After his first career start, the odds of Tanner McEcoy completing 17 straight passes – breaking Russell Wilson’s school record in the process – had to be at over 100,000-to-1. After starting 1-for-3 for eight yards and one interception in the first quarter, the odds probably went up from there.
So credit to McEvoy for hanging in there after six tough quarters passing the football to finally start moving the offense.
The junior went 9-for-11 in the second quarter (including 8-for-10 on a 17-play, 90-yard drive) and a perfect 10-for-10 in the third quarter. After struggling with the deep throws in the opener, McEvoy completed a 20-yard-plus pass to three different receivers and registered receptions with seven different receivers.
That helped Wisconsin go 6-for-12 on third down and 2-for-3 on fourth down.
“It was frustrating at halftime but we came out after half and executed and put points on the board, which we needed to do,” said McEvoy, who threw for 283 yards on 23-for-28 passing, three touchdowns and one interception. “We know we have a great offense, and we know we can move the ball against mostly anyone, I think.”
As he did in the opener, McEvoy was active in the run game and appeared offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig dialed up more plays to take advantage of UW’s dual-threat quarterback. The QB draw netted UW’s first touchdown and the read-option was more prevalent than it was against LSU. He also had three opportunities to throw while moving to his right, completing all three for 31 yards.
That helped Wisconsin registered five touchdowns on UW’s final six drives (excluding the end of game kneel down).
There’s a big drop off from the LSU secondary to Western Illinois, so the performance should be taken for what it is. Even so, McEvoy showed he has potential to be a threat in the offense, which is exactly what UW is hoping for.
Also kudos to sophomore quarterback Bart Houston, who got some fourth-quarter reps by running UW’s final two drives and throwing his first career touchdown pass.
Facing a Western Illinois defense that consistently had seven members in the box and at a few times put 10 guys in the box, the Badgers’ running game never got going on the ground. Melvin Gordon – coming off the much talked about hip flexor injury sustained last week - was stymied and held to 38 yards and no rushing touchdowns, surprising considering the opponent.
Corey Clement didn’t fare much better, but finished with 63 yards on nine carries for a team-best 6.3 yards per carry. Coupled with McEvoy averaging 6.1 per carry, Wisconsin managed to scratch out 167 yards on the ground.
Losing Derek Watt until November isn’t good for the offense, but Austin Ramesh getting the start – and contributing with his first receiving touchdown – is a good start to building some confidence in him.
In a group desperate for a leader to step up, sophomore Alex Erickson has become that guy. Erickson caught a career-high 10 catches for a personal-best 122 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers were so impressive that they nearly surpassed his total from all of last season.
“We started getting in a little bit of a rhythm, we had some great catches from the receivers and the pass protection was there,” said McEvoy. “We executed, we answered and that’s what we had to do.”
Jordan Fredrick is battered, bruised and limited in practice, but his work as a downfield blocker is impeccable. He blocked on four bubble screens for Erickson, netting his cohort 59 receiving yards and a touchdown. On the one bubble screen where George Rushing blocked instead of Erickson, Wisconsin lost a yard. You can’t underscore good blocking.
“It's a direct reflection of what this football team is this year,” Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said of Fredrick’s blocking. “To this point they are a very unselfish crew. Jordan is exactly like that. Jordan, he rehabs like crazy to be able to get out here and play on the field with the shoulder. He battles to keep healthy every single day and practices smart. But his ability to walk out there, he takes great pride in those blocks.”
After failing to prove to be an end-zone-to-end-zone threat in the opener, senior tight end Sam Arneson showed that potential with four catches for 87 yards, making a couple athletic grabs over the middle and down the hashes.
“We’re always going to be a running school, but you’ve got to be able to throw the ball,” said Arneson. “My thought the wide receivers and tight ends stepped up and did a good job overall.”
As good as some of the performances were, there are still some things among the group that are disappointing. Kenzel Doe has been a nonfactor for two games after saying all offseason that he needed to be the senior leader of the group. Rob Wheelwright barely played after be involved in the first quarter interception, a sign that signaled he was the one at fault, even though McEvoy took the blame.
Reggie Love dropping a wide-open, easy pass that would have gone for a 67-yard touchdown is unacceptable, especially since UW got no points on the drive.
The group has given up only one sack in two games, but a five-man front that has five returning starters on it walked away from another game in which they didn’t feel they succeed. For the second straight game, senior right tackle Rob Havenstein didn’t feel the Badgers’ offensive line is doing enough in the trenches.
