The overall numbers continue to show Tanner McEvoy is taking steps in the right direction. After completing 17 straight passes in Wisconsin’s week two win, McEvoy was responsible for 270 yards of offense and two touchdowns in a 68-17 laugher over Bowling Green.
The big highlight of the day for him was rushing for a career-high 158 yards, the most by a quarterback in school history, eclipsing the mark of 134 yards set by Shawn Wilson vs. Cal in 1989. No UW quarterback had broken the 100-yard barrier since Brooks Bollinger on Nov. 23, 2002 against Minnesota (112 yards).
His 24-yard touchdown scamper on Wisconsin’s second offensive play – highlighted by a juke of the free safety – allowed the Badgers’ record-breaking day on the ground to get started.
“You’ve got to take what the defense gives you,” said McEvoy. “I had a few breakaways. We were running the ball pretty well. It’s great to be a part it, great to have that record with these guys.”
There are still plenty of things McEvoy needs to improve on moving forward. He fumbled twice and underthrew Alex Erickson that resulted in him throwing at least one interception for the third straight game. He also ran the wrong way on a read option play, but ended up turning that into a 24-yard run.
The success of the running game limited his passing, which was also both good and bad. He threw a strike to a wide-open Sam Arneson for a 34-yard touchdown – a pass that he might have missed earlier in the season. He also airmailed a wide-open Austin Traylor in the end zone from only a few yards out.
McEvoy also knows that his continued slow starts need to be fixed. Through three games this season, McEvoy is 5-for-15 with no touchdowns, one interception and one fumble in the first quarter.
“I think I missed a few easy open passes in the beginning and then the interception,” said McEvoy. “It’s a tough spot, a tough position to play, but you have to forget what happened last time and go out there and make a play.”
It’s evident, however, that McEvoy is improving his play every week, most notably this past week was getting more comfortable staying in the pocket and going through his progressions.
Walk around the postgame media room and the adjectives used to describe Melvin Gordon’s 253-yard, five-touchdown performance against Bowling Green all carried a common tune. McEvoy used the word “amazing.” Right tackle Rob Havenstein said “outstanding.” Receiver Kenzel Doe said “ridiculous.” Any way one slices it, Gordon was outstanding.
He tied the school record held by five others with five rushing touchdowns, shattered the school record of 14.9 yards per carry by averaging 19.5 yards per carry and did all that on 13 carries, including one carry that went for minus-1 yard and another that went for no gain.
On Gordon’s first carry, he committed his first career fumble on a rushing attempt, which likely spurred the rest of his day.
“After I fumbled, I had to get it together,” said Gordon. “I had to, because I didn’t want to fumble again, and after I fumbled they scored off that. That’s not something you want to happen. You can lose ball games that way.”
It wasn’t just Gordon and McEvoy that found room to run either. Sophomore Corey Clement rushed for 111 yards on 16 carries, his fourth 100-yard performance and his first this season, and classmate Dare Ogunbowale, a cornerback for Wisconsin at late as last week, rushed for 94 yards on 13 carries.
Even the end arounds worked to a degree, as Doe rushed for 15 and 7 and true freshman George Rushing ran for 8. On 60 attempts and 644 rushing yards, Wisconsin only lost five rushing yards.
For the first time this season, Erickson didn’t lead the team in catches and yards. That distinction went to senior tight end Sam Arneson, who finished with three catches for 63 yards, caught a 34-yard touchdown pass when he was wide open down the hash marks and did a tremendous job blocking that opened up alleys for the running game.
Beyond Arneson and Erickson (2 catches, 10 yards), there wasn’t much to get excited about for Andersen and the passing game, which continues to be an area of concern moving forward. “It's a work in progress,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “It is a little bit frustrating…It's an issue, and it's going to become more of an issue as we move farther down the road here. We've got to get some kids some balls, but they also have to earn the right to get them. You've got to get open. You've got to fit within the scheme to be able to have those opportunities to have the ball thrown to you.“We've dropped a couple, two or three that we had one in this last game late in the game that one of our young freshman had an opportunity to put his hands on, and we didn't catch it. It's a concern. It's an issue. It's being addressed by the kids. The care factor is there. I think the coaches are coaching it the right way, but it's not showing up yet, and it needs to.”
After walking into the postgame media room disappointed with the group’s effort following the first two games, Havenstein had a much different tone and demeanor this time around. Breaking school and conference records will do that for a group’s confidence.
“We want that type of production,” said Havenstein. “I thought the work we did in practice in the bye week really helped us out, at least as an offensive line play getting back to the techniques and fundamentals. Just being a nasty offensive line and trying to put that on film. I think we did a little bit of that.”
Saying the poor running performances were on the offensive line, Havenstein and others felt Wisconsin finally made the first statement of its season. The Badgers finished with 756 yards of total offense, a new school record, and averaged 9.7 yards per play. That’s the sign of a dominant effort in the trenches.
“Once we soften them up and started pounding the ball, that’s what we’re built for,” said center Dan Voltz.
Two quarterback-center exchanges were the only real black eye of the day, one of which resulted in a Wisconsin turnover that Voltz took full responsibility for.
“It was a lack of focus on my part. It’s unacceptable. Sometimes in the heat of the moment you are thinking about adjustments you lose focus on important things like that, which is totally unacceptable. We’re going to fix it this week and clean that up.”
After the running game was criticized for being mediocre, Wisconsin leads the nation in rushing yards per game at 359.7. Not bad for a group still not satisfied.
