When the Wisconsin Badgers walked off the field at halftime on Saturday, claiming a 9-3 lead over the Western Illinois Leathernecks, fans had every right to be a little nervous. Not only had they just seen the Badgers' offense collapse in the second half the previous week against LSU, but then the offense had managed to muster just one touchdown in the first two quarters against an FCS school that won only four games last season.
Luckily, the Badgers' offense was able to turn it around in the second half, erupting for 28 unanswered points and demonstrating to critics everywhere what they're truly capable of on the offensive side of the ball. The win couldn't come at a better time for the Badgers' offense after their poor second-half performance the previous week. If anything, the win will help boost the confidence to the Badgers squad as they prepare for their next game against Bowling Green.
And while a 34-point win against a middle-of-the-road FCS team certainly doesn't mean the Badgers' offense is in the clear from the egg they laid in the second half against LSU, there were many positive signs the offense showed us in the second half of Saturday's game. Let's take a look.
By the numbers:
456: Total yards for UW against Western Illinois
480.8: Average total yards per game for UW in 2013
35:16: Time of Possession for UW
68: Total plays run for UW (39 rush/29 pass)
6.7: Average yards per play for UW
5.0: Average yards per play for UW against LSU
40: Yards for UW in the first quarter on Saturday
144: Yards for UW in the second quarter on Saturday
170: Yards for UW in the third quarter on Saturday
39: Rushing attempts for UW
4.3: Yards per rush for UW
283: Total passing yards for Tanner McEvoy
10: Catches for Alex Erickson on Saturday
9: Catches Erickson had in all of 2013
2.2: Average yards per carry for Melvin Gordon
10.1: Average yards per pass for McEvoy
8: Rushing yards for Gordon in the first half on Saturday
1: Incompletion for McEvoy in the second half on Saturday
What went right?
1. Tanner McEvoy. After his abysmal second-half performance against LSU in which the junior quarterback completed only one pass in the fourth quarter, McEvoy managed to temporarily silence critics after a solid showing on Saturday. After going 8-for-24, throwing for 40 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns a week ago, McEvoy turned in a polar-opposite performance against Western Illinois. On Saturday, he went 23-for-28, throwing for 283 yards and three touchdowns (along with another rushing touchdown). At one point during Saturday's game, the quarterback who completed only eight total passes in his previous game managed to complete 17 consecutive passes. McEvoy also demonstrated improved accuracy and consistency, completing 10-of-14 passes in the first half and 13-of-14 passes in the second half.
The turning point for McEvoy was the Badgers' first drive in the second quarter. During the 17-play, 90-yard drive, McEvoy passed for a first down on three 3rd-and-longs (eight, 14 and 13 yards) that helped bring the Badgers all the way down to the 7-yard line, where Corey Clement was ultimately stopped on 4th-and-1. Although the Badgers didn't get any points that time, they did manage to find the end zone on their next three drives. There is no doubt part of that success can be attributed to the confidence that McEvoy gained from those big third-down conversions to start the second quarter.
2. Consistent receiving targets began to emerge. Another major question that wasn't answered during the LSU game was who would emerge as McEvoy's leading receiving target. Against LSU, six receivers recorded a catch, with Erickson being the only one to catch more than one pass. Saturday, both Erickson and Sam Arneson turned in big days. Together, the duo accounted for 209 of the Badgers' 289 yards gained through the air, with Arneson catching four total passes for 87 yards, and Erickson hauling in 10 passes for 122 yards and one touchdown.
Part of McEvoy's development throughout the year will come from the play of his receivers. After the LSU game, Gary Andersen voiced his frustration with his receivers for not being able to break free from opposing corners. Erickson and Arneson did a much better job on Saturday getting open and allowing McEvoy to find them downfield. Expect the chemistry between McEvoy and his receivers to continue showing improvement as the weeks go by, especially with a bye coming up this week.
3. Improved pass protection. McEvoy's much-improved performance is also a byproduct of improved pass protection. The offensive line was able to give McEvoy more time to throw in the pocket; which, in turn, led to McEvoy becoming more comfortable dropping back and led to the dual-threat quarterback staying in the pocket longer to allow his receivers to break free from coverage.
It should be mentioned that Western Illinois' defense is not even close to the SEC-caliber defense of LSU. But regardless of who the Badgers competition was, it was important to see the Badgers passing game showing improvements in every facet. This game will help to provide McEvoy, along with his young receiving corps, with some much needed conference heading into the rest of the season.
What went wrong?
1. Melvin Gordon. One element of the Badgers' offense that underwhelmed many was the rushing attack. Last week, the Badgers gained 268 total rushing yards, this week they only totaled 167 yards on the ground. In previous years, the Badgers have been able to run all over their FCS opponents. Last season, against Tennessee Tech, the Badgers had three running backs (Gordon, Clement, and James White), clock in 100+ yard performances against a Golden Eagles team that finished with a better record than Western Illinois did in 2013 (5-7). Granted, the Leathernecks do return eight defensive starters and have showed immense improvements from last season. However, the fact that the Badgers ran better against an SEC defense than they did against an FCS defense will make many fans wonder what exactly went wrong on Saturday.
The Badgers didn't have a rush for over 21 yards, and Gordon totaled only 38 rushing yards on 17 attempts. Last week, Gordon was absent for most of the second half due to a hip flexor he sustained during the game, and it's very possible that this injury was still nagging him--although t's hard to believe that the coaching staff would risk suiting Gordon if he wasn't 100%, especially for an FCS matchup. Regardless of what the problem was, Gordon's heisman status took a major hit on Saturday, and he will need to have a big day against Bowling Green if he hopes to get his name back into the discussion.
2. Still raw mistakes in the passing game. As great as the passing game was on Saturday, there were still two big mistakes made in the first half that showcased the Badgers' inexperience. Early in the first quarter, McEvoy missed badly on a downfield pass intended for Robert Wheelwright and was intercepted. The interception occurred on a first down, when the Badgers were in the middle of a six play, 29-yard drive, about to cross midfield. McEvoy was given plenty of time to throw and just completely missed his target, throwing it directly into the hands of the cornerback.
Later on, in the second quarter, McEvoy threw from his own 33-yard line to a wide open Reggie Love, who was 25 yards downfield. Despite the pass being thrown right in his hands, Love bobbled the catch and eventually dropped it. Had he caught it, he would have been able to run untouched to the end zone, but instead, the Badgers were left to convert on a third and thirteen, leading by only two points at the time.
While these mistakes proved to be insignificant in this game, they still provide a cause for concern heading forward. Despite showing improvements in his accuracy, McEvoy stilled showed some flashes of inconsistency--as evidenced by his interception. And the receivers will need to convert on big plays when they're given an opportunity. The Badgers were fortunate that this game was a blowout, but if these same mistakes are made later on in the season, especially during Big Ten play, they may not be so lucky.
After the game, Andersen spoke about the challenges the Badgers overcame after starting out slow against the Leathernecks.
"It was great for us to deal with the adversity we had in the first quarter and really the whole first half," Andersen told reporters. "Two weeks in a row now we've had some substantial adversity hit us right in the face.
"A lot of teams at this time of the year have faced zero adversity. We've faced it twice. In my opinion, we've looked at it right in the eye (and) we've dealt with it. There were no kids pointing fingers. There was nobody placing blame. They just kept on fighting.
"At halftime, we all just challenged ourselves to execute and be tough, and they did it. I'm very, very proud of the way they did it."