Wisconsin gave up only the one sack, but failing to open up decent running lanes bothered the group no matter how many men were trying to stop them.
“They threw a lot of guys in the box but teams are going to do that, so that wasn’t a mystery,” said Havenstein. “We just need to do better and create bigger holes for Corey and Melvin. Those guys are special players and if we give them a little crease, it can turn into 50, 60 yards.”
The second half was much better than the first, but that was only a slight consolation for the group. Havenstein said the bye week will be refreshing, but will be restless since he wants his unit to be able to get back on the field and prove its dominance.
The young group is still developing, but Andersen is seeing players take some steps in the right direction. Redshirt freshman defensive end Chikwe Obasih deflected a pass with Western Illinois in the red zone, which resulted in an interception by safety Michael Caputo. He wasn’t credited with a tackle, but Obasih pushed the guard into the backfield and had him collide with the tailback on third down. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda keeps saying Obasih will be a monster in a few years. It’s easy to see why.
After being hauled off on a stretcher a week ago, senior Konrad Zagzebski played remarkably well rotating between end and nose tackle. Junior defensive end James Adeyanju is getting significant reps for the first time in his career and finished with five tackles and a fumble recovery. Sophomore Arthur Goldberg also held up well with his increased workload for the second straight week.
Along with the backers, Wisconsin held J.C. Baker (177 all-purpose yards in the opener) to 59 all-purpose yards and Western Illinois to only 54 rushing yards.
There’s no debating that this group of linebackers – a mix of youth and experience – is playing at a very high level. Senior linebacker Marcus Trotter (six solo tackles) is playing his best football in his final year, using his football IQ to give his average speed an extra boost. Paired with senior Derek Landisch (six tackles), the duo could be a solid combo all season for Wisconsin.
Of the group, Vince Biegel might be the most aggressive pass rusher, which has its pros and cons. Biegel brought a ton of pressure, registered four solo tackles and one sack. He also got a little too aggressive when he took Trenton Norvell to the ground after wrapping up following a pass attempt, drawing a 15-yard penalty.
Jesse Hayes came on late and registered a sack and forced fumble, a good sign for a player with immense potential.
So far through two games, the extra emphasis Wisconsin put into forcing turnovers is starting to pay off.
The passing game took a beating against LSU, but rebounded well by limiting yards after the catch and no receptions over 20 yards by the Western Illinois receivers. A week after being officially credited with 15 tackles and a fumble recovery, Caputo added an interception to his rising turnover total with a big interception in the red zone on a drive that likely would have yielded points for the Leathernecks.
“We needed a play and it just so happened to be me,” said Caputo. “I caught it and I was thinking touchdown, but I got tripped up.”
Losing his footing is about the only think Caputo has done wrong through the first two games of the season. With Leo Musso injured, Lubern Figaro is getting the majority of the reps. He’s not playing at a high level, but he looks better than he did a week ago. The same goes for converted cornerback Peniel Jean, who the Badgers will need on the field in some situations this season.
Wisconsin kicking off six times gave Western Illinois plenty of opportunity in the return game, but the Badgers limiting the Leathernecks to a total of 77 yards on those six returns. Both Andrew Endicott and Rafael Gaglianone averaged over 60 yards on their kickoffs (Endicott kicked four, Gaglianone two). After drilling a 51-yarder against LSU, Gaglianone missed a 33-yard attempt wide left, leaving the salsa dancing on the sideline for a week.
Punter Drew Meyer had two punts of 36 and 54 in the first half, the second of which that was returned 27 yards after the punt didn’t appear to have much hang time. That was the end of his day after Wisconsin’s offense starting clicking. Doe had one kickoff return for 17 yards, but his struggles in punt return coverage have carried over from last year. He muffed one punt and was an impact returner on the others. He’s likely in danger of losing that spot.
Ludwig dialed up more play-action passes after the running game clearly couldn’t make a dent in WIU, which was good to see and a smart choice considering Western Illinois was loading up the box. Ludwig showed a good mix of run and pass in the second half once the passing game started opening some things up, running 21 times and passing 15 times in the second half.
For the second straight week, Aranda has his group playing tough, assignment-sound defense, as the Badgers’ 3-3-5 attack allowed a lot of players to flock to the ball carrier. The 3-3-5 faltered down the stretch last season, so getting to use it early should hopefully help some players find comfort in those spots.