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.
Stave was sacked twice in Wisconsin's first three possessions, but he settled down after that and showed a rhythm and poise the Badgers have been lacking. On the series after Ball got hurt, he found Abbrederis for a 60-yard completion that set up White's first touchdown, a 3-yard run. Two drives later, he connected with Abbrederis again, this time for a 47-yard TD.
He finished 12 of 17 for 210 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked three times, but he had little chance of avoiding the first two, blindside hits by Miners end Horace Miller.
"Joel's going to be a good quarterback," Bielema said. "He's got a lot of skills. He's tall, he's athletic, he's got a good, live arm. He's very smart at the line of scrimmage."
He's got plenty of options, too.
White's production — he finished with two touchdowns and 65 yards on 15 carries — is hardly a surprise. He was a 1,000-yard rusher two years ago, and Bielema likes to use him as a change of pace with Ball. But Gordon was a pleasant surprise. After gaining all of 18 yards in the first two games, Gordon finished with 112 on just eight carries.
In addition to his 26-yard TD run, which sealed the victory, he helped set up Ball's score with a 20-yard gain. Gordon had long runs on both of White's scoring drives, too.
"When you don't get that many carries, you've got to make the best of them," Gordon said. "You've got to run hard every run, because you never know when that opportunity might present itself again."
The Badgers have learned that the hard way this year. But this game may wind up being a turning point.
"We can obviously keep improving," Abbrederis said. "There are things we need to fix up as we go onto Big Ten play. But I think we've grown up a lot these past four games, and I'm excited for what's in store for us."