Wisconsin survived its most dangerous test of the season's final stretch Saturday. Barring disaster, the Badgers won't lose again this year.
Wisconsin's hopes to go BCS bowling hinge on a few one-loss teams becoming two-loss teams or Ohio State reaching the national title. But it could happen and a 27-17 victory over BYU carries greater weight than one over a no-name program that somehow snuck into Division 1-A (see Massachusetts Amherst, University of). Onto the grades:
Joel Stave is still vulnerable to those moments where you wonder if he's really improved since his redshirt freshman season. Saturday's game felt like an extended rehearsal, like he didn't quite have his lines done for the school play and winged it.
His throws seemed consistently off the mark, and I was honestly surprised to see he finished 23-of-32, because it didn't feel like he was that accurate. Stave's only touchdown pass was a 5-yard dump to James White, and he missed another touchdown or two on overthrown deep balls.
The most head-scratching moment was the pass he threw to tight end Jacob Pedersen in double coverage. Yes, it was tipped, and yes, linebacker Kyle Van Noy caught the tipped ball lying flat on his back. But a second-year starter, one who's shown such promising talent, needs to make smarter decisions.
The running game and O-line are sufficiently dominant that Stave all UW needs is for Stave to be a Scott Tolzien-type passer, but he's still making freshman mistakes.
Running backs: B+
For the second consecutive game, Melvin Gordon didn't break the 100-yard mark. There's no reason for concern; it's simply surprising to see such a gifted player not make opposing defenders look silly.
Gordon's 4.5 yards per touch were almost half his year's average of 8.1, and his 86 yards were his third-lowest total of the year. His 1,160 rushing yards rank sixth nationally, and though I'm still concerned he will leave for NFL riches, let's hope our very own Zack Miller is right.
White's 150 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns amounted to one of his best games of the year, and he trucked a few BYU defenders -- always fun to see from a sub-200 guy. White's spent his career sharing the spotlight with another UW back, and it's nice to see him shine in his final games at Camp Randall.
The three-headed monster did show just two heads Saturday afternoon, as freshman standout Corey Clement didn't get a carry.
Offensive line: A-
This grade might seem a bit high given the Badgers rushed for a rather pedestrian 229 yards, but the O-line opened some crater-sized holes for Gordon and White. BYU's rushing defense is respectable (53rd nationally at 154.6 yards per game) and Van Noy is a Chris Borland-type talent.
The Cougars also sacked Stave just once, and he generally had plenty of time to fire off passes.
Three players not named Jared Abbrederis caught multiple passes Saturday and these days, that's worth something. Abbrederis, of course, led the charge with eight catches for 68 yards, but White caught a career-high six passes for 47 yards and a critical touchdown just before the half. With each game, it increasingly seems White may have been underutilized as a receiver before this season.
Kenzel Doe two catches for 18 yards were a nice addition, but they were overshadowed by that first-quarter fumble, which disrupted a methodical drive at an important point it the game. The Badgers were up 7-0 and just about to enter the end zone, and that error might be much more volatile on, say, a potential game-winning drive in a harder-than-anticipated game in Minneapolis in two weeks.
Abbrederis is still filling the roles of a No. 1 and No. 2 receiver, but it's progress. And that's worth something.
Tight ends: A-
Saturday's win was the type that shows why Pedersen has NFL-level talent. It wouldn't be too ambitious to say it was his best game of the year.
He pulled in a season-high eight passes for 49 yards, making acrobatic leaps for a few of them, and those numbers were second only to Abbrederis'. My only quip is that Pedersen remains the lone tight end who's also a legitimate receiving threat.
Bottom line: the more Pedersen gets involved, the more diverted the defense's attention and the more dangerous the Badgers' offense.
I've praised offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig in this space for his willingness to mix it up, but the gameplan Saturday was a bit too vanilla for my taste.
Wisconsin was never in danger of losing this game, so the Cougars never forced Ludwig's hand, but the offense didn't exactly spark innovation. UW out-gained BYU by just 55 yards and averaged less than a yard more per play. The 27 points were the second-fewest its scored this season.
Also, why no Clement?
If anyone ever doubted that Chris Borland lifts this defense to another level, hand them game tape of Saturday's win. After sitting out last week's victory over Iowa, he had 13 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for a loss and two sacks. He led the team in all three categories, because of course he did -- he's Chris Borland, living superhero.
In all seriousness, the Badgers kept the nation's No. 13 rushing attack (248 yards per game) to 163 yards. The Cougars certainly didn't run the ball as much as they usually do -- perhaps they figured it was their best shot at an upset -- but the defense kept the heat on quarterback Taysom Hill, sacking him four times.
Transfer quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-turned-safety Tanner McEvoy nabbed his first career interception, keeping Hill's completion percentage at a pretty ineffective 46.3 percent. Plain and simple, a healthy Borland means a different Wisconsin team.