We check in with a Wisconsin expert, Scout's Badger Nation publisher Ben Worgull, to find out.
1. Obviously Melvin Gordon is good, but after having watched him for a whole season, what makes him special?
Patience, intelligence and work ethic are the three things that come to mind when I think about Gordon’s junior – and all likelihood last – season at Wisconsin. There’s a lot of football players who just run as hard as they can after getting the handoff and hope for the best. Gordon ability to understand how the play develops has allowed him to run for as many yards as he has this season.
His 23-yard touchdown run at Iowa illustrates my point. After getting the handoff, Gordon almost comes to a complete halt as he waits for his blockers to set up his running lane, even going so far as to push tight end Sam Arneson, who got tripped up coming behind the line, in front of him. With great vision and acceleration, Gordon went untouched into the end zone for the winning score. In my opinion, it was one of his most remarkable runs.
Gordon decided to come back for his junior season because he felt he wasn’t a complete back. That was evident toward the tail end of last season when Gordon was put on the bench in favor of senior James White, who was consistent in pass catching and pass blocking, areas where Gordon was lacking. Gordon was held out of most contact drills in the spring but put in a ton of extra time working on his footwork, strength and pass-catching ability to be an all-around threat for UW. Take the Iowa game again, as his 35-yard reception on third-and-long set up the above-mentioned TD run.
He’s without question Wisconsin’s workhorse and he has shown no major sign of breaking down despite having 205 carries in conference play.
2. How has the Wisconsin passing game come along this year since the struggles at the start?
When your passing game is at rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. Wisconsin’s decision to start dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy over pocket passer Joel Stave before the season opener will be debated for considerable time. The reason I say that is because Stave – an experience starter – clearly had a better fall camp than McEvoy – who had yet to play a FBS game under center. That didn’t stop the coaching staff, who desperately wants a dual-threat option under center, from tabbing McEvoy and saying both QBs will play.
It didn’t work out that way. After losing out on the starting job, Stave developed “the yips” and struggled mentally, causing him to inaccurately throw the football. He admitted later he began questioning himself and his abilities after losing the starting job. A lack of passing attack hurt Wisconsin in its loss to LSU, and McEvoy was a big reason why. He only threw for 50 yards in the opener and had four picks in his first three games. Granted, UW did have a lot of young, inexperienced wide receivers, but fans clamored that was all the more reason to go with the experienced Stave.
By the time Stave was deemed ready and UW made a switch late in the first half against Northwestern, it was too late to save that game, widely considered among players in the program as the low point in the season. It also turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig remade parts of the offense and developed a new plan for the two-quarterback system. Stave has started every game since and has played at a tremendously high level – despite what the stats may say – over the last three games; he made some critical throws early in the Nebraska game (taking some hits in the process), missed only three passes at Iowa and completed passes to all three levels of the defense against Minnesota. More importantly, he hasn’t had a turnover in the last three weeks, a bugaboo of his last season.
When McEvoy is in the game he is purely in to run zone-read option, as he hasn’t attempted more than one pass in the last four games. To Wisconsin’s credit, they’ve been able to hit some big plays with McEvoy because of the different looks he provides and with defenses focusing on Gordon. The system has also evolved from McEvoy and Stave alternating series to the two sometimes alternating plays.
The system is not ideal in the long run but it’s working more than it’s not for this team thus far.
3. Has there been a common theme to the last few big games against Nebraska and Minnesota as the team has gotten off to slow starts before coming back?
It’s very similar how both the Huskers and Gophers jumped out to identical 17-3 leads over Wisconsin in the first half: turnovers and special teams. Funny enough both turnovers came from the same player – senior Kenzel Doe – the first time Wisconsin touched the ball. That has led to a short field for the opponent and seven points.
The other is poor punts. Wisconsin primarily uses junior punter Drew Meyer for the attempts, but the staff has trotted out sophomore quarterback Bart Houston to attempt a number of rugby-style kicks this season, either to avoid the wind or frustrate a good returner. The idea, I guess, is to present the idea of a fake with the former four-star quarterback. The punts have been OK, but Houston’s kick against Nebraska hit one of the linemen, giving the Huskers great field position. Against Minnesota, Meyer simply had a bad punt to give the Gophers the ball at the 40.
Slow starts are a concern, considering Ohio State has started fast in a number of games this year, making it a two-prong issue that UW coach Gary Andersen has to try and address this week.
4. For so long, the identity of the Wisconsin defense seemed to revolve around Chris Borland. How have the Badgers replaced him and what stands out about the defense?
You’re absolutely right about Borland. He’s one of those guys who you swore had about 10 years of eligibility. As we’re seeing with what he’s doing with the San Francisco 49ers, he was a really special player and a terrific tackler who had a nose for the ball. Those are guys that the ‘Wisconsins” of the world don’t get very often.
When you look at the defense this year, not one player really stands out like Borland did. Sure there are a handful of really good players on this defense, but only senior Derek Landisch was a first-team all-conference selection. While that may be considered surprising for the nation’s No. 2 defense (260.3 per game) and No. 4 scoring defense (16.8 per game), it fits perfectly with what UW’s concept has been this year of playing total team defense.
The front three (which includes two seniors) has been critical to opening up alleys for the four linebackers to make plenty of players at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield. It’s a group of four who all hail from Wisconsin and were all marginally recruited, so they all carry a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. The secondary is solid but not flashy. Safety Michael Caputo is one of the best defensive players in the conference for his ability to succeed in pass coverage and also use his linebacker-type frame to be stout in run defense.
Hindsight is always 20-20, but one of the main reasons Wisconsin lost its two games this year (LSU and Northwestern) is when injuries took out senior nose tackle Warren Herring, senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski and senior inside linebacker Marcus Trotter, allowing for those two teams to run the ball efficiently.
Wisconsin has given up 24 points in each of the last three games, but 41 of those points (56.9 percent) have come from drives starting in UW territory. When the offense and special teams give the defense a big field, those 11 starting pieces have proven to be very effective.
5. Is there a sense this team is on a roll and playing Wisconsin football heading into this game?
I would agree with that statement wholeheartedly. It’d be one thing if Wisconsin’s seven wins had come over the bottom dwellers in the league, but the Badgers last three wins came over two ranked opponents at home and a rival on the road, with each of those games putting a large amount of adversity in front of the team.
I mentioned the two 17-3 deficits at home UW overcame to win, but Wisconsin’s 26-24 win at Iowa was just important for the Badgers’ psyche because of the program’s lack of success in close games. The win at Iowa was UW’s first win in a one-possession game since September 2012 and first conference one-possession win since October 2010. UW has lost 16 games dating back to the 2011 Rose Bowl and all but one of them was by seven points or less. For a program that felt it was snakebitten in those kinds of games, winning the way they did at Iowa was big.