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MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Unable to push around nonconference opponents and open up holes for Montee Ball like it has in recent years, Wisconsin needed a missed field goal to fend off Utah State.
Josh Thompson missed a 37-yard try with seconds remaining, allowing the Badgers to hold on for a 16-14 victory over a dangerous Aggies team Saturday night.
The Badgers (2-1) certainly will take it after a tumultuous week that included a loss, a tumble out of the Top 25 and the dismissal of the team's offensive line coach only two games into the season.
"It's been a difficult week," Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. "We tried to make it as positive as we can."
Bielema was upset by a rash of pre-snap penalties Saturday, but wasn't necessarily expecting immediate improvement from a struggling offensive line.
"We knew it wasn't going to be changed overnight," Bielema said. "I was excited about the progress we made during the week, and hopefully with another week to work we'll be positive."
Trailing 14-3 at halftime, the Badgers got an 82-yard punt return from Kenzel Doe to begin their comeback. Ball shook off a rough night to score the go-ahead touchdown on a 17-yard run late in the third quarter.
Ball carried 37 times for 139 yards and the decisive score despite frequently getting stuffed behind the line. Wisconsin was coming off a loss at Oregon State that led to the firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson.
Wisconsin promoted former graduate assistant Bart Miller to replace Markuson on an interim basis, hoping he can help the line regain the dominant form that has become a staple of the Badgers' program.
Although he averaged only 3.8 yards per carry Saturday, Ball insisted he can see changes.
"You can clearly see the difference - night and day," Ball said. "What I (saw) a lot more today than I've seen in previous games is a lot more opportunities for us to go one-on-one with a player."
Utah State coach Gary Andersen called Ball a "tremendous back" but noted that his defense was able to control the line of scrimmage for most of the game.
"(Ball) got some yards but we gang-tackled him and were physical with him at the point of attack for the most part," Andersen said. "We controlled the offensive line all night long in the run game except for a couple of plays."
Utah State (2-1) built its first-half lead on a pair of touchdown passes from Chuckie Keeton, who was 18 of 34 for 181 yards.
"I thought we had an opportunity to win against a quality opponent," Andersen said. "We expected to win when we walked in here but we didn't get it done. They made one more play than we did."
It was a wild end to a game that started in strange fashion, when the opening kickoff was delayed as a player had to chase a squirrel off the field.
Utah State took over on its own 32 with 1:38 left and no timeouts. Facing third-and-10 near midfield, Keeton was flushed out of the pocket and completed a 36-yard pass to Cameron Webb to put them in field goal range.
An offensive pass interference call backed Utah State up to the 30, but Keeton got 10 yards back.
I thought we had an opportunity to win against a quality opponent. We expected to win when we walked in here but we didn't get it done. They made one more play than we did.
–Aggies coach Gary Andersen
After a short running play and a spike, Thompson - who didn't have a field goal attempt this season - missed the kick and a shot at the win.
The Badgers switched quarterbacks at halftime, with Joel Stave taking over for Danny O'Brien.
O'Brien lost a fumble and threw an interception, although the interception was wiped out by a Utah State penalty.
"For us to win at Wisconsin, we can't turn the ball over," Bielema said.
But it took Doe's return to make it a game again, cutting the lead to 14-10 in the third quarter.
After a short punt by Utah State, Wisconsin put together a drive that finally included a third-and-short conversion by Ball.
Ball then found plenty of room to run two plays later, scoring a 17-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was blocked, and Wisconsin led 16-14 with 3:06 left in the third.
Utah State came agonizingly close but couldn't pull out a win.
"This is very difficult for us as a whole," running back Kerwynn Williams said. "We definitely could have played better on the offensive side of the ball. Our defense played great. They made it hard for Montee Ball to run the ball."
Notes: Bielema said wide receiver Jared Abbrederis was "on the verge" of playing. Abbrederis sustained a concussion in the Oregon State loss. ... Keeton's touchdowns went to Williams and Matt Austin. ... Saturday's attendance was 79,332.
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