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South Florida vs. Wisconsin: Badgers falter early, but ride Melvin Gordon to victory

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The first half was a scary one, but Wisconsin ultimately pulled away thanks to a remarkable second-half rushing performance.

Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy displayed an impressive stiff arm a few times during Saturday's win over South Florida.
Wisconsin quarterback Tanner McEvoy displayed an impressive stiff arm a few times during Saturday's win over South Florida.
Grey Satterfield

MADISON -- Following a record-setting week of offensive explosion, the Badgers struggled to get the their offense going in the first half of Saturday's game against South Florida at Camp Randall Stadium. After gaining 401 yards of offense and 41 points in the first half last week vs. Bowling Green, the Badgers followed that performance with 139 yards and three points.

It was, however, a tale of two halves, as coach Gary Andersen put it. After entering halftime tied 3-3, Wisconsin pulled away in the second half thanks to a marvelous effort from Melvin Gordon and the running game. Gordon finished with 32 carries for 181 yards and two touchdowns, and the Badgers rushed for 294 yards as a whole.

The Badgers, again, started slow, with arguably their worst first half all season. The only true highlight was an interception that landed right in Derek Landisch's arms, which he returned for 24 yards. That amounted to zero points, however. Both teams struggled to score early on, exchanging field goals in the first quarter before going scoreless in the second.

As the second half loomed, the Badgers found themselves in the red zone, but Gordon fumbled for the second time in as many games and Wisconsin headed into the half in a stalemate with the Bulls.

After the game, Gordon said the fumble spurred a lot of trash talk from the South Florida players. That fueled his fire to perform better in the second half, he said, and with that came more points.

The second half was a whole different ball game. Although Andersen said that there were no inspirational halftime speeches or adjustments, many players on offense pointed to Gordon and his words for their change in play in the second half.

"Me and Big Rob [Havenstein], you know, were just walking in and, like, we gotta talk to these guys. It was a flashback of week two [vs. Western Illinois]," Gordon said. "After [the fumble], I was heated. I was just telling the guys we really need to make plays, all of us. The refs are throwing flags. If they're throwing flags, put someone on their back.

"When Melvin speaks, Melvin is serious," running back Corey Clement added. "We were lethargic as a team. We had to pick it up.

"[Gordon] was angry. Very. You could tell from when he scored on the opening drive of the second half. We feed off his energy."

Wisconsin opened the half with an eight-play, 75-yard drive that led to a 7-yard Gordon touchdown. When the Badgers got the ball back for the second time in the quarter, Gordon needed only one carry to open a 14-point lead for UW, taking the ball in from 43 yards out for his second score of the game.

The Badgers -- Gordon specifically -- found their groove in the third quarter. Gordon ran for 106 yards in the period on top of scoring two touchdowns.

The Bulls wouldn't go away without a fight, though. While the Badgers scored 17 points in the half, the Bulls scored a touchdown of their own on a 26-yard rushing touchdown by Rodney Adams. The touchdown was set up by a 35-yard Mike White pass to tight end Mike McFarland across the middle. That would be the last time the Bulls got into the end zone.

South Florida later threatened to score after a 52-yard completion to Kennar Swanson, but USF lost possession once freshman safety Lubern Figaro popped the ball loose and Vince Biegel fell on the it at the Wisconsin 10-yard line.

"What an unbelievable play by a true freshman," Andersen said of Figaro. "To be in that situation at that moment was impressive. Those are the plays that change games and those are the plays that often times change seasons.

The play sparked the offense, as the Badgers then registered their longest drive of the season, going 18 plays for 90 yards. The drive was capped by the final score of the game, a 1-yard pass from McEvoy to Sam Arneson.

The Badgers' quarterback looked very shaky at times throughout the game, even receiving boos from the home crowd after taking a shot down the field and underthrowing his intended target, Alex Erickson, by 10 yards.

After the game, Andersen expressed his displeasure with how the team has began gamesm as well as his distaste for how the Badgers have thrown the ball to begin the season.

"We need to come out of the tunnel and have some success," Andersen said. "It's a little frustrating for all of us. Those kids are frustrated, too.

"[The passing game] is not real good. It's inconsistent. There's a lot of pieces that go into that. We are going to work hard as an offense to get better in the throw game. If we can't, it will be difficult as we move forward. When we through the ball early, we are not doing it very well."

McEvoy finished 11-of-18 for 160 yards and the touchdown. The junior quarterback also ran six times for 23 yards. When McEvoy was questioned about his less-than-stellar throws, he answered the same way he has all season.

"I just have to go out there and execute like I do everyday in practice," McEvoy said. "I just have to take it out onto the field on Saturdays. I'm not concerned. We have a lot more room to improve."

Defensively, the Badgers showed the same toughness they have all year long. UW allowed just 245 yards of offense, and is still the only team in the country to have not yet allowed a red-zone touchdown. Andersen attributed a good amount of Saturday's success to the defense.

Next week, the Badgers travel to Evanston, Illinois, to take on the Northwestern Wildcats in the team's first Big Ten game at 2:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2.

Notes:

  • After the game, Andersen said he was caught off guard by South Florida's speed.
  • Andersen said Derek Landisch has emerged as a leader for the defense, and is showing it both on and off the field.
  • The Badgers opted to kick a field goal on the 1-yard line in the third quarter to go up 10 points. Andersen said the decision was based on UW being up two possessions, although the team has gone for it on fourth downs numerous times throughout the season.
  • Wisconsin has scored on the first drive of the second half in all four games this season. The team has scored 20 points or more in its last 17 games.
  • Wisconsin has scored on five of the seven turnovers it has forced this season.
  • Gordon has rushed for at least 140 yards for the 12th time in his last 19 games. The redshirt junior tailback is averaging 153.3 yards per game on 19.5 carries, averaging 7.9 yards per carry.
  • Landisch registered three tackles (two for loss) and one sack. His interception was also the first of his career.
  • Linebacker Joe Schobert had three quarterback hurries. Marcus Trotter, Sojourn Shelton and Michael Caputo led the team with five tackles apiece.
  • South Florida's Jaime Byrd and Nate Godwin both had 14 tackles.
  • Kenzel Doe caught his first pass of the season. He also has four punt returns of 17 yards or longer.
  • Rafael Gaglianone went 2-for-2 today on field goals and is now 5-for-6 on the season.