MADISON, Wis. (AP) — After Wisconsin's rocky start, this counts as progress.
Sure, the Badgers needed a pair of touchdowns in the final 3:20 to secure a 37-26 victory over lowly UTEP on Saturday. The Miners' 26 points were the most allowed by Wisconsin this season, and they were four-for-four on fourth-down conversions — including a pair on a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive alive. There were more penalty woes, too.
But Wisconsin's offense finally showed signs of being the powerhouse everyone expected, with James White and Melvin Gordon not missing a beat after Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball suffered an apparent concussion. Better yet, the Badgers (3-1) appear to have found themselves a quarterback in redshirt freshman Joel Stave.
"We had some hiccups in our first four games, but I thought today was a good step for us in the right direction," said Jared Abbrederis, who had a career-high 147 yards receiving after missing last week's game with a concussion. "I feel a little more confident after today."
Better late than never.
The Badgers began the season with high hopes for the Big Ten title — and then some. But they have been decidedly mediocre so far, losing at now-No. 18 Oregon State and barely holding off both Northern Iowa and Utah State at home.
And now comes the tough part of the schedule. The Badgers open Big Ten play Saturday at Nebraska, which climbed three spots to No. 22 in this week's Top 25 poll.
Granted, the rest of the Big Ten hasn't exactly been impressive so far. Iowa lost to Central Michigan on Saturday — yes, Central Michigan — while Ohio State had its hands full with UAB. Only three teams — Ohio State, Michigan State and Nebraska — made this week's Top 25, with the Buckeyes topping the list at No. 14.
But Wisconsin has all three of the ranked teams on its schedule, and the Badgers will have to play better than they have so far if they're going to salvage what was supposed to be such a promising year.
"It's not where we want to be," coach Bret Bielema said. "We responded as best we could, we continue to work with them and grow. It's a learning curve every day."
Despite Ball coming back, Wisconsin has displayed all the stability of Jell-O. The Badgers lost half of their starters from last year's Rose Bowl team and have six new coaches, including offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Transfer quarterback Danny O'Brien was no Russell Wilson, and Bielema yanked him last weekend in favor of Stave.