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2013 Wisconsin offense review: Running game led the way

Gary Andersen and Andy Ludwig brought some new wrinkles to Madison, but the Badgers nevertheless looked like the same old offense with arguably a more explosive backfield.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Many fans thought the switch to a more spread, read-option-like system under head coach Gary Andersen was imminent for Wisconsin's offense; some even were frightened by the thought of it, considering the love fest with former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and his pro-style offense still ongoing in their minds.

It seemed like the Badgers would head that way early. Sophomore Tanner McEvoy signed on in February and was a key player in Andersen's first class (but not as what people expected), and thoughts of a mobile, athletic quarterback danced throughout Badgers' fans heads like the second coming of one Russell Wilson, albeit a taller version.

Welp, that didn't happen. Sophomore Joel Stave beat out McEvoy, senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Bart Houston for the starting quarterback spot. Ultimately, the familiar style of Wisconsin football returned: a punishing running game led by dynamic running backs, multi-tight end sets and a stout, aggressive offensive line getting to the second level of opposing defenses. That, coupled with a very potent play-action offense featuring deep passes to senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, fostered a fairly successful first year for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, though establishing a viable second receiving threat to compliment No. 4 did not come to fruition.

The stats

197.1: Passing yards per game, 93rd in the FBS, tied for ninth in Big Ten

283.8: Rushing yards per game, eighth in the FBS, second in Big Ten (behind Ohio State)

480.9: Total offense per game, 18th in the FBS, third in Big Ten

6.9: Average yards per play, second in Big Ten

450: Total points this season

41.8 percent: Third down percentage, 54th in the FBS, 7th in Big Ten

34.8: Points per game

286: First downs, 47th in the FBS

33:34: Time of possession per game, first in the Big Ten

1,609: Rushing yards for sophomore running back Melvin Gordon, 10th in the nation, third in Big Ten

1,444: Rushing yards for senior running back James White, 14th in the nation, fourth in Big Ten

70, 71, 80: Runs by Gordon that resulted in touchdowns

51, 70, 93: Runs by White that resulted in touchdowns, the last run a school record

22: Touchdown passes for Stave, tied for 30th in the nation, tied for second in Big Ten

78: Receptions for Abbrederis, third in the Big Ten

6: Number of receptions per game for Abbrederis, tied for 30th in FBS

1,081: Receiving yards per game for Abbrederis

217: Receptions by Badgers

78: Combined total receptions by senior tight end Jacob Pedersen and White

40: Total receptions by all Wisconsin wide receivers not named Jared Abbrederis

6: Receptions by senior tight end Brian Wozniak

4: Touchdowns for Wozniak

Offensive MVP

Of course, it's going to be White and Gordon sharing it. Two thousand-yard backs. Gordon and White set the FBS single-season record for rushing yards by teammates with 3,053 yards combined, and it seemed that every three or four rushing plays, they had the potential to break one for six points. In 2012, White, Gordon and Montee Ball combined for 3,257 yards. In 2013 with White, Gordon and true freshman Corey Clement, the new trio combined for 3,600. You lose a Doak Walker Award winner and all-time FBS touchdown king, and you somehow get better. That's Wisconsin Football.

Surprise Player of the Year

It's difficult to say, to be honest, since as Dennis Green famously quoted, "They are, who we thought they were." The running game led the way again with Abbrederis and Pedersen being the only real targets in the passing game. I'll go with redshirt freshman wide receiver Alex Erickson. Since the beginning of summer camp, the walk-on drew praise from his peers and made some impressive catches in practice as he worked his way onto the two-deep. He may not have caught many passes, or even become the second option at receiver everyone was hoping for, but he primed himself for battling for a starting spot in 2014.

Play of the Year

The jet/fly sweep. If you read the Football Study Hall breakdown of that play, they mention Gordon and White in the jet sweep/inside zone run combination that threw off opponents. You have to defend the outside threat of Gordon, but the inside zone-blocking scheme, which utilizes double-teams and allows linemen to get to the linebackers and secondary, allowed the Badgers to gash defenses all year. Most of the time, they did run it in a two-tight end set, with both to one side. Yes, they did go away from giving the rock to Gordon on those fly sweeps toward the end of the season, using it more as a decoy, but they did find other ways to implement similar looks, like Abbrederis running 49 yards for a score against Indiana in a 51-3 route and the Clement burst in the first quarter against South Carolina for 32 yards.

