MADISON - The drive didn’t result in any points, but it finally gave Tanner McEvoy, Sam Arneson and other members of the University of Wisconsin a bit of reassurance that the Badgers indeed had potential to be a good offensive unit.
After going 90 yards in 17 plays, more yards it had generated on its previous eight drives combined, it could be viewed as the point this season where the offense finally found its mojo.
“It shows we are a balanced team,” said Arneson. “I think we really can be that.”
As the day progressed, the 37-3 victory No.18 Wisconsin secured Saturday – its first in over nine months – felt better and better in large part because the offense finally found a groove. Following that turnover on downs, Wisconsin scored touchdowns on five of its next six drives, putting points on the scoreboard with a mixture of long sustained drives and quick strikes.
“Offensively, we needed a game like this,” said McEvoy. “We know what we can do on offense. We know we can pass the ball. Their defense was making us pass the ball and making us throw it. That’s what we have to do when teams do that to us, and we have to show that we can do it.”
It was a little bit of good news for the Badgers (1-1) in a week where there was more news off the field than on it, as head coach Gary Andersen had to deal with public relation problems stemming from the injury to Melvin Gordon and the phantom injury to Joel Stave. By the time the clock showed zeroes just before three o’clock, all of those problems appeared to fade away.
“It’s great to get that victory,” said Andersen. “It’s great to see some things come together that you hope are going to come together.”
Western Illinois (1-1) wasn’t the elite opponent that will generate the national headlines like LSU, but the home opener cured a lot of ills that plagued the program over a very long week, especially for McEvoy.
After Reggie Love dropped what would have been a sure-fire 67-yard touchdown, McEvoy picked apart a defense geared to stop the run with bubble screens, quick slants and rollouts. The result was the junior completing 17 passes in a row, connecting on touchdown passes of 3, 8 and 10 and throwing for 283 yards on 23-of-28 attempts.
After having a quarterback rating of 6.8 in the opener, McEvoy finished with a rating of 195.25.
“It was great to get out there and show we can pass the ball,” said McEvoy. “We can do it. We just have to go out there and execute. They were making us do it, so we answered.”
A week after Wisconsin’s receivers were bottled up by LSU’s elite-level secondary, Wisconsin’s young corps fared much better against a Western Illinois defense that returned eight starters and dared Wisconsin to pass the ball by stuffing upwards of 10 players into the box.
So while rushing for only 167 yards, Wisconsin put up its points with a balanced aerial attack that included receivers, tight ends and running backs.
Sophomore Alex Erickson had a career-high 10 catchers for a personal-best 122 yards (he had nine catches for 127 all last year); Arneson had a career-high four receptions for 87 yards and Gordon – stymied in the running game with only 38 yards – delivered with four catches for 22 yards and his first receiving touchdown.
That sudden rush of effectiveness turned Wisconsin’s 2-0 nail-biting lead to a comfortable 23-3 advantage at the end of the third quarter.
“We just wear and tear, wear and tear,” said Gordon. “We had to keep coming right after them, keep getting after them and we knew they’d break down a little bit.”
That was more than enough for a Wisconsin defense that will likely play with a chip on its shoulder for the remainder of the season. In the week leading up to the Badgers’ final game against a Football Championship Subdivision team for the foreseeable future, the upperclassmen talked about learning from the problems that popped up in the season-opening 28-24 loss to No.13 LSU, particularly in the final quarter.
The defense learned its lesson, keeping the Leathernecks’ offense – which put 45 points on the board in their season opener – out of the end zone, held tailback J.C. Baker in check (only 59 all-purpose yards after having 177 last week) and harassed quarterback Trenton Norvell for four quarters.
They also made timely plays. When the only thing Wisconsin could show for itself on the scoreboard was an opening kickoff safety after two failed drives, Western Illinois was poised to put points on the board after driving to the UW 13, but junior Michael Caputo came up with an interception off a deflection pass by Chikwe Obasih at the line of scrimmage and returned the ball to the 35-yard line.
“That was a gigantic play,” said Andersen. “We’ve talked about it with this defense, our ability to make some big plays, wherever they come.”
While Wisconsin was making its run, the Badgers held Western Illinois to only 34 yards on 19 second half plays.
“They did what they do” said Western Illinois coach Bob Nielsen, as the Leathernecks only ran six plays in the third quarter after trailing 9-3 at halftime. “They found a way to control the football in the second half, and we just sputtered offensively trying to get anything going.”
Andersen stated afterward that likely no other team in the country had dealt with as much adversity through two weeks as his program had. More so than the problem last weekend in Houston, Wisconsin will be playing at least three more games without senior nose tackle, and defensive leader, Warren Herring and without fullback Derek Watt until November.
But unlike last week when Wisconsin appeared to buckle under the pressure, the Badgers had no such problem avoid a similar result against an overmatched opponent.
“We came into the year, everybody saying how young we are and we’ve had two situations where the team has to grow up a little bit,” said Arneson. “I thought we did a good job handling the slower start, which we have got to fix, and growing up in the end.”