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Western Illinois vs. Wisconsin: Badgers pass way to victory against Leathernecks defense

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A stout gameplan by Western Illinois' defense to stop the run forced Wisconsin to throw the ball, and it did with results.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON -- From the opening kickoff, Saturday afternoon's contest between No. 18/19 Wisconsin Badgers and the Western Illinois Leathernecks didn't feel like the normal non-conference game many expected.

For starters, the opening kickoff return itself was an oddity. Western Illinois' returner, junior running back Kyle Hammonds, took the ball out of the end zone, then brought it back in. Officials initially called a touchback. After head coach Gary Andersen challenged the play, officials reversed the play, confirming it was a safety and gave the Badgers a quick 2-0 lead one second into the game.

One had thought, based on Wisconsin's performance last week against an LSU defense that stifled the Badgers' passing game, that dynamic duo Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement would grab the reigns and run right over the Leathernecks.

Guess again.

Stacking the box and being sure-handed in its tackling, Western Illinois' defense won the battle at the line of scrimmage for most of the game and dared Wisconsin to throw. Beginning in the second quarter, junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy and the Badgers' offense did, and the passing game led the way to a 37-3 victory.

Overall, the Leathernecks kept 8-to-9 guys close to the line scrimmage, holding the Badgers to 167 yards rushing on 39 carries, a 4.3 yards-per-carry average. More impressively, they held Gordon to 38 yards rushing on 17 carries, a mere 2.2 yards-per-carry. Andersen acknowledged after the game the solid tackling and game plan devised by Western Illinois, and Clement saw firsthand the sellout against the run.

"There was not a lot of room in there," Clement said, who ended the game with 57 yards on nine carries. "I kind of saw it from the sideline and what Melvin was telling me, they shot the gaps a lot and didn't really care about the pass at first."

The first two drives stalled out for Wisconsin, the first being a quick three-and-out and the second ending with an interception by Western Illinois' Dallas Nichols at the Leathernecks' 26-yard line. Six of the nine plays called in the first two series were designed runs.

Starting with its third series, the Badgers went 17 plays down to the Western Illinois 7-yard line, 10 of those being pass plays. Of those 10, eight completions were thrown by McEvoy, including two third-down completions to senior tight end Sam Arneson for 13 and 22 yards. Though the drive stalled on fourth down on a Clement run, a dimension that was sorely needed one week earlier began to take shape.

Stressing the pass the immediate drive after, McEvoy hit Arneson again for a 37-yard pass to the Leathernecks 17-yard line. Two plays later, the JUCO transfer ran it in for a 7-yard touchdown -- his first score as a Badger.

McEvoy completed 17 straight completions between the second and early part of the fourth quarter. He accounted for four of the five touchdowns for the Badgers, with three touchdown passes to fullback Austin Ramesh, Gordon and sophomore Alex Erickson. Along with sophomore quarterback Bart Houston's 6-yard touchdown pass to Clement late in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin threw four touchdown passes on the day.

The last time that happened? Nov. 12, 2011, when Russell Wilson threw four against Minnesota.

"Offensively, we needed a game like this." -Tanner McEvoy

"Offensively, we needed a game like this," said McEvoy, who was 23-for-28 for 283 yards in his first start in Camp Randall Stadium.

"We know what we can do on offense. We know we can pass the ball. Their defense was making us pass the ball and making us throw it. That's what we have to do when teams do that to us and we have to show that we can do it."

Erickson and Arneson had career days against their FCS opponent. Arneson reeled in four receptions for 87 yards. Erickson, the former walk-on from Darlington, Wisconsin, caught 10 passes for 122 yards and his first collegiate touchdown on a 10-yard bubble screen to make it 30-3 midway through the fourth quarter. To put things into perspective, Erickson came into the game with 12 receptions, and Arneson caught 11 altogether -- for their respective careers.

Despite the rough start for McEvoy, the offense looked forward after its poor passing performance one week earlier.

"I mean, that was his first start here at Wisconsin, so it is what it is, and we've put it behind us," Erickson said.

"We worked all week on the pass game, just like we do every week -- just a little more emphasis this week -- and it paid off."

McEvoy and the passing game gained some confidence against an inferior FCS opponent Saturday. The offense as a whole has yet to play a full game, with each phase shining on its own in the two separate games. Wisconsin knows it needs its running game to make an impact in each game going forward.

"We need to be better," Andersen said.

"We're not going to sit here and say, `Hey, that was an acceptable day on the ground.' It absolutely is not. We all know that as a coaching staff. The whole offense understands that and knows that if we don't run the ball better, we won't have a very successful season."

With 289 total passing yards and four touchdown passes, however, it's a solid step forward for McEvoy and the passing game in silencing their critics, and most importantly, ensuring an added dimension to its offensive arsenal.