With Montee Ball held out of Saturday's spring game for precautionary reasons, James White out with a knee contusion and reserve running back Kyle Zuleger sidelined as well, Bret Bielema was nearly out of options to carry the load for Wisconsin's offense.
But as it turned out, it didn't really matter. Redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon rushed for 159 yards and touchdown on 30 carries in the Cardinal's (the starters') 21-10 win over White (reserve unit). Bielema said the depleted depth at running back gave him and the other Wisconsin coaches a chance to see how Gordon, who will likely be a featured back some day, would handle a starter's share of reps.
"(Running backs coach) Thomas (Hammock) and myself both wanted to see Melvin grind it out. That's one of the things he hasn't had to do and that's something I was happy to see today. He almost got stronger as the day went on, in my opinion. I was really excited to see him handle this whole game," Bielema said.
Even though the Cardinal squad was playing against defensive backups, that kind of work load could have been a strain for Gordon, who carried the ball just 20 times in three games before redshirting last season. But Gordon said with the extra work load wasn't a big deal.
"I didn't expect to go that much, but I did and I tried to make the best of every carry I got," Gordon said. "In practice, when James went down, me and Montee had to take a lot of reps, so I was kind of used to it already."
Another standout on the offensive side of the ball was redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who began taking the majority of starter's reps last week. Despite several drops from his receivers, Stave finished 14-for-25 for 135 yards, a touchdown and an interception on his last throw, which he called "a bad decision." Wisconsin's other healthy quarterback, Joe Brennan, struggled mightily, completing just two of his 11 attempts for 24 yards.
Bielema praised Stave's maturity and poise after the game, and Stave said he's confident he'll have a shot to start at quarterback this fall when Danny O'Brien joins the team.
"I want to play. I’m going to continue to compete to play and as of now, they say it’s still an open competition, and I believe them and I’m going to continue to work," Stave said.
The Badgers also have question marks at receiver. With Jared Abbrederis sidelined for most of spring with a foot injury, Wisconsin's other, younger receivers have struggled with consistency this spring, a trend that continued Saturday.
Isaiah Williams looked like a favorite to emerge as Wisconsin's third receiver behind Abbrederis and Jeff Duckworth, but struggled in the first half Saturday, dropping two passes in the end zone before feeling Bielema's wrath.
"I got after 'Ike' pretty good and moved him down from first string to second string. Then he caught every ball thrown his way. To me it’s just a mental thing," Bielema said. "Those are things that win and lose football games. When you’re not in games, you’ve got to stress it to them as a coach, and hopefully they came away with that today. I thought they played better in the second half, catching the ball."
Williams finished with five catches for 53 yards, and fellow receiver Chase Hammond had four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.
Hammond, a 6-foot-5 redshirt sophomore whose football career was in jeopardy after suffering multiple ankle injuries his first two years at Wisconsin, likes his chances of cracking the receiving rotation as well.
"A big receiver can help out a lot. We can stretch the field, we can make big plays in the red zone. They can put it up high, as you saw on one of my catches today. I think that’s a great addition to Jared’s speed and what he can do," Hammond said.
Check back tomorrow for coverage of the defense's performance in the spring game.