We've become so accustomed to seeing Wisconsin blow out opponents, even excellent ones, at Camp Randall Stadium that many of us assumed the opener against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Northern Iowa would be a laugher.
But the Badgers weren't laughing in the fourth quarter Saturday. They were sweating. Big time.
The surprisingly game Panthers trailed just 26-21 and had the ball on the Wisconsin 41 late in the game. But a fourth-and-1 pass play was tipped away by Ethan Hemer, and the Badgers were able to run out the clock and survive.
It was a head-scratching result, especially since Northern Iowa didn't score during the first half. But the Badgers' defense gave up some big plays late, including a 55-yard touchdown pass and a 31-yard scoring strike on a fourth down that shaved the lead to five.
And while Danny O'Brien had a very efficient debut at quarterback (19-for-23, 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions), the Wisconsin offense lacked its normal explosiveness. Montee Ball ran for 120 yards and scored a touchdown for the 21st straight game. But he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry, and the Badgers had 168 rushing yards as a team. Credit Northern Iowa's defense, but against a lot of opponents at home, especially FCS ones, you'd expect something like double that number on the ground for Bret Bielema's club.
Remember, though, that this team lost virtually its entire offensive coaching staff and replaced two All-Americans on the offensive line. There might be more of an adjustment period here than some wanted to believe.
The defense, after a strong first half, reverted to its troubling tendency of giving up big plays in the second half. Although Northern Iowa couldn't run the ball at all, quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen threw for 265 yards and three touchdowns, and Wisconsin did not cause any turnovers. The Panthers are a very good FCS team, but the Badgers usually bludgeon anyone who dares come into Madison.
Maybe this team won't have such an easy time this season. Wisconsin clearly has some things to clean up before going to Oregon State next week.