MADISON- Wisconsin flexed its depth at running back in a 37-26 win over UTEP on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
"I told the guys in the locker room, nothing comes easy to this group," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said post game. "I was very excited for today to get here because I thought we would truly find out what kind of guys we have."
Things got off to a bit of a rocky start, something the Badger faithful have become familiar with thus far this season – at least those that made it into the game prior to the start.
The Badgers fell behind early when UTEP quarterback Nick Lamaison connected with Michael Edwards on 39-yard touchdown strike to make it 6-0.
However, Wisconsin blocked the PAT and Devin Smith returned it to make the score 6-2. The blocked PAT conversion was the Badgers first since the rule was implemented in 1988.
"I was kind of still thinking about it (the touchdown play) in my mind, I wasn't too excited about it," Smith said of the blocked PAT return.
Saturday marked the first start for Wisconsin redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave. His 16-yard scamper at the end of the first quarter put the Badgers deep in UTEP territory to start the second.
Montee Ball punched it in from a yard out to give Wisconsin a 9-6 lead.
After the score, Ball left the game with a head injury. He left with 40 yards rushing on nine carries with a touchdown.
Initially, the Badgers offense didn’t miss a beat.
On the next Badger drive, Stave hooked up with Jared Abbrederis for a 60-yard gain down to the UTEP 8. James White polished off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to give Wisconsin a 10-point edge.
Late in the quarter Stave found Abbrederis again, this time for a 47-yard score that put the Badgers up 23-6.
Steven Valadez knocked through a 45-yard field goal as time expired in the first half to cut the Miners’ deficit to 14 going into the break.
The UTEP rushing attack came alive in the third and helped the Miners engineer a 13 play, 75-yard scoring drive that put them within seven.
Another monster drive that spanned 16 plays, 54 yards, and nearly seven minutes of the fourth quarter culminated in another Valadez field-goal that made the score 23-19 in favor of the Badgers.
But, Wisconsin was able to concoct a drive when they needed it most.
With 7:59 left in the contest, the Badgers pieced together a nine-play, 79-yard march the came to a head when White scored his second touchdown of the game from two-yards out.
Stave was 3-3 passing on the drive for 36 yards, while White and Melvin Gordon racked up a combined 39 yards rushing on six attempts.
Derek Watt forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff which was recovered by Jake Stengel that setup Wisconsin on the Miners’ 26-yard line.
Gordon found the paint on the next play, putting the Badgers up 37-19 with just over three minutes to play.
Lamaison connected with Edwards once again, this time for a 62-yard score that brought UTEP back within 11, but the onside kick that followed, failed.
Stave finished the game 12-17 passing for 210 yards a touchdown and an interception. He left the field to the student section chanting his name.
"That was really something, I had never really heard that before," said Stave. "It was really cool."
Gordon led the ground attack, racking up 112 yards on eight attempts.
The Wisconsin defense collected four sacks in the game, including a pair from linebacker Chris Borland who finished the game with a game-high 12 tackles.
"We played well in the 1st half," said Linebacker Mike Taylor of the defensive performance. "We came out in the 2nd half and they started throwing the ball around, going empty and put up some points on the board and came down closer than we wanted it to."
With the win, the Badgers conclude non-conference play with a 3-1 record. The attention now turns to the conference opener at Nebraska next Saturday night.
"The good news is we haven't showed a lot of the things that we have been working on so I think there are nice things that can come down the line that haven't been shown yet," said Bielema.