MADISON, Wis. — Although he didn't quite replicate the video game-style football his predecessor produced on a regular basis last season, Danny O'Brien showed he was more than capable in his first start at quarterback for No. 12 Wisconsin.
Shaking off a slow start by an offense that struggled at times to open up holes for star running back Montee Ball, the transfer from Maryland had a rock-solid day in his first shot at filling the shoes of former Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson.
O'Brien completed 19 of 23 passes for 219 yards with a pair of touchdowns to wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, and Wisconsin survived a surprising late defensive meltdown to beat FCS power Northern Iowa 26-21 on Saturday.
"For the most part in the passing game I thought we were OK," O'Brien said. "Protection-wise was good. But just a few mental errors that you can't have, and things that could potentially get you beat. But it's a lot easier cleaning it up after a win than a loss, obviously."
Badgers coach Bret Bielema pointed out a third-and-22 conversion to tight end Jacob Pedersen in the second quarter as a sign of O'Brien's composure and decision making.
"There's going to be some things that he sees after watching the film that he could pick up, but overall he made some great decisions," Bielema said. "I think that completion to Pedersen on third down was crucial. He waited for Pedersen and saw the play open up, we gave him the protection and he hit it. The only way you learn that is by doing it so I think a lot of positives there."
It was a validation of Bielema's decision to bring in O'Brien as a transfer, then hand him the starting job after he beat out Curt Phillips and Joel Stave in camp.
Because he already had graduated from Maryland, O'Brien was eligible to play right away for the Badgers — the same rule Wilson took advantage of last season. Now Wilson is an NFL starter in Seattle, and O'Brien is left with the unenviable task of trying to take his place.
Coaches and teammates spent the past week trying to downplay the potential comparisons between O'Brien and Wilson, saying O'Brien needs time and space to grow into the role on his own without such external pressure.
And while comparisons to Wilson might not be fair to O'Brien, Ball liked what he saw from his new quarterback.
"It's difficult," Ball said. "You really can't compare a lot of quarterbacks to Russell — I mean, look at him now. But I believe what they both have in common is their leadership and their ability to make plays on their feet and also in the air."
And Ball — who rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown after a slow start to the game — was impressed with Wilson's composure.
"I think Danny did a great job in the huddle for the first time in Camp Randall, when it's filled," Ball said. "I think he did a great job with his leadership and demanded and commanded this offense in a great way."
Center Travis Frederick said didn't notice much of a difference in the huddle.
"I think it was very similar to the quarterbacks we've had in the past," Frederick said. "He's a good, solid leader out there and he took control of the game, and when it came down to it, he made some big plays."
And while O'Brien isn't exactly a stranger to playing high-level college football, he said he enjoyed the atmosphere in Madison.
"It was awesome," O'Brien said. "Like I said, I kind of had to calm myself down a little bit because I got real big goosebumps coming out of that tunnel, seeing the whole stadium full. It was awesome finally getting to see what these guys have been telling me about Camp Randall since I've been here."
Abbrederis figures O'Brien's chemistry with the rest of the offense will only get better as the season goes on.
"I felt like we had a good chemistry," Abbrederis said. "Like I said earlier, as the season goes along, that chemistry will only grow, but I think he did a good job and I feel like we kind of felt each other, kind of knew where each other were going to be. As we get more practice together, the more trust will grow."
O'Brien had a fairly large contingent of friends and family at the game, some of which came from nearby Minnesota.
"I haven't played in front of them since probably third grade, so that was awesome," O'Brien said.
Showing a fundamental understanding of Big Ten rivalries, O'Brien added: "They're all football fans and converted Gopher fans, which is a good thing."