Like every other quarterback in the world, Joel Stave wasn't thrilled about throwing an interception in the second quarter, his second in as many weeks that was the result of poor execution. But when he was informed he responded with 13 straight completions, it was obvious the redshirt sophomore felt better about his performance.
"That's what you want to do, throw completions and give your guys a chance to make plays," said Stave. "We did a great job protecting. I had plenty of time."
Stave threw a career-high three touchdown passes, all in the first half. Stave finished the game 24-of-28 for 219 yards, three TDs and an interception. His pass efficiency was 179.6. His 24 completions were also a career high as were his 28 attempts.
On his run of 13 straight completions, he went 10-for-10 on the two-minute drill at the end of the first half was encouraging. Credit for that also goes to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who Stave said doesn't get too high or too low at any point in the game, and in turn has helped the quarterback develop his leadership skills.
"I try to stay consistent, regardless of what happened the first drive or the last couple plays, whether it was bad or good," Stave said. "You don't want to get too high or too low. You have to be that one constant in the huddle, no matter what's going on."
That allowed him to shake off his only turnover. On Tech's 35-yard line, Stave telegraphed a throw to Abbrederis by starring down the seniors, failing to recognize the double coverage around him that defensive back Austin Tallant easily picked off with a leaping grab.
"It's something I am going to watch and learn from," said Stave.
The passing game was better, but next week's defense will be the toughest test yet, and improvements will need to be made.
Against overmatched opponents, one would expect the running game would flourish. For the second time this season and third time in the last four games, Wisconsin had three tailbacks over 100 rushing yards.
"I believe we have a very competitive group," said true freshman Corey Clement, who led UW with 149 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. "That's what drives all of us. Coach Hammock has been a great coach, having us compete throughout practice. Without competing, you're really not going to go anywhere. I'm happy that I have them (White and Gordon) competing with me, because without competitors, what are you going to strive for? You can only beat yourself to a certain extent, so you have to have somebody to push you every day."
Clement did the bulk of his work in the second half, including his 65-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the first half belonged to Melvin Gordon.
After rushing for 144 yards last week, Gordon carried the ball nine times for 140 yards, his third career 100-yard rushing game and second-straight. Gordon has rushed for 551 yards on 40 carries over his last four games, averaging 13.8 per rush in that span and rushing for at least 140 yards in three of those games.
"It's' been fun, just big competition with those guys to see who's next," said Gordon, who now has 1,003 career rushing yards on 104 carries for a career average per carry of 9.6. "We've probably got the fans just sitting there like, ‘who's next,' so it's fun to go out there and compete and make those plays."
James White was the grinder, rushing for 109 yards on 22 carries and one score. Wisconsin is 18-1 when White scores at least once and the Badgers are undefeated when White rushes for at least 100 yards.
While he didn't have a carry, Derek Straus – starting at fullback in place of the injured Derek Watt – was vital in the run game, delivering key blocks on Clement's touchdown run and Gordon's 65-yard scamper that set up another touchdown. He also caught his first career touchdown pass in the first quarter from 3-yards out.
"It's just about having confidence in myself that you can do it and get out there and perform," said Straus. "I was prepared and I was very confident coming in and I just had to settle in and do my job."
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was impressed with his team's ability to catch balls in the long and short-yardage situations in the opener, but said he wanted to see the mid-range passing attack improve moving into week two.
As a result, Wisconsin didn't use the deep pass once and completed five passes between 10 and 19 yards, including a number of passes that went for 7-to-8 yards.
"It is all about taking what the defense gives you," said senior Jared Abbrederis, who had a career-high eight receptions for 62 yards and one touchdown. "The (defensive backs) backed up and gave us a lot of off coverage, so the short passes were there today."
Including Abbrederis, five receivers caught at least three passes in the win over Tennessee Tech and eight players made a reception, including Brian Wozniak's first career touchdown and Rob Wheelwright's first career reception in the fourth quarter.
For a unit trying to build confidence and develop other weapons/options, Saturday was a good day. And while he didn't catch a pass, sophomore A.J. Jordan hustling downfield to lay the final block to spring Clement's touchdown run drew the praise from the head coach.
"That will be a highlight," said Andersen of Jordan's block. "When you see kids play with that intensity and that want to go help a teammate especially. A.J. has battled. A.J. was involved with special teams today. I saw him on a couple of those special teams. He was involved in that moment there. It's good to see him do some things in a positive way because he's worked hard."
A holding call on the perimeter against wide receiver Jordan Fredrick wiped out a 45-yard touchdown pass from Stave to Abbrederis in the third quarter, a call that could have gone either way but knocks the overall grade down a half.
It's hard to find fault, and judge, and offensive line that continues to open up gaping holes for UW's tailbacks to run through, but they are making it look really easy.
