A nightmarish first three weeks for the nation's 116th-rated offense seemed to continue early in the second quarter Saturday when Ball, the Badgers' star running back, suffered a head injury on a 1-yard touchdown run. After being evaluated by trainers for a possible concussion, Ball was ruled out for the game, continuing a rough few months for the 2011 Hesiman Trophy finalist. Ball also had the first lost fumble of his career in the first quarter, taking a big shot on the play.
But without Ball, and with redshirt freshman Joel Stave making his first career start at quarterback, Wisconsin's offense surged for 23 first-half points and beat UTEP 37-26 at Camp Randall Stadium. Stave passed for 210 yards and a touchdown, and benefited from the return of top wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who had six receptions for 147 yards and a touchdown. The Badgers finished with 423 yards.
After letting UTEP claw to within a touchdown, Wisconsin put away the game with a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive capped by a 2-yard scoring run by backup running back James White. It was one of the few times this season Wisconsin's offense has looked like, well, Wisconsin's offense.
It wasn't the cleanest performance for the Badgers, who committed two turnovers and six penalties. UTEP went 4-for-4 on fourth down and found some holes in the Wisconsin secondary. The Badgers need to be a lot more polished in all three phases next week as they open Big Ten play at No. 25 Nebraska.
Still, Wisconsin's offense desperately needed a confidence boost after scoring just 49 points in the first three games. Coach Bret Bielema benched the turnover-prone O'Brien in favor of Stave, who stood out during spring practice and showed good knowledge of the offense despite his inexperience. Wisconsin piled up 250 yards in the first half, eclipsing its total from the past two games.
Ball looked fine on the sideline during the second half, and while the Badgers would love to have him for the Nebraska game, White and Melvin Gordon (8 carries, 112 yards, TD on Saturday) are more than capable. They'll make the trip feeling a bit better about their offense.