If Wisconsin wants to earn serious consideration for a BCS bowl, it'll likely need to make it through the final six games without a loss.
In Saturday's convincing 35-6 victory over Northwestern, the Badgers found the perfect prescription for doing just that, blending the running and passing just so. Wisconsin's power-run game will always be cast as primitive and "old school." But a heavy dose of inside-outside running and the requisite playaction pass showed precisely why Gary Andersen and co. didn't mount an offensive revolution when they assumed the throne.
Though the final rushing and passing numbers were similar (286 rushing, 241 passing), Melvin Gordon and James White remain the crux of this offense. At risk of sounding like a broken record, watching Melvin Gordon run borders on euphoric.
His 71-yard touchdown scamper on the fly sweep in the second quarter captured his ridiculous speed. Even though he may have been half-a-yard shy of the goal line when his left knee hit the turf, he still smoked Northwestern safety Ibraheim Campbell, who had a major distance edge on MGIII.
Gordon ran for 172 yards and 7.8 per carry, a number that almost felt underwhelming due to his absurd averages this year. His 870 yards through six games rank third nationally, and he could lock up his first career thousand-yard season Saturday in Champaign.
White steadily produced alongside him, and as the ESPN announcers noted, the senior found space between the tackles because Gordon did such damage around the edge. They've become a nearly unstoppable one-two punch.
Two weeks after he threw for a career-high 295 yards, Joel Stave looked like the imperfect yet promising player he is. Almost all the success through the air came, of course, off the playaction.
His 63-yard throw to Jared Abbrederis was right on the money, not letting the defensive backs catch up to the receiver by underthrowing the ball, as he is so prone to do. Stave also did a nice job of finding new targets -- notably White and tight end Jacob Pedersen -- when Abbrederis exited after the first quarter with a head injury. One of my favorite passes was a relatively forgettable one: the 13-yard screen pass to White that set up UW's second score.
It was an intelligent call, and White has become one of the quarterback's favorite receivers not named Jared. The running back has 18 receptions for 160 yards, well ahead of his eight catches for 132 yards last year.
The first interception wasn't Stave's fault, but his second one near the end of the first half was a poor decision. Kenzel Doe was not really open, and Stave threw the ball to the side he absolutely shouldn't have thrown to, creating a very avoidable turnover.
Stave also got some help from his receivers on balls so underthrown they had to dive into the dirt, helping him finish 17-of-28, a serviceable 60.7 completion percentage.
His three touchdown passes tied a career-high, and all three showed his growth as a quarterback. On the fourth-quarter throw to Watt, Stave recognized that the defender had his back to the ball and sailed it right over his head, the best option in a crowded end zone.
Despite giving up an early sack that ended Wisconsin's second drive, the offensive line recovered nicely. There was no shortage of great downfield blocking from receivers, tight ends and running backs against the ‘Cats, but you simply don't rush for 286 yards against a respectable Big Ten defense without some tremendous help up front.
The silver lining to Abbrederis' early departure was it forced other receivers to step up. Badgers fans unanimously worried about the lack of depth at receiver, and the injury prompted a mid-game pop quiz for the offense. With Stave forced to look elsewhere, three other players - Jeff Duckworth, Jordan Fredrick and Alex Erickson - answered the bell.
Erickson's 35-yard haul was the longest catch by that trio, and it was a great catch of a ball Stave underthrew badly. But Stave also hit Gordon, Clement and Watt for that touchdown, offering some defense to the mounting concern over the lack of a true No. 2 receiver.
The absence of Abbrederis also got the tight ends more involved, and Pedersen had a season-high four catches. It's disappointing four catches is a season-high, but Pedersen didn't have a single drop, which is more important than his final numbers. The senior tight end didn't have a single catch in the last two games, so it was refreshing just to see him involved in the offense again.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig followed a beautifully simple gameplan, and it worked perfectly. He stayed true to the pound-it-down-their-throats rushing attack but also sprinkled in screen passes and intermediate throws. The downfield shots weren't as frequent as we've seen this year, but that can largely be attributed to Abbrederis not being on the field.
Ludwig found a way to guide the offense to 35 points without one of his biggest playmakers, and for that he deserves significant praise.
There was talk of a "hangover" for Northwestern after its near-upset of Ohio State last week, many pointing out Pat Fitzgerald's team was never in sync at Camp Randall Stadium. But that somewhat underwrites an efficient, well-executed game from the offense.
With a light schedule ahead, the Badgers would be smart to adhere to a concept as simple as a bruising run up the middle: rinse and repeat.