MADISON, Wis. -- When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema walked into his postgame news conference you half expected him to reveal a Kevlar vest or a hidden force field.
How else to explain all the bullets the Badgers have dodged or deflected the past three weeks?
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Following what should have been wake-up calls the past two games against UNLV and San Jose State, No. 11 Wisconsin got its biggest scare of the season from unranked Arizona State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
It took Jay Valai's blocked extra point with 4:08 remaining for the Badgers to escape with a 20-19 victory in what was arguably college football's game of the week.
"There's a handful of plays that determine games -- that determine a season," Bielema said. Nobody knows that better than the Sun Devils (2-1).
Arizona State left as many as 29 points on the field instead of on the scoreboard.
Thomas Weber, the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation's best kicker, missed a 25-yard field goal try on ASU's opening drive, then the final PAT.
Receiver George Bell dropped a touchdown pass that led instead to three points.
|Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema and the Badgers sidestep another scare this season. (AP)|
Kyle Middlebrooks' 95-yard kickoff return on the final play of the first half came up a foot short of the end zone thanks to a diving tackle by Wisconsin's Shelton Johnson.
And Sun Devils running back Deantre Lewis tripped and fell, untouched in the open field, on a third-quarter run that could have gone 98 yards to the house.
"We blew a lot of opportunities offensively to score touchdowns and score points," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "That is why we lost."
There also was the well-founded sentiment that the Sun Devils got jobbed by the officials when Badgers defensive back Niles Brinkley got away with a blatant pass interference penalty in the third quarter by shoving ASU receiver T.J. Simpson out of the end zone before the pass arrived.
"We're happy to be 3-0 after this day, especially with our special teams [struggling] a little bit," Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt said. "Any time there was some adversity we came back with some confidence and some big plays of our own."
What's unclear is how much confidence the Badgers should be feeling after three less-than-impressive wins. While the players and local media were convinced the Badgers had just dispatched a quality opponent, the preseason expectations in Tempe were not -- and still are not -- high.
The preseason media poll had the Sun Devils tabbed for ninth place in what is widely considered an extremely weak year for the Pac-10.
Wisconsin's defensive backs talked about matching up against ASU's elite receivers, but in reality, ASU's wideouts are not considered one of the team's strengths -- they're considered one of its weaknesses. Granted, the Badgers' vaunted running game still was a force, managing 194 yards (running back John Clay had 125 of them) against one of the Pac-10's best defensive units. And few expected the Badgers to blow out the Sun Devils because their grinding style of play makes for relatively few offensive possessions.
But it was shocking to see ASU's newly installed shotgun offense move the ball with such ease against the Badgers.
And it was shocking just how poor Wisconsin's kick coverage was throughout the first half.
When the Badgers managed to stop successive ASU returns at the Sun Devils' 25 in the second half, the Camp Randall faithful showered them with derisive cheers.
"Obviously something we need to work on," Bielema said.
Wisconsin made plays when it needed them -- the biggest being Johnson's tackle and Valai's block -- and that was the ultimate take-away from Saturday's game.
But it was hard to escape the feeling that Wisconsin should have lost this game.
It was hard to escape the feeling that the Badgers are incredibly fortunate.
It was hard to escape the feeling that, at this point in this season, the Badgers are not as good as their lofty ranking suggests.
"We can't control anything other than our reactions to what goes on in front of us," Bielema said. "If the result in the end is positive it shows that we had the proper reaction."