After getting the starting nod over sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, Joel Stave's seventh start of his career was a mixed bag. Stave looked rusty, uncomfortable and inexperience in the first half. Not only was he 4 for 11 for 36 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in the first half, Stave was not throwing the ball well.
He underthrew a deep route to Jordan Fredrick that resulted in UW's only turnover of the game, he made a poor throw to Jared Abbrederis that resulted in the senior receiver getting dinged up late in first quarter and made a poor habit of starring down his receivers, something that will allow better defenders to turn Stave into a turnover machine.
Stave also hesitated on a third-down run inside his own 10-yard line. Instead of making a quick decision to tuck and run, like he did on an earlier four-yard touchdown, he hesitated, was tackled short of the goal line and Wisconsin had to settle for a field goal.
Credit to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig for going right back to the play-action pass to start the second half, something that probably wouldn't have been done last year. Ludwig was rewarded with a 65-yard touchdown pass that ignited the offense. The Badgers scored 28 of their 45 points in the second half.
Stave finished the game 9 for 17 for 197 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He was 5 for 6 in the second half for 161 yards with both his touchdowns and no picks. Stave's second half was big for his confidence, but he's got to be better with his throws, reads and accuracy from start to finish.
Having Curt Phillips decline reps so Bart Houston could get some valuable playing experience was critical and selfless.
It's a new coaching staff, but Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen recognizes what works well at the University of Wisconsin. Having developed three running backs capable of being impact players, it was only fitting that James White and Melvin Gordon provided the 1-2 punch in the first half, and true freshman Corey Clement dominated the second half.
All three scored a touchdown while Gordon led the team with 144 rushing yards, White added 143 and Clement chipped in with 101. Not only did Clement become the first Wisconsin running back to rush for 100 yards in his debut since P.J. Hill in 2006, Clement became the first freshman to gain at least 100 yards in a season opener since the NCAA allowed freshmen to play beginning in 1972.
His only sour note was fumbling on the goal line on the game's final play, something the coaching staff said will be a great teaching point moving forward.
"His physicalness is impressive," Andersen said of Clement. "He's one of those guys you look and think you made a nice play on defense, and he hops up with a three, four yard gain. He's done that.
"The challenge for him is going to be when you're in the position to throw the ball. You've got to protect. You've got to come up and take the next step. He's working through that, and Thomas will get him there."
Gordon, White and Clement all surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark for only the third time in school history. The Badgers had three 100-yard rushers against Nebraska in last year's Big Ten championship game and also against Indiana on Nov. 8, 2008. In its first 1,170 games, UW never had three tailbacks over 100 yards rushing in same game.
Gordon's day could have been even better, as he got tripped up on a drive where Wisconsin eventually missed a field goal. Like his predecessors, he needs to work on running through those tackle attempts.
Ten catches by seven different receivers is a good start for Wisconsin building some depth and creating multiple weapons in its passing game. Abbrederis showed why he is such a valuable commodity with 65- and 57-yard touchdown catches in the third quarter.
Sam Arneson and Jacob Pedersen each had a pair of catches, but Pedersen had a drop that could have moved the chains for UW. Derek Watt had a nice third-down catch for UW out of the backfield and Jeff Duckworth caught a nine-yard pass for his first catch. As a senior of the group, UW needs Duckworth to be more proactive in the passing game than he was a year ago.
"You're not going to catch every ball," said Andersen. "We did a pretty good job of that today in the short and in the deep. The middle, I'm sure we're going to have more involvement with the tight ends as we move forward."
You'll read in the next session about Wisconsin's blocking, but Pedersen threw a number of key blocks that sprung lengthy gains, including sealing his defender on White's 51-yard touchdown run.
Rushing for 393 yards and averaging 8.9 yards per catch, Wisconsin's gaudy totals were a product of dominating play by Wisconsin's front. UW's big gaps for the running backs were result of two person tandems working well. Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein opened up some huge lanes on Melvin Gordon's 70-yard run and Ryan Groy was outstanding pulling from the left guard position to seal the linebackers.
"Ryan Groy did as good a job as I've ever seen coming up on the power play and getting to the next level," said Andersen. "He was tremendous at it. It was very impressive to see him do that at the guard position throughout the game. He had some movement and got himself through there."
Two quarterback exchange issues from Dallas Lewallen and Stave were a huge concern for Andersen, a former college center. Lewallen was pressed into duty after Dan Voltz went down in fall camp, but Voltz returned after the second snap problem.
"We're living on the edge in a tight ball game, and if we just let it go away and don't address it, it will be a big time issue," Andersen said of the exchanges. "We'll all be sitting here with a loss one day."
It'll be intriguing to see what Andersen and offensive line coach T.J. Woods decide to do this week with their offensive line, especially since Tyler Marz showed no real blemishes in his first start at left tackle.
It wasn't the type of potent offense Wisconsin is going to face in the coming weeks, but the Badgers still registered an impressive performance against the run. UMass had 29 rushing attempts and gained only 100 yards as a team, allowing the Badgers to hold the Minutemen to only 3.4 yards per carry. Playing without their starting tailback, the Minutemen's longest run was only 11 yards.
Wisconsin didn't record a single tackle for a loss, something Andersen credits to UMass' ball carries for attacking the line of scrimmage. The Badgers' rushing defense was stout and didn't allow any big plays.
Tackling machine Chris Borland led Wisconsin with nine tackles, but the highlight was outside linebacker Brendan Kelly forcing a fumble and linebacker Ethan Armstrong picking up the loose ball. Unfortunately for the Badgers, the offense gave the ball right back on an interception.
This group played very vanilla, so we can overlook the fact that they didn't register any sacks and only a handful of quarterback hurries.
Wisconsin surrendered just 112 passing yards to UMass, the tenth best start by a FBS team. We knew it was going to be tough for UMass without its top running back and tight end, but completing less than 50 percent of the passes and not finding the end zone made for a long day for the Minutemen.
True freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton intercepted one of Wegzyn's passes for Wisconsin's first interception of the season, making a leaping snare in front of Armstrong. A year ago, Wisconsin needed six games before it finally recorded an interception. Hopefully this one will cause more turnovers down the road.
The secondary did show at times that they are a young crew, as some communication and coverage breakdowns caused some open receivers on passing downs. Luckily UMass didn't make Wisconsin pay.
Andersen said the performance of the group was just ‘OK,' which falls in line with how UW has performed in those situations in past years.
Kicker Kyle French, who struggled at times during fall camp, made a 21-yard field goal in the first quarter but missed a 40-yard kick in the second quarter, causing loud groans to be heard throughout the stadium. French also handled eight kickoffs, and two of them resulted in touchbacks.
Punt coverage was a little spotty considering UMass threw a new punt formation that the Badgers weren't expecting. UW used multiple returns on UMass' punts and neither player was Abbrederis, a sign that Andersen is trying to develop more quality returns so he doesn't have to use his valuable receiver.
"We need to time it up better," he said. "At times it looked great. At other times it didn't look real good."
UMass averaged 24 yards on its six kickoff returns with a long of 28. Not terrible, but could be better and should be moving forward.