The Wisconsin Badgers presented a new -- yet, still familiar -- look on offense against Illinois on Saturday as Joel Stave reassumed his role as starting quarterback. While Stave had a quiet day in his first start of the season, both Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement received a heavy dosage of carries and each managed to clock in solid performances in the Badgers' 38-28 win.
Each tailback ran for over 150 yards and scored multiple touchdowns on the ground. For the passing attack, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig chose to give both Stave and Tanner McEvoy a chance to run the offense, but limited the involvement of each quarterback in the offense.
After a poor overall performance against Northwestern, it was nice to see the Badgers get back to their winning ways against one of the weaker teams in the conference. However, the win was far from convincing, as the Badgers managed to let the Illini back into the game late in the first quarter and then again at the end of the game.
By the numbers
498: Total yards for the Badgers
65: Total number of plays run
7.7: Average yards per play
97: Total passing yards
401: Total rushing yards
5.4: Average yards per pass
8.5: Average yards per rush
294: Total yards in the first half
71: Passing yards in the first half
175: Rushing yards for Gordon
164: Rushing yards for Clement
32:21: Total time of possession
22: Total first downs
16: First downs in the first half
4-of-13: Third-down efficiency
1,046: Total rushing yards for Gordon this season (No. 2 in the nation)
13: Total rushing touchdowns for Gordon this season (No. 2)
484.0: Average total yards per game this season for UW (No. 26)
343.0: Average rushing yards per game this season for UW (No. 2)
141.0: Average passing yards per game for UW (No. 121)
What went right?
1. A better start for the Badgers. Prior to Saturday's game, we saw Wisconsin's offense start out flat in its previous two games against Northwestern and South Florida, scoring a combined three points in the first half of those games. Against Illinois, everyone was expecting the Badgers to pound the ball on the ground against a weak Illini run defense. That's exactly what we saw on the first drive: Stave handed the ball off six times, Gordon received five carries (including his 15-yard touchdown) and Natrell Jamerson had a 23-yard run off of the jet sweep.
The Badgers scored 24 points in the first two quarters and also managed to enter halftime with some momentum after Rafael Gaglianone knocked through a 44-yard field goal with three seconds left to culminate a five-play, 52-yard drive that began on the Wisconsin 22-yard line with 1:16 to go. It was nice, for a change, to see the Badgers enter the locker room on a high note after the poor early performances we had witnessed in their previous two games.
2. The running backs (as always). Saturday's game exists as a perfect example to why the Badgers' offense this year is completely one-dimensional. And yet, despite everyone on the Illinois defense realizing this, they were still unable to contain the Badgers' offensive attack. In the first half, Gordon led the way, running for 146 yards on 18 carries. In the second, Clement took control as he carried the ball 13 times for 164 yards. The two tailbacks also scored all of the Badgers' touchdowns in the game (four for Gordon, one for Clement).
Perhaps the most impressive part of the rushing attack is the ability of the backs to consistently break big plays. Saturday, there were six rushes for over 20 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown run by Gordon and a 72-yard touchdown run by Clement. In the red zone, the backs are just as effective, as Gordon was able to score from 6 yards out in the second quarter and also dive in for a 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
3. Sam Arneson: The senior tight end had a nice game on Saturday. With Stave making his first start, Arneson emerged as his favorite target, leading the team with four catches for 48 yards. So far this season, Arneson has registered 14 receptions for 228 yards and two touchdowns. With Stave continuing to develop with the offense, we can expect to see Arneson's role grow as the season progresses.
Arneson also did an excellent job run blocking on the outside. On Gordon's first touchdown, it was a block by Arneson that gave Gordon a big enough hole to find the end zone.
What went wrong?
1. The passing game is still rusty. Stave was solid, going 7-for-14 and throwing for 73 yards, zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. While he was able to make several important throws, he also missed on his fair share of passes. Perhaps the most notable miss for Stave was in the fourth quarter, when he had a wide-open Alex Erickson 20 yards downfield without a single defender in sight. All Stave needed to do was throw it close to Erickson, and he could have walked into the end zone. Instead, Stave overthrew Erickson and the Badgers missed out on a golden opportunity.
Stave is the starter going forward, and if the Badgers expect to be competitive in Big Ten play, especially against fellow West division opponents like Iowa and Nebraska, they must rely on Stave to be able to step up and complete a pass when needed in order to have the running game open up. Stave tested the field vertically with his deep ball on several occasions, failing to complete any of them -- just missing with Erickson on several occasions. It appears that if anyone is going to be able to jump into the role as Stave's vertical threat, like Jared Abbrederis was last year, it's going to be Erickson. Let's hope the two can develop some chemistry over the bye week.
2: More poor decisions by Ludwig. Perhaps the most perplexing move made by UW's offensive coordinator on Saturday was the decision to pull Stave early in the second quarter after he had just completed four straight passes and led the Badgers 75 yards down the field for a touchdown to tie the game at 14-14. Ludwig had previously mentioned he intended on giving both Stave and McEvoy a chance to play against the Illini, but was that really the best time to make the switch? Wouldn't it have been nicer to see if Stave could have continued the strong play we saw from the last drive, rather than switching in an erratic quarterback who hadn't yet seen the field in that game? After moving the team down the field to the Illinois 30-yard line, McEvoy was lucky that he got another chance after he missed Erickson on the deep ball and almost threw a bad interception in the end zone on 1st-and-10.
Another questionable call was the decision to run the ball so heavily to start the game. Don't get me wrong, I love that the Badgers are running the ball 40-plus times a game -- that's what they need to do in order to be successful. However, I also feel it's important not to neglect the quarterback to start the game, especially when he's making his first start of the season and looking to fidn some rhythm in the pocket. Ludwig chose to run the ball on the first 10 plays of the game; it wasn't until the Badgers faced a 3rd-and-11 on their own 18-yard line when he finally decided to call a pass. On the play, Stave danced all around the pocket despite having an adequate amount of time to look at his options downfield before finally electing to throw the ball into the ground, leading to a Drew Meyer punt. I don't think you can blame Stave for being nervous on that play, as he shouldn't have been asked to throw the ball for the first time during such a crucial play early in the game.
My hope during this bye week is that Ludwig finally realizes that Stave is the best fit for the job and names him the undisputed starter, moving McEvoy to receiver where he can pose a nightmare matchup to opposing secondaries with his exceptional size and speed. But let's face it, at this point do we really know what to expect from Ludwig?
After the game, head coach Gary Andersen addressed the quarterback situation in his post-game press conference. Here's some of what he had to say about the Badgers' quarterbacks moving forward.
"All I can really say about the quarterback scenario is it's important that our offense continues to grow and develop, and both quarterbacks have an opportunity, in my opinion and with the coaches and I believe with the quarterbacks' opinion, that we are best served if they have an opportunity to be involved at this point," Andersen said. "And that's the direction we're headed....
...Our ability to continually throw the ball and we've talked so much about opportunities for lay-ups, we left some lay-ups out there today on the field but we also made some plays when we had to with some contested balls which was great to see with our ability to be able to protect much better and make it cleaner."