MADISON -- In a surprising turn of events, the Wisconsin Badgers' passing game has churned out better results than the ground attack through two games.
The Badgers passed for 491 yards of total offense against Alabama and Miami (Ohio) in comparison to 228 rushing yards. As questions still loom about Wisconsin's offensive line, the performance of quarterback Joel Stave and company continues to be the strong suit of the offense.
Among the various reasons for the Badgers' success is the balance within the passing attack—something head coach Paul Chryst has brought back with him in his first season.
Eleven Badgers have caught passes this season, totaling 49 receptions for 491 yards in all. That group includes five running backs, led by Dare Ogunbowale, whose nine catches are good for second on the team.
"It's been a lot about the balance in the passing game," Ogunbowale said. "We have a group of backs that we think can beat you on the ground and also going out and catching passes."
Against Miami, running back Caleb Kinlaw's first career reception went for a 5-yard touchdown. In the season-opening 35-17 loss to No. 2 Alabama, Ogunbowale had six receptions for 39 yards, fullback Derek Watt had five for 22, Corey Clement caught two for 19 and Taiwan Deal added one reception.
"That balance is huge," said wide receiver Alex Erickson, whose 11 catches for 146 yards are both team highs. "It's tough to guard against. When you can't key in on one or two guys, it makes it hard on the defense."
A season ago, Wisconsin's lack of balance behind Erickson played a significant role in a sputtering passing game. Erickson led the team with 55 receptions, but the next-highest total was tight end Sam Arneson's 29. No other player caught 20 passes. Among wide receivers, Kenzel Doe had the second-most with just 17 catches and Jordan Fredrick was next with 13.
In just two games, Robert Wheelwright -- who had just one reception in 2014 -- has emerged as that threat. He has become the No. 2 wide receiver along with receiver/safety hybrid Tanner McEvoy. Wheelwright's 6'3, 207-pound frame is an ideal fit for the red zone. Of his eight catches, three have been touchdowns -- including a perfectly executed back-shoulder fade from Stave 15 yards out against Miami.
"Just my ability to make tough catches," Wheelwright said of why he has become one of Stave's favorite goal-line targets. "In the red zone, I'm thinking touchdown. If the ball is thrown my way, I'm trying to get it."
On Tuesdays, the Badgers' offensive players are available for media interviews. This week, Wheelwright and Erickson came a half-hour after the rest of the players. They had stayed after practice, working on route timing, something that has become commonplace for the group.
"We've been working on that since the offseason," Wheelwright said. "That's something coach [Paul] Chryst has been telling us about. We're going to throw the fade, the back-shoulder, the high-fade ball. It just depends what Joel is liking at that moment. We've been working on that so much after practice."
Stave's primary focus during the summer going into fall camp was throwing with anticipation. As with the touchdown to Wheelwright and Erickson's touchdown catch against Alabama, it has paid dividends.
"He's trying to get the ball out of his hands quicker," Erickson said. "Maybe when I'm in my break, the ball's coming out rather than I'm already of out my break and the ball's coming out. The timing, the precision.
"Coach says it all the time: ‘Timing and precision equals completions.' If we get the ball out of our hands and the receivers are in the right spot at the right time, it's impossible to defend if the ball is on time."
Wheelwright added that the trust between Stave and receivers who have taken on larger roles, such as Jazz Peavy and McEvoy, is continually improving.
"When Joel depends on you, he's going to throw you the ball," Wheelwright said. "That's something we've been working on."