On a day that saw four top-six teams fall, Wisconsin couldn't escape the upset bug as Northwestern roughed up the Badgers on what could only be described as a perplexing day for the UW offense. First, a few notes on the offense:
1. Melvin Gordon is (still) a stud. The junior tailback racked up 259 yards with two runs of 50 yards or more, taking 82 percent of the carries for the Badgers. Corey Clement (22 yards) was a non-factor.
2. The quarterbacks are (still) inept. Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave combined for 138 yards, completing 12 of 29 passes with one touchdown and four picks, good for a collective QBR of 9.4. More on these two later.
3. The Badgers (still) have no go-to receiver. Yes, the quarterbacks, for lack of a better word, stink. We get that. But who do they have to throw to? Alex Erickson has been the No. 1 receiver thus far, but even he has not shown the ability to lay out and snag a ball. The offense limits itself with not only with quarterback incompetency, but also with the absence of a true stud receiver.
More from Saturday
More from Saturday
4. Andy Ludwig's offensive playcalling is (still) shaky. With arguably the nation's best running back in his backfield and two seemingly helpless quarterbacks lined up under center, Ludwig called passes in a few questionable situations:
With 3:38 left until halftime, the Badgers trailed 10-0 with the ball at their own 24. McEvoy threw three straight incomplete passes to keep a goose egg on the scoreboard. Gordon did not touch the ball.
Even more painful was the call with just over five minutes left, when the Badgers had first and goal at the Northwestern 3-yard line and Ludwig called a pass. Of course, Stave threw a pick.
Unfortunately the offensive incompetency evident in Saturday loss was nothing new. Tanner McEvoy has been inconsistent all year. He flopped against LSU. He showed plenty of weakness in the first half against Western Illinois and the entire South Florida game.
With the loss, the Badgers fall to 3-2 and 0-1 in Big Ten play. Where do they go from here? Saturday's loss all but eliminates them from College Football Playoff contention and sends them to the cellar of the Big Ten West standings. And after losing to Northwestern despite 259 rushing yards from Gordon, Badgers fans can't be too confident about the team's chances -- barring major adjustments -- against teams like Nebraska and Iowa. I've said many times that, after losing the season opener to LSU, Wisconsin needed to roll undefeated through its "cupcake" conference schedule and win a Big Ten title in order to crack the top four. So much for cupcakes.
Now, while hope seems to be lost for their playoff hopes, the Badgers still have a feasible chance of playing in one of the major New Year's bowls if they manage to climb to the top of the Big Ten. To get there, they have lots of work to do. And it all starts at the quarterback position.
Give me my quarterback
When McEvoy's 4-for-10, 24-yard performance apparently disgusted Gary Andersen enough for him to turn to the much-maligned Stave, some Badgers fans may have hoped that Stave, while nothing special himself, could at least surpass McEvoy's pitiful level. But three Stave interceptions later, Madison's greatest fear was realized: the Badgers have no quarterback.
Winning a Big Ten game with McEvoy under center is looking like an uphill challenge for the Badgers. Coming in, he was touted as a dual-threat, but it seems more and more like the only threat McEvoy represents can be found when he lined up at safety last year. He struggles throwing the ball, as evidenced by his 57.3 percent completion rate, a figure that barely cracks the nation's top 90. He does have 284 rushing yards on the year, ninth-best for quarterbacks, but hasn't used his legs effectively.
Let's think back to a true dual-threat Wisconsin quarterback who now sports a Super Bowl ring. Russell Wilson used his rushing ability to complement his arm. In his one season as a Badger, he threw for over 3,000 yards, completing 72.8 percent of his passes while rushing for 338 yards. McEvoy, in stark contrast, uses his speed mainly to bail out his inconsistent passing, as Ludwig rarely calls designed runs for the quarterback. His inaccurate arm encourages teams to stack the box against the one-dimensional Wisconsin offense, making it tough to put points on the board with McEvoy under center, as we saw Saturday, even when Gordon goes on a tear.
Stave is a different animal. The Badgers were fine in conference play last year with Stave, but he was throwing to Jared Abbrederis. This year, the receiving outlook is far different. Stave's confidence issues have been well-documented and most Badger fans will have confidence issues in the redshirt junior after this performance. Stave's three interceptions --including a fourth-quarter pick to keep Northwestern two touchdowns ahead -- affirmed previous doubts that he just can't be effective without a dominant No.1 receiver. To make matters worse, Stave lacks mobility (just 50 career rushing yards), which allows defenses to key on the tailback position to an even greater degree.
So where can Gary Andersen turn at quarterback? He flirted with a two-QB system:
Gary Andersen on possibly using 2 QBs: "Yeah, could very well move in that direction if it's best for us."— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 5, 2014
Can Andersen turn to third-stringer Bart Houston? "Dual-threat" freshman D.J. Gillins? At this point, probably not. While neither McEvoy nor Stave is going to win any awards this season , there's a reason both guys are pegged at the top of the depth chart. Halloween is less than four weeks away, but Andersen can't wait that long to figure out what he's going to do with a downright scary quarterback situation.