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Badgers hope to kick-start offense vs. UTEP

Associated Press Modified: September 21, 2012 at 10:06 am •  Published: September 21, 2012

At this point, Wisconsin can't afford to look past anybody.

And with one game left before the start of the Big Ten season, Saturday's home game against UTEP represents one last chance for Wisconsin to show it can get its sputtering offense going.

The Badgers (2-1) started the season with a narrow victory over FCS school Northern Iowa, a loss at Oregon State and another white-knuckle win over Utah State last week. Their typically dominant offensive line has been having trouble opening holes for Montee Ball.

Transfer Danny O'Brien won the quarterback job in camp, but was replaced at halftime of last week's game by Joel Stave. The redshirt freshman will make his first college start against UTEP (1-2), Coach Bret Bielema said Thursday.

And while Bielema hasn't been happy with how O'Brien has taken care of the ball, tinkering with the quarterbacks isn't going to fix the Badgers' main problem: An offensive line that just isn't pushing people around like it usually does.

After the Oregon State loss, Bielema replaced offensive line coach Mike Markuson by promoting a graduate assistant, Bart Miller, who acknowledged that the large amount of turnover on the Badgers' staff this offseason might have made a difference.

"Any time you have six coaches leave, a little bit of that culture, work ethic and things that they did last year goes with them," Miller said. "A new staff came in, and for the most part, we adjusted really well. There was some transition and some work, but these (offensive linemen) have played for one guy. That's a rarity in college football these days is playing for one man their entire career. So these guys weren't used to that type of transition. I think there were growing pains initially and they started to come along. There were small differences, but there were some things that just weren't clicking after fall camp and in the first two games."

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada acknowledges that the Badgers are off to a "challenging" start, but said he sees signs of improvement.

"We've just got to finish," Canada said. "Obviously, what we did (against Utah State) wasn't good enough. We've got to start getting some explosive plays. We've got to start making some. Those 4- or 5-yard runs have got to be 10-, 12 or 18-yard runs. Obviously, throwing the ball more effectively, as well."

Center Travis Frederick took the blame for penalties, but said he was optimistic after the second half against Utah State.

"The way that we played as a unit, I believe, was a much bigger step up than how we had been playing," Frederick said. "I do see the improvement there, and a lot of people on the outside aren't going to see that because it really comes down to a step here or a step there and where your hand placement is. But I do think we played better than we had, minus the penalties."

Ball walked away from the Utah State game encouraged.

"I felt there was huge improvement," Ball said. "I felt like they got more comfortable with what Utah State was doing, and obviously as running backs, that's what we love to see. We weren't expecting for them to come out of the gate with a new O-line coach and be one of the best O-lines in the country, but I definitely can see improvement — and that's a great thing."

The Badgers could be boosted by the return of No. 1 receiver Jared Abbrederis, who sustained a concussion in the Oregon State game and sat out last week. Abbrederis was cleared to practice this week.

"I'm excited about (my return)," Abbrederis said. "I felt good out there, flying around, making plays, being out there with my teammates (and) playing the game I love."

For all their problems on offense, the Badgers have been strong on defense through the first three games. On Saturday, they'll be challenged by the spread offense run by UTEP and coach Mike Price.

UTEP lost to Oklahoma, drawing attention by the relatively close 24-7 final score, and then to Ole Miss in the first two weeks of the season.

"I think it was kind of a confidence builder," Price said. "When you play those schools, they're bigger and stronger and faster. You get used to play at that tempo and that speed. The game is faster. You speed up your game and your intensity. It's great to play schools that are a little bit better than you are."

Price noted a similar challenge against another heavyweight this week.

"They are a big, massive team outweighing us by 60 pounds," Price said. "They're massive and they're good. Their defense is sound and they have the best returning running back in the country. They're kind of finding their way offensively. They played a freshman at quarterback last week and I thought he looked good. I wouldn't be surprised if they started him this week. They're still a running team, but they're creative offensively. They do a lot of things, but they still end up going between the tackles and running over you."