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Wisconsin offense review: Badgers cruise past UMass in opener

There was some early sluggishness and clear evidence of aspects needing improvement, but Wisconsin's offense nevertheless posted an impressive performance in Week 1.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There was a new man on the sideline, but little else felt new. This was Wisconsin football, power-run game and all.

If Saturday's 45-0 rout of UMass proved anything, it's that Wisconsin's offense will remain very much tied to the run game. James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement each finished with at least 100 yards, combining for 393 in total.

It was nothing if not reassuring to watch the offensive line open crater-size holes, White and Gordon showing they could use their speed and agility not just on the edge, but also between the tackles. They were both exceptionally sharp, White going for 13 yards per carry and Gordon 11.1 as the Badgers ran the ball on 44 of 62 offensive plays.

Sure, they were up against and undersized and wildly overmatched Minutemen defense. But that doesn't nullify the fact that an O-line with three new starters mauled the UMass defensive line precisely as it should have. They also created enough space for Montee Ball to unleash this tweet:

Even much-hyped true freshman Corey Clement showed signs of promise in his first-ever collegiate game. When things started to get out of hand after the third quarter, Clement became UW's primary back, rushing for 101 yards on 16 carries. We're one game into the season, but this still looks like the strongest three-headed attack the Badgers have fielded since 2010, when White, Ball and John Clay fell just four yards shy from becoming the first trio to rush for a thousand yards apiece in college football history.

Gordon and White each had a breakout run of 50-plus yards, and fans should see more of that with a speedier backfield. Ball wasn't sluggish out of the backfield, but the two feature backs this year certainly have a step or two on him, which should mean more of these offensive outbursts.

So that was the good. Now for the bad: Joel Stave in the first half.

After a seamless first drive where Stave passed the ball all of one time -- an 11-yard completion to White -- things took a sour turn for the sophomore. He started the Badgers' next drive with a throw right into the waiting arms of UMass defensive back Devin Brown. There was a receiver waiting in the end zone, but Stave appeared to not even see Brown and Wisconsin can't afford those rookie-level mistakes in more competitive games.

He targeted Jared Abbrederis three times in the first half and all three fell incomplete as Stave kept leaving passes short after his star receiver had blown by the man covering him. It was reassuring to see that Stave didn't back away from throwing the deep ball, even when it didn't land in Abbrederis' waiting arms, but Stave clearly needs to work on his timing.

Stave was much improved in the second half, completing 57-yard and 65-yard throws to Abbrederis. This was the Stave we remembered. His final line of 197 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception was satisfactory but still underwhelming. Two well-placed passes and Stave's likely closing in on 300 yards with two more touchdowns by game's end.

It's easy to forget, given his six starts last year, that Stave's still just a sophomore learning on the job. But let's hope he was knocking some of that rust off in the first half. Arm strength was a big part of winning that quarterback battle, and Stave must be able to lead his receivers (and by receivers, I mean Abbrederis) rather than force them to take a step back and attempt to reel in a more difficult catch.

Aside from Abbrederis, whose two catches went for 122 yards, UW's receivers did a nice job spreading the ball around but no one shined. That No. 2 receiver slot appears very much up for grabs after Week 1, Jordan Fredrick and Jeff Duckwoth the only receivers aside from Abbrederis with a catch.

Stave didn't make a concerted effort to target his tight ends, but Jacob Pedersen and Sam Arneson had minimal impact. As was an issue early last year, Pedersen dropped a pass in the second quarter. Everyone's waiting for him to turn into UW's next great tight end, and there's no doubt he has the tools to be that type of player, but we'll see if the drops continue to be an issue.

Despite a 17-point first half where the offense stagnated, by the end of it all was well in Badgerland.

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig showed he's not afraid to air it out and it will be interesting to see if he takes a similar approach against much better secondaries. Andersen also showed he won't hesitate to play true freshmen, and Clement looks like he could be a force, the legacy of great Wisconsin running backs in safe hands.

This was the first game of the season, so Ludwig was likely hiding much of his offensive creativity for more competitive games, the first of which will likely come in two weeks against Arizona State.

If this was just the appetizer, then I'm anxious to see the full course unveiled.

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