What went well

1. The offensive line. Senior guard/center/tackle/former fullback Ryan Groy anchored a line with junior right tackle Rob Havenstein. Behind every good running game (well, in front, actually), you have those 330-pound linemen willing to engage and punish opposing defenses. Groy and junior right guard Kyle Costigan pulled in the patented power runs that helped open up gaping holes, especially against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. Overall, the team gained 6.6 yards per carry in 2013. In 2012, it was 5.2.

2. This.

That's what happens when you combine for 25 rushing touchdowns. Their celebration went viral, with two running backs in Green Bay emulating it in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football.

3.  Abbrederis. His contributions to the team his last two seasons will never be undervalued. The numbers above speak for themselves. He outplayed All-American cornerback Brandon Roby in a valiant effort in the loss to Ohio State, catching 10 passes for 208 yards. He hauled in 78 receptions on the year, now tied for the all-time receptions lead in Wisconsin history with Brandon Williams. All other receivers caught only 40 combined. He was the lone home-run threat in the passing game, and now that the former walk-on and Burlsworth Trophy winner will be moving on to play on Sundays, Wisconsin will be scrambling to find the next receiving threat before defenses start stacking 10 in the box.

What went wrong

1. The lack of a complement to Abbrederis. Fans wondered if receivers Jordan Frederick, Kenzel Doe, a play-making legend like Jeff Duckworth or true freshman Robert Wheelwright would step up to help take the heat off of the All-Big Ten selection on the opposite side of the ball. By the numbers, they didn't. You did see Erickson break into the two-deep and get some significant playing time, but it was mostly the tight ends along with White being the second and third options for Stave in the passing game. Pedersen, Wozniak and junior Sam Arneson combined for nine touchdown receptions in 2013, and White showed off his versatility that will pay off at the next level. This year's outgoing seniors combined for 175 receptions (80 percent of the total catches by Wisconsin players) and 18 scores (82 percent of touchdown receptions). Who will step up in 2014? Well, that's for another article.

2. Third-down conversions. In blowouts against Indiana and Minnesota, the Badgers' went a combined 7-of-26, yet they outscored both teams by a total of 71-10. Against Iowa, they were 4-of-15 and 3-of-12 in the loss to Ohio State (and 5-of-13 against Purdue). Most of the other games, they were at or near 50 percent. It did not hurt them as much this year, as the explosive plays helped mask this area, but it will be one to keep track of with new faces in 2014.

3. The fly sweep in the second half of season. As mentioned above, the fly sweep did diminish over the course of the season and became a decoy for the zone runs and play-action. Heisman talk for Gordon earlier in the season faded, and you rarely saw it run (I believe Gordon only ran it once during the Capital One Bowl). Still, the fly sweep and its variations opened up so much more to the Wisconsin offense once it was established as a constant threat early in the season. Gordon showed he could also run between the tackles, as well, so it wasn't like his contributions were completely halted. Defenses prepared more and more for it. There was one instance against Northwestern where a defensive linemen was in near-perfect position to stop Gordon for a loss, but he somehow eluded the defender for a decent gain. So did it go wrong? Not necessarily. It's just something defenses were prepared more and more for, and Wisconsin had to adapt.

Final Thought: Joel Stave

Say his name, but tread lightly, because he is a polarizing figure to UW fans. He did things right sometimes. He did some things wrong. He had an inconsistent year, throwing three interceptions and missing key passes in the loss against Penn State. Yet he also singlehandedly kept the team in a game by torching Ohio State's passing defense for nearly 300 yards at the Horseshoe. It was an uneven year, but looking at the stats below, he's carving out, at the very least, an interesting career at Wisconsin.

Stave completed over 60 percent of his throws with 22 touchdown passes in (the latter stat is the second-most in a single season in UW history) and is currently 10th on the all-time passing yardage list and fourth in school history in career completion percentage. His 336 passing attempts this season are the most by a Wisconsin quarterback in school history for a single season, with his 208 completions third-most.

One area of obvious improvement is interceptions. In 13 games, he threw 13 picks. Whether it was him under-throwing a long play-action pass in the first game against UMass or an unfortunate, fluke interception against South Carolina, his lapses in judgement fostered plenty of chagrin among the most vocal Wisconsin faithful. His weekly play was put under a microscope.

Whether he recovers adequately from a shoulder injury in time to fight off Houston, McEvoy and newcomer D.J. Gillins as the starting quarterback during spring football after that jarring hit by cornerback Vic Hampton remains to be seen.

One thing Badgers fans cannot deny: the former walk-on was the best quarterback the Badgers had this season.

Tell me in the comments below your thoughts on the Badgers' offense. What did you enjoy? What could have been better?