MADISON - The post-game question drew a laugh from Melvin Gordon, a stark difference from a week ago. Was he surprised that he had more success running the ball against a well-known SEC school than a FCS opponent?
“They were tough,” said Gordon.
It was surprising to see Gordon not have more success running the football in Wisconsin’s 37-3 win over Western Illinois on Saturday. Finishing with 38 yards on 17 carries, Gordon’s running total was his lowest output since his redshirt freshman year against Penn State (nine yards on one carry).
But even though Western Illinois at times loaded 10 players in the box to try and stop Wisconsin’s bread-and-butter run game, it did allow the chance for Gordon to show his improvements in the passing game. With catching the football being one of Gordon’s main areas of focus this offseason, and one of the reasons why he returned for his junior season, he walked away pleased with catching four passes for 22 yards and a receiving touchdown – all career highs.
“It was different but it was fun I really enjoyed it,” Gordon said about being more effective catching then running. “I take a lot of reps in practice at it so getting in the game it’s pretty good.”
With Gordon struggling to run the football (his longest run on the day was 21 yards), he said it felt good for him to take out some of his frustrations in the passing game. It was evident on his 8-yard touchdown reception, knocking over three would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.
“I had to,” said Gordon, whose four receptions tied him for second on the team. “It was really my only chance to really get the ball and make some plays they were all over me.”
Gordon couldn’t think of a good answer why he was struggling to run the football effectively against a Western Illinois defense. Understandable considering he faced a much stouter defense a week earlier against LSU and ran for 140 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown.
With Western Illinois determined to take away Gordon, and the Badgers still having an unproven passing game, the Leathernecks routinely loaded the box with most of their front seven and occasionally their safeties. As a result, Gordon had only nine yards on his first six carries and had five rushes that resulted in negative yards. A season ago, Gordon had only 10 negative runs.
“Felt like everyone and their mom was in that box,” Gordon said. “It was tough but I just have to work harder, the offense just have to work harder and get prepared because well probably see a lot of that this year.”To counter those problems, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig dialed up a bounty of play-action passes, a trait that was missing a week ago, and got one of his better offensive weapons involved. “They were stacking the box and we knew play action would kill them in this game,” Gordon said. “Coach Lud knew that and he understood that, so that’s what it was. We’re a play-action team, so we just had to go back to what we do and it worked today.”
Although the move allowed for quarterback Tanner McEvoy to have a bounce-back performance and sophomore wide receiver Alex Erickson to have a career day, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen knows that the offense will have to do a much better job of running the football in order to be a successful season.
“We’re not going to sit here and say, ‘Hey that’s an acceptable day on the ground,’” he said. “It absolutely is not. We all know that as a coaching staff and the whole offense understands that and knows that if we don’t run the ball better we won’t have a very successful season.”
After nine true freshmen or redshirt freshmen played against LSU, five more players added their name to that list, as Natrell Jamerson, Krenwick Sanders, Derrick Tindal, D.J. Spurling, and Austin Ramesh all saw some sort of playing time.
Of the five, Ramesh was the only one to make a noticeable impact on the game, recording his first career start and his first career reception, which resulted in a three-yard touchdown on play action to put Wisconsin up 16-3.“I knew it was open; I just made sure I didn’t drop the ball and just walk in” Ramesh said.
Ramesh, who is placed with the responsibility to replace the versatile Derek Watt, did say he did feel a little pressure heading into the game but felt confident and prepared to execute the game plan.
"I knew what I was doing. I got in the film room quite a bit this week to make sure I knew my assignments on every play,” Ramesh said. “I just made sure my technique was as good as it could be. There’s a lot of things to work on, but starting off strong is obviously a big thing. I have to continue to do that next game."
Ramesh also relied heavily on Watt, who was his big brother as part of Andersen’s Big Brother program.
“Derek has been my mentor since I’ve been here,” Ramesh said. “He helps me every week, he helps me with my technique making sure I do the best I can.”
From what Andersen saw and what he talked about with running back coach Thomas Brown on the sidelines, the early talk seem to be positive that Ramesh can help the offense while Watt recovers from foot surgery that will sideline him until November.
“Austin got the touchdown pass,” Andersen said. “That was great to see. He had some nice blocks. Talking with Coach Brown during the game, he felt like Austin was doing a solid job. The reason we could not run the ball effectively was, trust me, not because of Austin Ramesh. But he executed his assignments well. I'm sure he grew up. I'm sure he had some great plays and some that he would look at and like to have back, just like every player on the offensive side of the football. So he's really grown and developed.”
Extra Points: The Badgers extended the nation’s second-longest nonconference home winning streak to 30 games. Only LSU (41 straight wins entering) has a longer winning streak at home against non-conference opponents … The Badgers recorded a safety on the game’s opening kickoff. It was the first safety for UW since Nov. 15, 2008 when the Badgers recorded a pair of safeties against Minnesota. The safety came officially one second into the game … The Badgers held the Leathernecks to 34 yards on 19 plays in the second half, an average of 1.78 yards per play.