Defensively, the Badgers put on a show, with Ricardo Hallman’s 95-yard pick-six serving as the game-changing play near the end of the first half.
Offensively, the team scored 17 points, but ran the ball with success, accumulating 223 yards on the ground at a 5.1 yards-per-carry clip.
Looking at the stat sheet, it wasn't a great game for quarterback Tanner Mordecai, who threw for 145 yards on 17/31 passing.
However, the actual game told a much different story, as Mordecai was a consistent threat to extend plays, rushing for 60 yards on nine carries, with a majority coming on scrambles, not by design.
As the weeks have gone on, Mordecai has looked more comfortable in the pocket and willing to take off as a runner, something that was prominent during his time at SMU.
Not only does that element provide something for the Badgers on the ground, but it also creates extended opportunities through the air for Mordecai to connect with his receivers, which is the quarterback’s No. 1 priority.
“Almost every time I run I’ve gone through my progression, so I definitely think my progression first try to get the ball to my guys because they’re a lot better in space than I am,” Mordecai said after the game. “And if that doesn’t work, then I just take off.”
That ability to do both has impressed head coach Luke Fickell, who is comfortable putting the game in Mordecai’s hands and letting him make plays.
“His ability to not only extend plays, some quarterbacks, you know, extend plays to throw the football. Some quarterbacks, their eyes go right down and they go to running. I think what Tanner does so well, he does it both. He keeps his eyes down the field, but then he feels space,” Fickell said.
Fickell joked about their previous matchups, pointing out Mordecai’s mentality and speed, which many don’t give the quarterback credit for.
“And when he does take off, he can scoot. And he’s got that aggressive nature. So I think he’s the toughest kind to defend. Believe me, I know. Because we played against him the last couple years.”
Mordecai has heard the word about his “deceptive” speed, which he believes is ultimately who he is as a runner, given the amount of tape he’s showcased with his rushing ability.
“I mean, if they watch film, they can see that I do it,” Mordecai said in reference to his ability to run the ball with good speed. “People still think I’m deceptively fast or whatever. I heard that. I don’t know. I think it’s pretty instinctual just trying to make a play for our team.”
Mordecai didn't take all the credit on Saturday for his ground work, pointing to the offensive line for their blocking, which aided his efforts as a runner.
“I’d rather get ball to Braelon or Jackson, but whenever they take that away, I have to pull it and get what I can get. But I mean, I think the guys up front did a great job.”
“Yeah, I wish we would have started faster, got on early like we did last [game] two weeks ago, but yeah, I think the line had a good day overall.”
The quarterback’s ability to run the ball has forced defenses to show respect to that element of the Badgers’ offense, which opens up running lanes for the backs, as linebackers are more hesitant to jump the gaps.
Fickell noted that element on Saturday, as the rushing threat forced Rutgers to be more aggressive, opening up opportunities in other areas.
“[Mordecai’s ability to extend the play] allows you to continue to drive,” Fickell said. “It really puts — you know, I don’t want to say fear. But it puts a different element defensively what you have to do. I think they got later in the game, especially in the second half, obviously, they had to become more aggressive.”
While the Badgers want Mordecai to preserve his body, Fickell understands that he can’t take away the passion and fire that his quarterback plays with, which involves running the football and helps set the tone for the team.
“It’s not only poise [on those choppy offensive days], it’s passion, it’s fire,” Fickell said. “I mean, there’s no doubt. You know, you try to limit him from running the ball and putting himself in those situations. But when he does, you see the passion, the fire. You see what’s — I told the guys, you’ll find out more each week about, you know, our team and each other, about the passion they have for the team and the way they play the game. And that’s really from your effort and attitude.”
The Badgers continue conference play with an integral Week 7 matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes next Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium between the two top contenders in the Big Ten West.
Facing yet another tough defense, the Badgers may rely on their evolving X-Factor, Mordecai’s legs, to churn up a tough, conference victory.