On the play before Gordon's 37-yard touchdown run, Rob Havenstein had an equipment issue and was forced to come out. That caused Wisconsin to switch every position on the offensive line except center on Gordon's run, a move that Andersen said isn't easy to do.
"That's the identity that I hope these kids are getting is we only need the guys we got because that's all we've got," said Andersen. "They've done a great job of doing that. To be able to flip flop that fast they practice like that. It's not like we don't take five minutes to practice and work on moving in and out of who's going to be in the game. They know who's going to be up next, and it was a simple, clean, easy procedure and away they went."
Kyle Costigan got the start at right guard over Zach Matthias, though offensive line coach T.J. Woods alternated every series. Matthias got the call to start the second series but had consecutive bad plays.
Matthias was called for a false start, a 5-yard penalty putting UW in a third-and-11. On the next play, Matthias was beaten badly to the inside by defensive end Malcolm Mitchell, who sacked Stave for a 7-yard loss.
Center Dallas Lewallen put a snap on the ground for the third time in the last two games, an issue that has to be corrected.
Giving up only 44 rushing yards on 30 attempts, a 1.5 yards per carry average, is a nice bad of honor for a deep defensive line. UW allowed just 113 total yards on defense, equaling the ninth-lowest total in school history and the Badgers' best effort since giving up 99 to Northern Illinois (1/20/2007). The Badgers also surrendered just six total first downs. The school record is five allowed against Temple on Sept. 10, 2005.
Not much of a complaint from this group after shutting down a team that had a lot of people contribute to the running game a week previous.
Senior linebacker Chris Borland said after the game that Wisconsin was pretty vanilla for the second straight week, showing a lot of the same looks that it did against the Minutemen.
"We haven't shown a lot," said Borland. "I don't think you are exotic just to be exotic. You need to do what's going to work. We have a lot we can run."
That has to be encouraging for UW fans since the Badgers have shutout two teams without revealing any magic potions. After not recording a tackle for loss last week vs. UMass, Wisconsin's defense combined for 5.0 TFLs for a total of 20 yards. Three of those TFLs came from the linebackers, including senior Conor O'Neill. Making his first career start, O'Neill registered a team-high nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss.
An emotional O'Neill admitted that the first play was a blur but for a guy who battled the H1N1 virus as a true freshman and multiple position changes, it was a deserved start, and proves how deep the unit with talented players.
"You look at the front seven, we have d-linemen rotating in all the time," said O'Neill. "Obviously we have the outside linebackers all rotating and the 3-4 inside guys all rotating. We definitely have depth and it's something that's nice to have. We're able to push each other every day. I think it makes the defense a whole lot better."
After scoring four touchdowns last week, dual-threat quarterback Darian Stone was well neutralized by the Wisconsin defense. He completed just 8 of 19 passes for 69 yards and one interception and led the team with a paltry 16 yards rushing.
Darius Hillary helped set the tone on the game's first offensive play, put his hat on the ball being carried by tailback Stephen Bush, forcing a fumble that Dezmen Southward recovered and returned to the Tech 22-yard line. Wisconsin scored six plays later.
Redshirt freshman Leo Musso added his first career interception in the fourth quarter.
For a team that was thought to test Wisconsin's young secondary on the edges, the Badgers responded admirably.
"I definitely think we've done pretty good but in these upcoming weeks we're going to have to tighten down a little more," said Hillary. "So far I think we've been pretty good technique wise and not letting deep balls go over our heads. I definitely think we've done a great job."
Certain special teams units were much improved from week one. Wisconsin's kickoff coverage unit didn't allow Tech to start past the 25-yard line and allowed a long return of just 24 yards. Kickoff return unit was a nonfactor after only being on the field once in each of the past two weeks and the Badgers punt team continues to build up Kenzel Doe's confidence while taking Abbrederis out of harm's way.
Doe returned four of Tech's nine punts for 50 yards with a long of 20, but the Badgers had some penalties in the return game that wiped out some big gains, including a block in the back by Southward that was unnecessary.
The big issue again is the kicking game. Kyle French averaged 64 yards on his six kickoffs with two touchbacks, but hit an extra point off the right upright that caused him to lose his kicking job for the fourth quarter.
Problem was Jack Russell wasn't much better. While he made both his extra points and averaged 62 yards on his two kickoffs, he missed a 31-yard field goal when his kick bounced off the uprights. It's almost becoming a question of when, not if, Wisconsin's kicking game is going to cost them a win.
"We just need to progress," said Andersen. "We've got to get better. We're going to get in a position where we're going to have to make those kicks. A lot of PATs today and the field goal try, but most of the PATs, it's just not that clean sound of the kick and everything that comes with it to me. So we're going to work at it."