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Wisconsin offense needs more consistency entering Big Ten play

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After an underwhelming performance against South Florida, many questions still surround Wisconsin's offense heading into Big Ten play.

Tom Lynn

Coming off of an impressive victory against Bowling Green in Week 4, Wisconsin had high expectations heading into last Saturday's game against South Florida. The Badgers were dubbed 33.5-point favorites, with many experts expecting the offense to have no trouble against a subpar Bulls defensive unit.

Instead, the Badgers' offense came out flat. After averaging over 9 yards per play in the 68-17 win over Bowling Green, Wisconsin finished the first half tied 3-3 with South Florida, compiling only 139 yards (79 passing, 60 rushing) on offense.

In the second half, however, the Badgers showed incredible resiliency as they were able to score 24 points en route to a 27-10 victory. Credit can be given to several big runs by Melvin Gordon in the third quarter and one very clutch drive put together by Tanner McEvoy in the fourth quarter.

Although the Badgers looked fairly impressive in the second half on Saturday, fans should still be concerned about the inconsistency the offense has shown to this point. Opposing defenses have proven to be dedicated on the rushing attack and forcing McEvoy to throw. And while the junior quarterback has shown some positive flashes during the first four games, he has also given us plenty of reasons to doubt him. Let's take a closer look at the Badgers' performance from Saturday to see just what we can expect from the start of Big Ten play.

By the numbers

454: Total yards vs. USF

75: Total number of plays run

6.1: Average yards per play

160: Total passing yards

294: Total rushing yards

234: Rushing yards for UW in the second half

40:51: Total time of possession

11: Completions by McEvoy

6: Receptions by Alex Erickson

26: Total first downs for UW

18: First downs for UW in the second half

2.9: Yards per carry for Gordon in the first half

8.7: Yards per carry for Gordon in the second half

29.8: Average points per game for UW this season

343.3: Average rushing yards per game this season

152.8: Average passing yards per game this season

What went right?

1. Second-half performance. It was a tale of two halves for Wisconsin on Saturday. In the first, the offense scored only three points and gained just 139 yards of total offense. In the second half, the Badgers came out with a vengeance, running the ball efficiently and effectively, scoring 24 points in the half and accumulating 315 yards of total offense. The offensive line showed significant improvement in its run blocking during the second half and, as a result, the Badgers ran for almost four times as many rushing yards (60 in the first half, 234 in the second).

2. Controlling the ball. Part of the success of the Badgers' second half has to be attributed to keeping the Bulls' defense on the field. At the end of the first half, the Badgers' time of possession was only slightly longer than the Bulls' (17:02 to 12:58). In the second half, however, the Badgers kept the ball for 23.49, while the Balls were on offense for only 6:11.

In regard to duration, the Bulls' longest drive in the second half lasted 2:29 -- during which they ran the ball three times for 6 yards and proceeded to punt it back to the Badgers. On the contrary, all but one of Wisconsin's drives in the second half lasted over four minutes. The exception was the one play, 43-yard "drive" in the third quarter when Gordon broke a pair of tackles and juked his way into the end zone.

By Wisconsin being able to sustain long, effective drives in the second half, South Florida's defense in turn became fatigued and had a more difficult time slowing down the Badgers' rushing attack.

WISCONSIN DRIVE CHART VS. SOUTH FLORIDA
QTR POSS. START PLAYS YARDS RESULT
1 2:27 WIS 20 3 7 Punt
1 5:57 WIS 25 13 69 Field Goal
2 3:11 USF 36 5 -3 Punt
2 1:04 WIS 20 3 3 Punt
2 4:23 WIS 19 9 76 Fumble
3 4:17 WIS 25 8 75 Touchdown
3 0:10 USF 43 1 43 Touchdown
3 5:01 WIS 25 9 74 Field Goal
4 9:33 WIS 10 18 90 Touchdown
4 4:48 WIS 35 8 47 End of Game

3: Alex Erickson. For the third time in four games, Erickson managed to haul in the most receptions on the team. After a quiet outing against Bowling Green (two receptions for 10 yards), Erickson caught six passes on Saturday for 91 yards. Although the Badgers still remain relatively weak at the receiving position, it appears that Erickson, along with tight end Sam Arneson, have emerged as McEvoy's two favorite targets on the offense. This season, Erickson has caught approximately 40 percent of the team's passes this year, leading the team in both receiving yards and receptions, with 21 catches for 256 yards and one touchdown (next receiver is Arneson, who has nine receptions for 156 yards).

