After rewriting the offensive record books in a 51-point rout last week, Wisconsin saw all its good momentum quickly vanishing after an opening 30 minutes against a rebuilding South Florida program, a half of football that was described as “unacceptable.”
Totaling only 139 yards on 32 plays (4.3 yards per play), Wisconsin – 33.5-point favorites – went into the locker room tied 3-3. Once everyone settled in, the gloves came off.
“Rob Havenstein gave a good talk at halftime about being us and playing Wisconsin football,” said senior tight end Sam Arneson, who cleaned up the language for the media. “So did Melvin. Melvin is such a competitive guy. Usually he’s not too vocal. He’s usually leads more by example but in times like that he did say something. It kind of lights a fire under you.”
The fire started at halftime burned long enough to push No.19 Wisconsin to a 27-10 victory over the Bulls in front of an uneasy 78,111 fans at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday.
Wisconsin’s offense finished 454 total yards and Gordon ran for 131 of his 181 yards, including both of his touchdowns in the second half, but the performance still frustrated a large group of offensive players still trying to figure out their identity.
Arneson said Gordon didn’t point any fingers in the locker room, simply saying the group had to take what was happening to them personally. Part of Gordon’s fury came he fumbled away UW’s best first-half scoring drive with 25 seconds left. A missed blocking assignment allowed defensive tackle Elkino Watson to come unblocked threw the line and force a turnover on his own 5-yard line.
UW coach Gary Andersen said the blame for that was on a failed technique or missed assignment, likely by center Dan Voltz. That didn’t ease Gordon’s frustration. After having number fumbled on a rushing attempt in his career, Gordon had fumbled twice in a 30-carry span and was hearing some South Florida players chirping at him following the hit.
“I didn’t like how things were going; that’s why I had to talk to those guys,” said Gordon, referring to the offense. “I had to step up. It’s my first time stepping up and doing that, speaking to our offensive group as a leader.”
“Those guys were just talking out their mouths after that,” he added. “We missed some points on that. After that I was heated.”
Gordon’s speech evidently had an effect. Wisconsin (3-1) scored on all three of its drives in the third quarter, putting 17 points on the board, and totaled 192 yards, 53 more than the entire first half. A lot of that came from Gordon, including a 43-yard touchdown run that was a combination of vision and lateral movement to avoid three tacklers and find the gap in the defense.
Even so, a week after the running game set a new modern era Big Ten rushing record with 644 yards, Wisconsin managed only 2.6 yards per carry in the first half and 5.2 yards for the game. The Badgers also went 5-for-12 on third down and are now 18-for-46 (39.1 percent) for the season.
“We’ve got to do it for four quarters,” said Gordon. “Getting into Big Ten play, if you have a slow start against a Big Ten opponent, it’s going to be a long game, and you might not be able to bounce back or come back. You might be in a deep hole.”
The slow starts have become common place for quarterback Tanner McEvoy. Following his 2-for-5 passing performance in the first quarter, McEvoy is 7-for-20 for 76 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and one fumble. The numbers weren’t much better by game’s end, as the junior finished with 160 passing yards and only 23 rushing yards.
“I’ve just got to go out there and execute like I do every day in practice, and then take it out on the field and do it on Saturdays,” said McEvoy. “That’s all I can do. I’ve just got to keep practicing and better learn from my mistakes.”
McEvoy didn’t give a reason to the repeated slow starts or showed an overall concern for the passing game. His head coach didn’t have an answer either, but was blunt with his assessment of UW’s ability to throw the football.
“Not real good,” said Andersen. “It’s inconsistent and there’s a lot of pieces that go into that. We’re going to work hard as an offense to get better in the throw game and third downs. If we can’t it’s going to be difficult as we continue to move forward. You’re not always going to hold a team to 10 points and eight first downs.”
Even the one bright spot for Wisconsin – its defense – isn’t entirely satisfied. Wisconsin held the nation’s No.12 rusher – freshman Marlon Mack – to a season-low 34 yards, held the Bulls (2-3) to under 250 total yards and still haven’t surrendered a red-zone touchdown.
But the Badgers were twice burned on the wheel route from fullback Kennar Swanson, giving up four pass plays over 20 yards and a 26-yard touchdown on an end around caused by a missed open-field tackle.
“Going into Big Ten play, you just can’t get gashed like that,” said linebacker Marcus Trotter, one of the victims on the wheel routes. “Teams that consistently get gashed like that are going to lose the game…We’ve got to do better.”
After stumbling through the first half, Wisconsin showed its potential down the stretch. In addition to Gordon’s rushing yards, freshman safety Lubern Figaro chased down Swanson and forced a fumble at the end of a 52-yard run – one of two UW turnovers in the game.
Wisconsin’s offense proceeded to march 90 yards on 18 plays, milking 9:33 off the clock, and capping it off with an Arneson 1-yard touchdown pass. Instead of USF scoring to make the game 20-17, the Badgers dealt the crucial blow.
Heading to Northwestern next weekend, players know they can’t wait that long to deliver the haymaker.
“We’re getting better, but we’re not where we need to be,” said Gordon. “I feel like we’re going to have to put in some more works. The slow starts, we’re not going to win like that. We’re going to face some tougher opponents heading into Big Ten play. You start off slow like that, it’s going to be a long year. We’ve got to learn how to play for four quarters.”