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Wisconsin looking for collective improvement in passing game

While James White and Melvin Gordon continue to produce gaudy numbers on the ground, Wisconsin's passing game has averaged less than 200 yards per game. Balance may be the key to keeping up with No. 4 Ohio State Saturday, and it doesn't just start with quarterback Joel Stave.

Joe Robbins

MADISON -- It didn't matter that ABC's broadcast showed Joel Stave explaining a route to tight end Brian Wozniak after the play. All many fans remember is seeing the Wisconsin quarterback's pass zip right into the hands of a Purdue defender, his third interception of the season.

"The fact of the matter is, the pick that was thrown, we didn't run the right route and the right spacing at the right time, but no one wants to talk about that," head coach Gary Andersen said Monday. "We want to talk about how the quarterback threw a pick."

Through four games, Wisconsin has averaged less than 200 passing yards per game -- 92nd in the country -- while the dominant rushing attack has led the team to a 3-1 start. That lack of balance likely won't cut it Saturday, as the Badgers face a talented and well-coached Ohio State team that has won 16 straight games and 11 consecutive home contests.

While coaches have acknowledged their concern over the lack of production from the Badgers' passing game this week, they've stressed that the worry is far from a Joel Stave problem. It's a problem the entire offense needs to address.

"It's a team game, so everybody's got to do their job," offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "We've got to protect with the linemen. We've got to protect with the running backs. We've got to run good routes. We've got to get the ball out of our hand.

"We're always striving for balance. We don't want to be one-dimensional. Right now, we're leaning heavily on the run, having success doing that, but you've got to be able to counter-punch, so we're looking to continue growth in the passing game."

"We've got to make sure that when we have an opportunity to take shots, we're landing them." -Joel Stave

Wisconsin hopes that improvement isn't far off. Not only did Andersen say that Ohio State looks noticeably faster and better than last year's undefeated squad, but he noted that the Buckeyes' defense lends itself to putting more defenders close to the line of scrimmage, limiting running lanes.

Andersen said Ohio State runs a base Cover 3, which often leaves just one safety back and creates more eight-man defensive fronts. A stacked line of scrimmage -- something that, considering the phenomenal success of the running game, the Badgers are expecting to see from most teams moving forward -- would put pressure on the passing game to deliver in a hostile environment against one of the nation's best teams.

"With how successful the running game has been, I would see why teams would want to (stack the box), so whatever they give us, we've got to be ready for it and we've got to be able to execute it," Stave said. "If they're going to bring the safeties down there and we have a chance to throw it over the top, that's what you want as a quarterback -- an opportunity to throw the deep ball, make the big play.

"We've got to make sure that when we have an opportunity to take shots, we're landing them."

The two players currently carrying the offense -- running backs James White and Melvin Gordon -- also remain confident that the passing game will be there when the Badgers need it against Ohio State.

"I have faith in Stave and faith in the receivers and tight ends," White said. "(Stave) will make those throws. I know he will."

Gordon added, "If they stack the box, I'm expecting our receivers to do big things, and they will. We've got complete faith and trust in those guys that they'll be able to make plays and that Joel will be able to make plays with his arm. If they stack the box, that's just what happens. Play-action and get some guys to bait in, and we'll hit them on the deep ball."

That's probably easier said than done, though. Injuries could make improvement even tougher heading into Wisconsin's most important game of the season. Wide receivers Kenzel Doe and Jeff Duckworth could miss Saturday's game, and the statuses of tight end Jacob Pedersen and center Dallas Lewallen remain uncertain.

Wisconsin may not know until later in the week exactly who will take the field in Columbus, and fans won't know until Saturday night whether the Badgers' passing game improved enough in practice to outscore an Ohio State team averaging 52.5 points per game this season.

One thing is clear, though. The strides Wisconsin hopes for in its aerial attack need to be taken as a group effort.

"In the offensive line we want to get better. We want to run better routes, cleaner routes, crisper routes. We want to make sure we put them in positions as coaches to be able to execute," Andersen said. "It's a whole offense. It's a coaching staff. It's myself. Often times when we start talking about the passing game, it goes right to the quarterback. Well, not so true. There are things that go into that that often times are missed.

"Is the throw game a concern? Yes. Is it alarming? No. But it's a concern, and we want to get better because great running teams, if they're able to get those safeties to back off just a little bit, it really helps."