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Wisconsin offense review: Badgers get back on track vs. Purdue

The scoreboard was a promising indicator, but the Badgers' offense remains a work in progress.

Joe Robbins

It was Wisconsin football, circa 2010, brought back to life.

It was that one-sided, the Badgers running it down their opponent's throats and then running it some more because, well, why not? It worked beautifully in a 41-10 victory over Purdue and if the game doesn't demand they turn to a hardly above-average quarterback and one-man receiving corps, there's no reason to stray from the ground.

It was Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement instead of John Clay, a younger White and Montee Ball, but it was like staring at a reflection of your younger (perhaps fatter) self. Only Gordon might be blessed with more natural talent than any name on that list.

Dazzling, brilliant, jaw-dropping -- pick your preferred and it will accurately depict Gordon's play through four games. His biggest plays often come on sweeps and other offensive sets designed to exploit his speed. But Gordon's first-quarter touchdown was a between-the-tackles charge, tacklers in tow as he climbed over the goal line to complete a 95-yard drive.

The redshirt sophomore's 624 rushing yards (156 per game) lead the nation, his seven rushing touchdowns trailing only Ohio State's Jordan Hall.

To be fair, the field probably isn't so open for Gordon if White isn't setting the pace with a quick but more uphill running style. White was his own kind of brilliant. Watching him cut and juke his way through the Boilermakers' defense on that 70-yard run in the second quarter was like watching a gifted painter recreate a beautiful landscape on his tapestry.

Also worth noting: the Badgers improved to 12-0 when White runs for at least 100 yards. That's more than pure coincidence -- the offense finds a different gear when White finds room to run.

It came against a lower-tier Big Ten rushing defense, but UW still rode its backs to 388 yards -- 157 more than it managed against a much better Arizona State defense -- very similar to the numbers it posted over much lesser foes like UMass and Tennessee Tech. Leaky as Purdue's defensive line looked, it's a Big Ten defense and that's a significant step up from those early cupcakes.

Joel Stave closed with a very game manager-esque line of 12-for-19 with 158 passing yards. He was like a less accurate version of -- to keep the metaphor rolling -- Scott Tolzien.

When the quarterback only attempts to complete a pass 19 times, the sample size is too limited to draw big-picture conclusions. That said, Stave left much to be desired. The bomb to Jared Abbrederis -- who seemed to be roaming alone in a pasture far from anyone in a gold and black uniform -- late in the third quarter was way off the mark, and Stave was visibly upset with himself for missing the easy touchdown.

He made several tight completions along the sideline, but he misplaced too many throws. Stave's second-quarter interception wasn't a blatant misread, but his field vision still needs work, as evidenced by his three interceptions in four games.

The most pressing concern offensively is still the receivers. Abbrederis is everything fans envisioned and then some, but better secondaries (read: Ohio State) will build a gamplan to limit his effectiveness. The lack of downfield options aside from Abbrederis severely limits the aerial game, and No. 4 alone accounted for nearly 60 percent of Wisconsin's passing yards against Purdue.

White was the only target with more than a single reception -- he had three for 49 yards -- and though he's a valuable option to have, he's not a deep threat. Freshman receiver Rob Wheelwright also dropped a 4th-and-7 pass from Curt Phillips -- meaningless in this game, but not something that could be glossed over against Ohio State.

My favorite completion of the game was that dump screen pass to White in the backfield that the speedy tailback turned into a 35-yard gain. It's a great escape route for a broken play and also something I would like to see offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig call a few times a game.

Though they threw some nice blocks for their running backs, the tight ends were all but invisible. Part of this was a lack of passing plays, but Jacob Pedersen needs to establish himself as a steady receiving threat to ease up the pressure on Abbrederis. He also went down midway through the game, and his status is unknown for Saturday.

All this brings us back to the offense's very foundation: the offensive line. It overpowered the Boilermakers' front as should be expected, and the running backs don't produce five touchdowns without some superb blocking.

Purdue sacked Stave just once, and he generally had enough time to survey the field and make a throw without oncoming defenders swarming him from all sides, a la Arizona State. They also went penalty-free.

In 60 minutes of football, it seemed like Ludwig kind of flipped back and forth between two pages of his playbook. But that's because he didn't need to try anything more fancy than a run around the edge. He ran the ball with mind-numbing consistency because he could, and the game become a tutorial on how a power-run attack can crush an opposing defense.

As much as analysts raved about how this was such a powerful statement after the debacle in Tempe, it left me wanting more. Call me greedy, but too many of Stave's balls were off-target and the tailbacks were stuffed at the line too frequently given the caliber of Purdue's defense.

Saturday's trip to Ohio State will be the toughest test of the season. The room for error will be nearly non-existent.