Andy Ludwig's worst nightmares have finally come true. After flirting with trouble week in and week out, the Wisconsin Badgers' shaky offense collapsed in a 20-14 loss against Northwestern last Saturday.
Throughout the season, the Badgers had faced a multitude of problems on offense: among them inconsistent quarterback play, inexperienced receivers and poor play-calling. In Evanston, the Badgers saw all of those problems (and then some) on full display.
After going 4-of-10 while throwing for a mere 24 yards and one interception in just under one half, Tanner McEvoy was yanked from the game in place of Joel Stave. In the second half, Stave showed some flashes of hope, but ultimately threw three costly interceptions that led to the loss.
This week, the Badgers will face the Illinois Fighting Illini, where they will look to rebound from their poor showing last Saturday. But in order to adjust, we first need to find out what went wrong on Saturday against the Wildcats. Let's take a closer look.
By the numbers
422: Total yards for the Badgers
66: Total number of plays run
6.4: Average yards per play
138: Total passing yards
284: Total rushing yards
The Other Side
The Other Side
4.6: Average yards per pass
7.7: Average yards per rush
142: Total yards in the first half
24: Passing yards in the first half
259: Rushing yards for Melvin Gordon
29.27: Total time of possession
19: Total first downs
6: First downs in the first half
4: Turnovers (all interceptions)
8-of-19, 114 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 INT: Stave's passing numbers
4-of-10, 24 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 INT: McEvoy's passing numbers
4-12: Third-down efficiency
871: Total rushing yards for Gordon this season (No. 3 in the nation)
331.4: Average rushing yards per game this season for UW (No.4)
149.8: Average passing yards per game for UW (No. 116)
What went right?
1, Melvin Gordon. In case you haven't picked up on it already, there weren't many bright spots for the Badgers' offense on Saturday. The passing game was horrific, the offensive line was inconsistent and the receivers continued to struggle. The only positive was the record-breaking performance clocked in from Gordon. Two weeks ago against Bowling Green, Gordon totaled a record 253 yards against the Falcons. Against the Wildcats, he topped that milestone, this time rushing for 259 yards and one touchdown. Gordon managed to consistently break off big runs for the Badgers that helped extend the Badgers' drives and keep the score close.
Gordon is proving to be the only player on the Badgers' offense who can consistently perform week in and week out (with the exception of the Western Illinois game week 2). Teams continue to devote more attention to him week in and week out, packing the box tight with linemen, and Gordon is still able to find the open field on outside handoffs as well as carries that lead him right up the line of scrimmage. Gordon's open-field acceleration and speed make him nearly impossible to catch for the defenders that are behind him. Expect the big plays for Gordon to continue throughout the season.
Gordon also managed to add to his incredible stat of average yards per carry on the first carry after halftime. This number will increase for next week after Gordon ran for 61 yards in his first carry against Northwestern in the second half.
Entering this game, Melvin Gordon was averaging 51 YPC on his first run of the second half against FBS teams. He just gained 61 today.— Bucky's 5th Quarter (@B5Q) October 4, 2014
What went wrong?
1: The wide receivers. We'll get to the quarterbacks later, but first, let's talk about the inexperienced receiving corps. We heard all summer that the young group took immense strides in replacing Jared Abbrederis. Yes, the quarterbacks missed on their fair share of throws, but it shouldn't go unnoticed that the receivers are still struggling to get open downfield. It's a simple science: the longer it continues to take the Badgers' receivers to get open, the more pressure Stave/McEvoy will face in the pocket. This will lead to them either A) getting sacked or B) scrambling outside the pocket and forcing an erratic throw. Are the quarterbacks and offensive line innocent in this case? Absolutely not. But a more talented/more experienced receiving unit would certainly help the problem.
2: Andy Ludwig. There has been plenty of criticism directed toward UW's offensive coordinator this season for the way he has chosen to handle the offense. That criticism reached its boiling point on Saturday after the loss. Much of the problem is with the offensive game plan that Ludwig has chosen.
Against Northwestern, we continued to see Ludwig send receivers out on deep routes over the top of the field despite the fact that McEvoy didn't have the arm strength nor the accuracy to get it there and Stave hadn't played in a game since January. Another complaint was the lack of creativity used in Saturday's game plan. Ludwig didn't run McEvoy on a single designed run play, despite the fact that the Wildcats were keying in on Gordon. Instead, his only rush of the game was an 8-yard scramble on 3rd-and-9.
Assessing the upcoming QB decision
This week against Illinois, Ludwig will face a difficult decision that is certain to have major implications on the rest of the Badgers' season. After pulling McEvoy late in the first half last week, Ludwig will have to determine whether he wants to give McEvoy another chance against the Illini, or if we've seen the last of him behind center. While each quarterback has his fair share of downsides, both can also bring a unique element to the offense if used correctly. Let's start with the negatives.
McEvoy has shown week in and week out that he is far from the "dual-threat" that he was described as this summer. He lacks the arm strength and accuracy that is needed of him to complete deep throws over the top, and he has struggled in the pocket, holding onto the ball too long while waiting for receivers to get open.
Stave proved to us on Saturday that he lacks the ability to make good decisions under pressure. Midway through the fourth quarter, on 1st-and-goal from Northwestern's 3-yard line, he threw a costly interception instead of simply throwing the ball away. For every good throw he made on Saturday, there was another questionable decision or poorly executed throw that highlighted the fact that Stave is still fairly rusty. This will be a crucial week of practice for Stave if he hopes to shake off some of that rust and emerge as the best candidate for the starting position.
If Ludwig doesn't want to change his offensive scheme, then his best option is with Stave. Stave has a much stronger arm than McEvoy's and will do much better job finding receivers open downfield.
A two-quarterback system is always a possibility, but if the Badgers do decide to go that route, they must do a better job integrating short timing patterns into the play-calling. Short screen routes can utilize weapons like Gordon, Alex Erickson, Corey Clement and Kenzel Doe, all of whom have exceptional speed.