Against South Florida, Erickson was able to haul in several big catches that helped the Badgers continue their long drives down the field and also control the clock. One of his biggest receptions of the game occurred with 4:20 to go in the first quarter. McEvoy was able to escape the pressure of the Bulls' defensive line and find Erickson down the field for a 23-yard completion.

What went wrong?

1: Offensive line. As good as the Badgers played in the second half, they performed equally as bad to start the game. In the first half, they were unable to establish a consistent running game -- something that has become even more vital for the offense this year. Much of this poor rushing performance can be attributed to the problems at the offensive line position in the first half. Several holding calls negated big runs by Gordon and gave the Badgers more ground to make up. On top of that, there was also trouble blocking on third down, as Wisconsin was only able to convert once on seven third-down attempts during the first half.

Perhaps even more concerning is that four of those failed third-down attempts came when the Badgers needed 5 yards or fewer in order to convert. Normally, the Badgers will overpower opposing front sevens with a strong push from the offensive line and the running back plowing up the middle to pick up the first down. But in the first half on Saturday, the running backs never even had a chance as missed blocks/poor communication by the offensive line led to South Florida defenders charging into the backfield in an instant and making tackles for loss. While the Badgers were able to improve on third down in the second half, the offensive line's poor start on Saturday is still a concern.

2: Andy Ludwig's play calling. We've heard from angry fans all week criticizing the second-year offensive coordinator's play calling so far this season. And right now, some of that criticism is valid.

It appears evident that opposing defenses have keyed in on the fact that Ludwig likes to give Melvin Gordon plenty of carries to start the game. In response to this, defenses have packed the box tight with up to nine men at times in order to shut down the run. It worked for South Florida on Saturday, as Gordon averaged just 2.9 yards on eight carries in the first quarter.

The Badgers' biggest fear should be them devolving into a one-dimensional team that is completely reliant on the run, and already at times this season, that fear has been realized. In order to solve this problem, Ludwig will need to do a better job of incorporating McEvoy into the offense, whether it be through passing from the pocket or running options with Gordon and/or Corey Clement. McEvoy has been excellent running the ball this year, totaling 276 rushing yards on 32 carries (8.6 yards per) for two touchdowns. Yet on Saturday, McEvoy only ran the ball six times the entire game. Ludwig must be willing to call more read-options with McEvoy and Gordon that will force the defenders to respect McEvoy's ability to run the ball and, in effect, turn some of their attention away from Gordon.

Another effective way to utilize McEvoy's abilities as a passer is to stop having him throw the deep ball and instead build the offense around more short, timing-oriented patterns. This embraces the idea of "stretching the field horizontally" as opposed to vertically, like the Badgers were doing last year with Joel Stave at quarterback. Ludwig has been allowing McEvoy to throw deep passes downfield despite the fact McEvoy has displayed poor arm strength and accuracy on many of his deep throws.

If the Badgers are looking for a way to keep opposing defenses guessing, they need to embrace running play-action more frequently as well as calling for the receivers to run shorter patterns that give McEvoy a better chance of completing the pass (so far, he's his completion percentage is 59.3). Or, if Ludwig is looking to embrace McEvoy's dual-threat capabilities, he can run him on more bootlegs that give McEvoy the option to make a throw on the run or scramble along the sideline for a big gain.

So far this season, we've seen flashes of these calls mixed in with a series of head-scratchers. If the Badgers are looking to improve upon their middle-of-the-road offensive performance from Saturday, it will be important to see Ludwig work some of these play calls into his offense in order to get full usage out of McEvoy while also opening up the running game for Gordon and Clement.

Afterthoughts

After the game on Saturday, Gordon discussed the adjustments the offense made during halftime, as well as the upcoming challenges they are preparing to face Saturday against Northwestern.

"Big Rob (Havenstein) and I were walking in and we were like, ‘we have to talk to these guys," Gordon said. "We felt like we had to rally our offense together and speak up. We motivated those guys and obviously we were a different team in the second half...

We just told them, ‘Catch every ball whether it's a good ball or bad ball.' Offensive line: ‘Block, do your thing.' Running backs: ‘We're going to run hard. We're going to run as hard as we can.' And that's what we did. We executed...

We have to do it for four quarters. Once we get into Big Ten play, if you have a slow start against a Big Ten opponent it's going to be a long game. And you might not be able to bounce back or come back. You might be in a deep hole. We've got Northwestern next. They just beat Penn State. They're coming and we have to be ready."