- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is one of the more vocal proponents of playing Big Ten games earlier in the season.
It might have served the Badgers well this year.
After stumbling badly out of the gate following an offseason of change, Wisconsin's offense has looked like a different unit in Big Ten play. Although the Badgers aren't quite as powerful as they were in 2010 and 2011, their production has spiked during a time when the competition should be getting tougher.
Name a key statistic, and Wisconsin has looked like a different offense since the conference slate began:
Rushing offense? Wisconsin averaged 143 yards per game and 3.7 yards per rush in the first four games. The Badgers averaged 258.3 yards per game and 5.6 yards per rush in the past four.
Points per game? Wisconsin eclipsed 30 points just once in non-league play. The Badgers average 33.5 points in Big Ten games.
Big plays? Wisconsin had a grand total of 11 plays stretch longer than 20 yards in its first four games. The Badgers have had 26 -- 13 rush, 13 pass -- in the past four.
The Badgers have had by far the top big-play offense in Big Ten games. They lead the league in plays of 10-plus yards (63), 20-plus yards (26), 40-plus yards (8) and 50-plus yards (5) during conference games.
After four weeks, Wisconsin's offense was shockingly bad in the national rankings: 110th in total offense, 100th in scoring, 110th in passing and, most shockingly, 86th in rushing.
Look where the Badgers rank now: 77th in total offense, 65th in scoring, 107th in passing, 32nd in rushing.
So while the passing game remains a bit spotty, Wisconsin is getting back to what it does best: run the ball, control the line of scrimmage and score points. Top running back Montee Ball averaged just 90 rush yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry in non-league play, scoring just three rushing touchdowns. In Big Ten games, Ball is averaging 155.5 yards per game -- tops in the conference -- on six yards per carry, racking up 10 rushing touchdowns.
Criticism has tapered for new coordinator Matt Canada, and for a line that seems to improve as games go along.
"It’s been night and day," Bielema recently told ESPN.com, "just the points per game, the production, the yards per play, the efficiency in the red zone, all those things have been very, very positive ."
Wisconsin hasn't exactly faced a series of top defenses: only Minnesota ranks in the top 30 nationally. The tests get tougher down the stretch, beginning Saturday against Michigan State (No. 5 in total defense).
But the Badgers look like they're ready for the challenges ahead.
"Our coaches, our players," Bielema said, "everybody's gained a little bit of confidence week by week."
8hJosh Moyer and Dan Murphy