MADISON -- Much has been said about the Wisconsin Badgers' offensive identity in the early stages of the 2015 season. The loss of three starters on the offensive line from the 2014 offense, along with running back Melvin Gordon and his 2,587 yards, left many to wonder who would help reload the record-breaking production on the ground.
Coupled with injuries to a handful of offensive linemen during fall camp, a crucial time to build chemistry and communication between a set of five players, and facing a stout Alabama defense that ultimately held the Badgers to 40 yards on 21 carries, there were concerns about the effectiveness of the traditional Wisconsin rushing attack.
After the glitz and glamour on a big stage in Dallas, UW"s offensive line was able to hone in on improving from the rough outing inside AT&T Stadium during Saturday's 58-0 win over the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks.
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More from the Game
"One of the big things was back to the basics," redshirt junior Walker Williams said. "Coach [Joe] Rudolph kind of went over this all week in the really big games like that, where you got [ESPN's College] Gameday there and all that stuff, it becomes more about the game and less about you as a player -- executing what you need to do, focusing on us and how we need to execute what we need to do -- and we got back to that this week.
"There was a big emphasis on technique and fundamentals and getting back to Wisconsin football."
The running game stumbled out of the gate against Miami (Ohio) in the first half but slowly gained traction throughout the contest, gaining 188 yards total and three rushing touchdowns in the blowout victory at Camp Randall Stadium. Though there still needs to be more improvement, it was a small but solid foundation to build upon -- especially without star running back Corey Clement due to a lingering left groin injury.
It was a rough first two quarters for Wisconsin, as the offense only managed 58 yards on the ground on 21 carries -- ironically enough, equaling the number of carries the Badgers attempted against Alabama. The Badgers rotated in a lineup on the right side of the line between redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi, the redshirt junior Williams and sophomore Hayden Biegel. The longest run of a Wisconsin running back through six quarters of play in the season? Only 9 yards, by redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal.
There was some success, as the Badgers moved the chains a couple of times in the second quarter on 3rd-and-short situations, with Deal barreling his way for first downs. Then, after a Tanner McEvoy interception left Wisconsin 1st-and-goal at the Miami 4-yard line, Deal pushed his way through for a 1-yard touchdown -- the first rushing touchdown of the season. That goal-line formation had Kapoi, Williams and Biegel as an extra body in a tight end-like look.
In the locker room at halftime, Rudolph and the linemen mentally refocused their priority on reestablishing the ground game.
"That was our focus coming in," Voltz said, "and at halftime we cleaned some things up in the run game, and we came out in the second half and continued to run the ball and executed better."
The Badgers' third-quarter effort looked more in line with prior Wisconsin rushing attacks from year's past. Though the score was 37-0 entering the third quarter, the Badgers kept their first-team offensive line in the game while still rotating in Kapoi, Williams and Biegel. In all, they gained 98 yards on 11 carries in the quarter -- mostly on runs of 14, 16 and 35 yards by redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale.
On Ogunbowale's 35-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, the former walk-on and converted cornerback ran right behind Kapoi and Williams at right guard and right tackle. He finished the afternoon with 112 yards on 16 carries for Wisconsin's first hundred-yard rushing game this season.
Though the running game was "inconsistent," in the word of Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, the surge put forth in the third quarter is a welcomed sign for a young, inexperienced group.
"It's still not perfect, obviously," Voltz said. "We still have some things to work on, but we took a step forward and that's what we're looking to do today."
Joel Stave, passing game continue solid start
In midst of the offense's struggles on the ground, the redshirt senior quarterback continued his transformative 2015 season. Building off a solid performance against Alabama, the former walk-on hit six different wide receivers on the afternoon, completing 19 of 30 passes for 236 yards with three touchdown passes and one interception.
A week after completing the majority of his passes to his running backs and tight ends, Stave completed 15 of 19 completions to wide receivers. Junior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright caught six passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns, and redshirt senior Alex Erickson hauled in five catches for 73 yards. The resurgence of the passing attack has been a welcomed surprise, though Stave believes it's a product of the opposing defense's intentions.
"You take what you can get," Stave said. "Last year, when you're running the ball for 400, 500 yards a game, it's tough to turn away from. I think we just got to take what the defense gives us.
"If that's the passing game, then we got to continue to work it. If it's the running game, we just got to continue to take that. It's just playing the game."
In the first half, Stave completed 17 of 27 passes for 225 yards and those three touchdown passes. After hitting Wheelwright for a 13-yard score late in the first quarter to make it a 13-0 lead, he connected with redshirt senior tight end Austin Traylor for a 20-yard strike and a 20-0 lead.
With 2:42 left in the first half, Stave drove the Badgers down the field in a nine play, 93-yard drive that ended with him finding Wheelwright yet again for a 15-yard touchdown.
Stave was 6-of-7 for 80 yards on the drive, with the one incompletion a drop by Erickson.
"It's fun to be able to get out and work the drill like that, especially when you're starting inside your own 10 with two minutes, but you know you got some timeouts," Stave said.
"I thought we were able to run it pretty smooth today. We were able to start out with a couple of smooth runs just to get us away from that backed up situation, and once we had a little bit of breathing room, we were able to cut it loose."
The composure of Stave, which has become evident in the years he's spent at Wisconsin through the trials and tribulations he's faced, has been noted by his head coach.
"I thought he had it before the 'Bama game, and I think he [still] does," Chryst said.
"That's one of his skills in his skill set, and felt the same -- it was a very different type of game today, but I think he's got great -- you guys know him, you've been around him, how he handles himself, it's who he is and how he plays the position. Love the attention to detail that he's been puttin' in during the week, it's freeing him up to be able to go play the game and hopefully enjoy playing the game.
"I thought he did some good things, and every game there is going to be something that he can learn from. I think he can put his ceiling pretty high, and that's what we're going to -- he wants to play to that and we've got to coach to that.