less than half of that.
All of this against a defense that ranked dead last in the Pac-12 last year and finished well below the Mendoza line nationally by allowing upwards of 400 yards and 30 points per game. If last week's struggles a lowly FCS opponent were an alarm clock, this week was an anvil to the head. Until further notice, the reigning Big Ten overlord is just another middle-of-the-pack outfit just struggling to get by.