Wisconsin offense review: Badgers round into shape in Week 2

Mike McGinnis

Wisconsin's weapons at receiver and tight end enjoyed solid games vs. Tennessee Tech.

Wisconsin's newest running back trio flattened the defense, Joel Stave looked the part of the pure passer who started as a freshman and the offense looked like a finely-tuned machine.

In other words, Wisconsin's 48-0 victory over Tennessee Tech Saturday made many of the leaps forward it needed to before the truly competitive season kicks off Saturday against Arizona State.

Dominant as the tailbacks were in collectively rushing for 398 yards, Stave stole the show. Aside from a badly misplaced pass in the second quarter that landed in the hands of Tennessee Tech defensive back Austin Tallant, he left few doubting any further that he's UW's starting quarterback for good. Stave completed 24 of 29 passes for 219 yards, throwing three of the Badgers' seven touchdowns.

They weren't the 65-yard bombs to Jared Abbrederis -- the three touchdown passes totaled only 15 yards. But that shows another side of his game, proving he can methodically move the ball downfield and doesn't have to rely on Hail Mary heaves to get the offense rolling.

It was a dramatic improvement upon his 9-for-17 performance against UMass, and his impressive overall play made that interception more forgivable.

He also showed he can run a two-minute drill (remember that Bielema-infused disaster in Lincoln?), completing 10 consecutive passes to drive 94 yards in 97 seconds. They couldn't recreate the pressure that usually comes in that type of situation as the game was decided by halftime, but it's nevertheless reassuring to see he has the talent and poise to make it happen.

The run game only heightened the promise displayed a week ago, as the Badgers' 387 rushing yards were nearly identical to their opening-week numbers.

Melvin Gordon continues to look like one of the more dangerous Badger backs in recent memory, his day highlighted by a 65-yard run in the first quarter that set up Stave's second pass into the end zone and a 37-yard touchdown scamper the next quarter. Most impressive of all, he needed just nine carries for 140 yards, turning in an absurd average of 12.9 yards per carry through the first two games.

Gordon again overshadowed an effective day from James White, who looks like he could slide back into that No. 2 role if Gordon keeps running over or around any defender in his path. A friend suggested to me after the UMass game that White could become the third back behind Gordon and true freshman Corey Clement by season's end.

At first, I found the idea crazy, but the more you watch Clement run, the more realistic it becomes. He actually led all rushers with 149 yards on 13 carries Saturday, and he's much more than the third-wheel in a two-man backfield. I still believe White, for seniority's sake, will at least stick as the No. 2 guy -- probably not how he envisioned this playing out after a strong freshman campaign.

But it's an enviable spot for UW's coaching staff, as three of the four top rushers in the Big Ten are Badgers.

Those runs aren't possible, of course, without the big boys in the trenches. The offensive line did a nice job clearing the way, but -- I'm being nit-picky here -- still looked a touch sloppy. Zac Matthias was flagged for a false start early, and the Badgers were called for holding twice, though the second fell on wide receiver Jordan Fredrick.

They also let the Golden Eagles break through for a sack in the first quarter, disrupting a drive that, against a more serious opponent, could have much bigger implications. The good news is these issues are very correctable, and much better a false start than a pattern of badly missed blocks.

Quarterbacks excluded, no position group may have had a stronger turnaround from Week 1 than the receivers. Abbrederis pulled in eight catches for 62 yards and a touchdown, his numbers not as big as last week's in the role of sure-first down target instead of the guy going deep down the sideline every other play.

And it wasn't just a one-man show, as Jordan Fredrick hauled in three passes for 31 yards, building a (modest) case for that No. 2 slot. Fullback Derek Straus -- a name you probably never heard before Saturday -- pulled in Wisconsin's first touchdown and caught two more passes, so he could be a nice piece alongside Derek Watt.

Jacob Pedersen also rounded into a nice weapon for Stave, two of his three first half catches going for at least 20 yards. Pedersen's first catch was for 27 yards on 3rd-and-11 in the first quarter, precisely the type of situation where he needs to be a regular factor.

He's an ideal mix of size and speed, and if Pedersen can finally evolve into that consistent third-down option, he's going to make life much harder for opposing secondaries. Pedersen is the one player who can single-handedly elevate Wisconsin's passing game because he's such a dangerous player when in top form.

Two weeks into the season, Wisconsin fanboys have genuine reason to be bubbling over with excitement. Even in these early routs, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig hasn't leaned too heavily on the run. He clearly likes to let it fly and demonstrated trust in his starting QB -- something that evaporated when Bielema yanked Stave in favor of Danny O'Brien in the closing minutes of last year's Nebraska game.

This is still the run-oriented attack that's become as much a part of Wisconsin culture as beer and cheese curds, but it's evolved into a more dynamic, less predictable product. And they absolutely need that edge to surprise a few faces in the Big Ten by challenging Ohio State for the Leaders division title.

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