With just four games left in the regular season, the Wisconsin Badgers are now entering the most difficult part of their schedule. After a road matchup this weekend against Purdue, the Badgers will face the top three teams in the Big Ten West to finish their season. Wisconsin will host Nebraska on Nov. 15 and Minnesota on Nov. 29 to finish the regular season. Sandwiched in between is a trip to Iowa City to face Iowa on Nov. 22.
Luckily for Wisconsin, the team is playing its best football of the year. The Badgers' offense is beginning to develop into a more balanced attack, while the defense has remained the dominant force it's been for most of this season. Since their bye in week eight, the Badgers have outscored their two most recent opponents 89-7. In Wisconsin's most recent win last Saturday against Rutgers, the Badgers were able to overcome a slow start on offense and score 37 unanswered points en route to a 37-0 shutout over the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway.
By the numbers
385: Total yards for the Badgers
66: Total number of plays run
5.8: Average yards per play
Purdue preview: More of the same coming for UW
Melvin Gordon's healthy and Wisconsin's No. 1 defense has another chance to dominate. So, hooray?
87: Total passing yards
298: Total rushing yards
4.4: Average yards per pass
6.5: Average yards per rush
161: Total yards in the first half
39: Passing yards in the first half
128: Rushing yards for Melvin Gordon
131: Rushing yards for Corey Clement
6.7: Average yards per carry for Gordon
9.4: Average yards per carry for Clement
35:16: Total time of possession
16: Total first downs
8: Total completions (7 for Joel Stave, 1 for Tanner McEvoy)
5-of-15: Third-down efficiency
1,296: Total rushing yards for Gordon this season (No. 4 in the nation)
18: Total rushing touchdowns for Gordon this season (No. 2)
477: Average total yards per game this season for UW (No. 25)
333.4: Average rushing yards per game this season for UW (No. 3)
143.6: Average passing yards per game for UW (No. 121)
What went right?
1. Clement. Clement was the Badgers' leading rusher on Saturday as he ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Perhaps his biggest play of the game was his 43-yard touchdown to put the Badgers up 14-0 midway through the second quarter. In the fourth, Clement was able to add to his already impressive performance by breaking free for a 36-yard touchdown.
Ever since his worst performance of the season against Northwestern, Clement has been a phenomenal asset for Wisconsin. In his last three outings, Clement has carried the ball a total of 44 times for 385 yards (8.75 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. The sophomore tailback has proven to everyone this season that he has the skills of a No. 1 running back. With Clement able to sub in for Gordon at any time throughout the game, the Badgers are able to give their backs substantial time to rest and overwhelm opposing defenses with a fresh rushing attack.
2. Big plays for Gordon. We've grown accustomed to seeing Gordon break off big runs almost every game. That's why it was surprising to see Gordon relatively bottled up against Maryland two weeks ago. Despite totaling 122 yards and three touchdowns against the Terps, Gordon's longest run was 22 yards. Saturday, Gordon returned to normal form, as he was able to break free for a 51-yard touchdown run on his first carry of the second half. Gordon has torched opposing teams this season on the first carry of the second half this season, averaging a ridiculous 34.6 yards per carry.
What went wrong?
1. The passing game is still not where it needs to be. The only negatives that can be found from last Saturday can be attributed to the Badgers' passing game. Granted, the sloppy weather made it difficult for any quarterback to get into a rhythm offensively (Rutgers quarterbacks combined for 63 yards and one interception, going 7-of-27 in the game), there were still some glaring problems with the Badgers' passing attack.
The most notable miscue in the passing game occurred with 13:09 left in the second quarter. On 1st-and-10, Alex Erickson used a double move to bolt past a Rutgers cornerback, leaving him wide open in the end zone. With not a single defender within 10 yards, McEvoy proceeded to overthrow Erickson, despite having sufficient time in the pocket. Missed throws like these have summed up this season for McEvoy. He has proven unable to make throws from the pocket; as a result, he has been demoted to a change-of-pace quarterback who runs the read option and occasionally attempts a throw.
Offensive blunders like these have been all too familiar for the Badgers' passing game in 2014. At this point, the offense is completely reliant on the run, which has not been a problem against these weaker defenses. But as the competition gets tougher in these upcoming weeks, the Badgers' quarterbacks will be asked to step up and play a bigger role for the offense.
5 keys to winning the Big Ten West
As the Badgers enter the most difficult part of their schedule, they will need to be playing their absolute best football. The Badgers currently control their own destiny in the Big Ten West, meaning if they win out, they earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 6. So lets take a look at five things the offense must do -- or continue doing -- in their last four games if they hope to capture the Big Ten West title.
1. Continue to emphasize the running game. This is a given; the Badgers have the No. 3 rushing attack in the country, a struggling passing attack and a running back that is currently in the heat of many Heisman discussions. Andy Ludwig knows that if the Badgers hope to have a chance at winning out, they will need to stick to what's gotten them this far.
2. Utilize the play-action pass. Part of the benefit of having one of the best rushing attacks in the country is that opposing defenses tend to key in on stopping the run. It's important to keep defenses guessing so that the offense doesn't become too one-dimensional. If Stave can effectively fool defenses with the play-action, it will lead to more open receivers downfield and hopefully a more substantial passing attack for the Badgers.
3. Good blocking. So far, I've been impressed with both the Badgers' pass and run blocking. For passing, I think the quarterbacks are being given enough time to throw but struggle at times with accuracy. On the ground, I think the offensive line has done an incredible job thus far blocking for Gordon and Clement, especially since many defenses are stacking the box with extra defenders in attempts to stop the run. If this level of blocking continues for the rest of the year and Stave is able to improve upon his accuracy in these last four games, I think Wisconsin will be a difficult team to stop moving forward.
4. Allow Stave to develop a rhythm early on. Against Illinois, the Badgers ran the ball 11 times to start the game and did not allow Stave to attempt a pass until their third drive when faced with a 3rd-and-11 situation. It's important that Stave is given the opportunity to complete several short-to-mid-range passes early on so that his confidence begins to build early on. If he waits to make his first throw of the game on a 3rd-and-long situation when the opposing defense is blitzing six men, it's almost never going to end well for the Badgers.
5. Continue breaking big plays. We've grown used to seeing the Badgers break off long touchdowns this year, whether it's a long run by Gordon or Clement or a deep connection from Stave to Erickson (something we saw twice against Maryland). The Badgers will face better defensive teams at the end of the season, and it will be much more difficult to consistently sustain long drives against these stiffer opposing defenses. It is important that Gordon (or Clement or McEvoy) continues to break these big runs for the rest of the season, as they will force opposing defenses to compensate for the Badgers' big-play potential by moving their safeties back, which will help to open up shorter passing routes as the game progresses.