After Falcons tailback Travis Greene rushed for 123 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry the week before, Greene was held to only 13 yards on a team-high eight carries (1.8 yards per carry). That’s outstanding. Wisconsin held the Falcons to only 93 total yards, which included minus-42 lost yards.
The only blemish was a 60-yard run by Andre Givens in the fourth quarter when UW had some young players on the field.
After being stuck behind a group of talented players and even-better leaders, graduation opened up the opportunity for senior Derek Landisch to step in and become the voice of the defense. Not only has he become the unit’s leader, he’s become one of the unit’s best players.
He registered six tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a quarterback hurry and had a key pass breakup in the second quarter that flipped the momentum of the game. The Falcons drove to the UW 8 and a touchdown would have made the score 21-17, but Landisch got his hands on an attempt and deflected it into the waiting arms of safety Lubern Figaro.
“We were kind of on our heels a little bit,” said Landisch. “That’s what they like to do with an up-tempo offense. When they get a big play they want to get on the ball right away and run it. I think that was a big momentum-changing play as far as anytime you get a turnover in the red zone. That’s big for us.”
After not forcing enough turnovers last season, Wisconsin added two more to that total to bring its season total up to five, four of which Wisconsin’s offense has turned into touchdowns.
“(Turnovers) have been a big building point for us all offseason,” said linebacker Vince Biegel, who forced a second-quarter fumble. “Coach Aranda has talked about more turnovers, more turnovers, and I think we’re answering that call.”
It looked like the game could be a shootout early on. After Wisconsin used a 12 second drive to go up 7-0, the Falcons responded with a 14 second drive with Fred Coppet going 35 yards for a touchdowns. On the play, linebacker Joe Schobert, along with two others, were sealed by their blockers and linebacker Marcus Trotter was late getting into the running lane.
To their credit, both played solid coverage the rest of the game to limit any big runs or easy pass plays over the middle or in the flat. That was critical in the game plan considering Bowling Green likes to deliver quick passes and execute the screen game, things UW countered by having speed on the edges.
Of Wisconsin’s 11 tackles for loss, 7.5 came from the linebackers.
“I think we’re still building and we’ll continue to build throughout the season,” said Biegel. “We’ve got young players from top to bottom, from defensive line to secondary… We’ll continue to build each round and get better.”
Usually a safety leading a team in tackles isn’t a sign of success for a defense. That’s not the case with Wisconsin and Michael Caputo, who plays in every package and in many different positions to utilize his athletic abilities. Last week he played in the front seven, he blitzed and played man coverage, leading to four tackles and a half tackle for loss.
“He’s having a special year, and it’s great to see,” said Andersen. “He’s a special kid. He can handle it all because mentally he’s so sharp.”
Caputo is playing at a high level but cornerback Sojourn Shelton continues to struggle. He was beat twice on deep passes in the opening quarter, resulting in a pass interference penalty and an incompletion after the pass was overthrown.
Figaro’s interception was a sign of his continued progression; improvement likely tied to playing next to Caputo.
“I’m growing up every game, trying to get better every practice, but I’ve still got to get better,” said Figaro. “I’m not done yet. I’ve got to still get ready.”
Wisconsin held the Falcons to only 50 second-half passing yards and just 15-for-33 overall.
As he watched the film of Bowling Green punt team, Doe knew that there was going to be a chance for him to make an impact and help set Wisconsin up with good field.“Watching the film and the way (the punter) kicks the ball, it’s not necessarily hangs in the air for so long,” Doe said. “It’s just a line drive and you’re going to have room and you just have to trust the guys that they’re going to hold up. The punt return team did a heck of a job of holding those guys up just to give me like 10-yards to spare where I can take off running, I just had to make the best of them.”
Entering the day with three punt returns for minus-1 yard, Doe had seven punt returners that totaled 98 yards, but had a 40-yard and a 38-yard return that set up quick scores for the offense. The big difference Doe said this week was his desire to go vertical immediately after catching the football instead of going side to side.
“As soon as I catch it, just go, and it worked out for the best,” said Doe. “I give it up to my punt return team. It was those guys holding them up and giving me lanes to run through.”
For the second straight game, however, Doe muffed a punt that he had to scramble to recover, this one he said was an end-over-end kick instead of a spiral that crossed him up. It was one of a handful of minor miscues.
Rafael Gaglianone missed one of his extra points (finishing 8-for-9) despite a good snap and hold but made 28-yard and 43-yard field goals in the fourth quarter when Andersen wanted to give him some extra work. Andrew Endicott recorded six touchbacks on 12 kicks.
Drew Meyer only had two punts, one 38-yarder that was downed inside the 20 and a 43-yarder that wasn’t hit as cleanly
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda dialed up another masterful defensive scheme to deny an up-tempo offense any rhythm, as the Falcons ran 51 fewer plays than they did the week prior.
“Our coaches put us in the right spot every time,” said Biegel. “Coach Dave Aranda, he’s a defensive mastermind.”
Aranda used a variety of defensive packages to try and counter Bowling Green’s spread, no-huddle offense. He mixed the base defense with the 2-4-5 (four cornerbacks; three cornerbacks and two safeties). The Badgers typically had 16-to-17 players waiting on the field for the Falcons offense to come off the sidelines. Once the coaches identified the personnel, Aranda and defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a relayed the grouping to the players, who had to quickly run off and on.
With those moving pieces, Wisconsin only had to burn one timeout through four quarters.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig mixed run and pass early on, throwing some read-option, play-action and roll-outs that kept the defense honest. That in turn opened up the running game for Wisconsin to bowl over the Falcons.