The Wisconsin Badgers got the passing game going during their 37-3 rout of Western Illinois on Saturday. For the vast majority of the first half, however, it appeared that improvement from the LSU game would never happen. It took the unit nearly 28 minutes to put points on the board, finally breaking the dam shortly before halftime with a Tanner McEvoy 7-yard touchdown run.
UW's inability to gain yards on the ground was the biggest reason for this. The Badgers began their first four drives with runs on both first and second down, generating a minuscule 11 yards on those eight carries. Then the air waves started to open, but not without major blips along the way. First, McEvoy missed Sam Arneson on a 15-yard out route after a play-action fake and an Alex Erickson fly route created a 10-yard radius of green grass around Arneson's feet.
Shortly after, a seemingly imminent touchdown was lost after McEvoy delivered a perfect deep ball to Reggie Love down the sideline, only for Love to drop it as UW's woes continued. Frustration peaked after Corey Clement was stuffed at the line of scrimmage on 4th-and-1 to end an erratic 17-play, 90-yard drive that ate up over eight minutes of play.
Western Illinois' defensive strategy was obvious. The Leathernecks were not going to allow Wisconsin to run its way to victory. The defense packed the box, mercilessly attacked downhill and held Melvin Gordon to a putrid 38 yards on 17 carries. WIU was able to manage that feat by giving Wisconsin looks like this:
At one point during the first half, one of my compadres practically screamed for a bubble screen after viewing all of the space to the outside. The bubble screen eventually came; in fact, it first came on the play highlighted above. Instead of success, George Rushing whiffed on the block and Erickson was limited to a single yard despite the vast amount of cushion the receivers were afforded.
Luckily for Ludwig, he didn't let that single play deter him from going with the look early and often in the second half. For future attempts, he had an ace up his sleeve: bona fide road-grader Jordan Fredrick, who led the way for Erickson.
UW faces a familiar look to start the half. The defense lines up with an outside cornerback about 8 yards off the ball and a safety shading towards the middle of the field a few yards deeper. McEvoy quickly sends it out to Erickson, Fredrick chops the cornerback and Erickson is able to race upfield for 24 yards.
This is where the presence of a wide receiver that can block like Fredrick becomes such a benefit. After a 16-yard bubble screen that features another successful chop block, the cornerback begins to play on his heels. Instead of attacking Erickson, the cornerback now sits back and waits for Fredrick to reach him.
The cornerback is able to fend off Fredrick, stay on his feet and limit Erickson to a 9-yard gain, but he's also guaranteeing the Badgers a gain of at least that. Without a safety in position to aggressively defend the play, the cornerback is conceding relatively large chunks of yards by sitting back.
In the fourth quarter, Fredrick displayed his ability to handle an attacking defender when he turned the cornerback inside and sealed the sideline for Erickson. Erickson was able to squirt behind him and earn the 10-yard touchdown.
I would be remiss if I didn't also talk about how perfectly Erickson handled his responsibilities. The beauty of Erickson on this route is that he has no wasted movement, no indecisiveness. He reads the block immediately, puts his head down and uses his quickness to burst around Fredrick for big gains. McEvoy deserves credit for delivering accurate passes to the outside as well.
Overall, the play went 4-of-4 for 59 yards and a touchdown during the second half and was a major contributor to Erickson's breakout game. The exciting thing will be to see how Ludwig builds off the play's success. It looked like McEvoy had the option to swing it outside or hand it off at least a couple times. I also expect to see a variation where the blocker releases upfield on a fly and attempts to get behind the defenders that are coming toward the flat. Along with Arneson's improved usage, the Badgers have some building blocks in the passing game moving forward.