Tanner McEvoy isn’t willing to hit the panic button on Wisconsin’s passing attack, at least not quite yet. That was the message the junior quarterback continued to deliver after making his fourth start at Wisconsin, a start that was so-so in a lot of areas.
McEvoy didn’t throw an interception or commit a turnover for the first time this season, but his passing numbers (11-for-18, 160 yards and one touchdown) left a lot to be desired. Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen was adamant that his comfort level was “not real good” with where the passing game is through four games, citing inconsistency, a lack of success on third downs and a lack of opportunity for big plays.
“We’re going to have to (throw the ball) if we’re going to be a good football team and ever have a chance of being a great football team,” said Andersen.
McEvoy made a couple nice throws by using his feet to get out of trouble. On UW’s second series, he completed a 17-yard pass to Jordan Fredrick on third-and-9 and a 23-yard pass to Alex Erickson, both of which set up UW’s first points. However most people will remember him airmailing a wide-open Sam Arneson that would have been a big gain, saying he slipped when he threw and the pass came out weird.
Even so, McEvoy has not been an effective passer in the first quarter this season, completing less than 40 percent of his passes and throwing for a combined 76 yards first-quarter yards and no scores in four first quarters.
“We got to be able to adjust,” said McEvoy. “I wouldn’t say it’s too much for concern. We know we have a great team, but we just have to come together and put all the pieces together … It was a little slow in the beginning, but we picked up in the second half.”
I don’t put all the blame on McEvoy for the poor passing numbers and a lack of success running the football, but I disagree with him when he says the passing game is in a good spot because it’s clearly not.
The numbers on the final stat sheet look pretty good for Wisconsin: 294 yards on 57 carries (5.2 ypc) and two touchdowns. The numbers for Melvin Gordon look even better after finishing with 181 yards, had both scores and averaged 5.7 yards per carry on his season-high 32 carries.
It’s the 12th time in the last 19 games where Gordon went over 140 yards, but his lackluster halftime numbers – averaging 2.9 yards on 17 carries and a fumble – caused him to be one of the players to speak up at halftime.
“We’ve just got to feed off the defense more,” said Gordon. “I feel like the defense is making plays and our guys are just sitting there drowsy. We’ve got to get in the game on all sides of the ball and special teams. We just need that energy. That’s what we’re missing. If we wait until we’re playing bad or something bad happens to get fired up, it can’t be like that.”
Sophomore Corey Clement had a spirted 20-yard run that set up a third-quarter field goal, breaking multiple tackle attempts, including one with USF player trying to drag him down by the coattails. He ran harder as the game went on. Clement also delivered on a 28-yard screen pass, which turned out to be Wisconsin’s longest pass play of the day. With the issues at receiver (see below), having Clement and Gordon capable of catching passes out of the backfield is a must have.
Wisconsin’s rushing day was rounded out by George Rushiing (one attempt 8 yards) and Dare Ogunbowale (two, five). Fullback Austin Ramesh didn’t have an attempt but is looking more and more comfortable filling in for junior Derek Watt.
Entering conference play, it appears what you see is what you’re going to get with the Badgers’ receivers – Wisconsin is going to get solid, consistent production from Alex Erickson and Sam Arneson and a big mixed bag behind them.
Erickson led Wisconsin in catches and yards for the third time this season, finishing with six receptions for 91 yards. He’s the only wide receiver with more than one catch on the season, a shocking statistic.
Arneson caught a one-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, his only catch of the day, but continues to be a valuable asset with his ability to stretch the field and run a variety of routes that create mismatches on the field. Coupled with redshirt freshmen Troy Fumagalli, who had a nice 14-yard catch, the Badgers’ tight ends are developing into a sneak good group.
Jordan Fredrick and Kenzel Doe each caught their first passes of the year, but need to become more reliable in the passing game. Fredrick caught 10 passes last season while Doe had only seven in an injury-plagued campaign.
Although Clement was called for the penalty, Erickson’s holding penalty wiped out a 55-yard run by Gordon on the second play of the game. Instead of UW being inside the red zone, they were back at its own 26.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the Badgers’ three freshmen wide receivers – Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders – are showing they aren’t ready to break into a rotation in need of playmakers. Rob Wheelwright also continued to be a non-factor, probably the biggest disappointment of the group at this point of the season.
Wisconsin returned five starters who started multiple games last season, but senior Rob Havenstein was outspoken following the game on how the group’s play hasn’t lived up to expectations. He didn’t point to chemistry, which might have been slowed to develop with Dallas Lewallen and Dan Voltz being held out in the spring and Kyle Costigan being limited during practices with a myriad of injuries. Havenstein simply said there was no room for excuses.
“We’ve got to play with some passion,” said Havenstein. “I think we got there a little in the second half. We stalled out on some crucial players. We can go back and look at the film and really look at each other and yourself individually and see how we can get better.”
The guys in the trenches struggled holding their blocks and calling out assignments against a USF defense that was quicker than anticipated. One player that really struggled was Voltz, who missed a number of assignments with USF’s slanting linemen that stunted the offense.
Facing a third-and-1 on the first drive, Voltz went to his left to double team, completing forgetting about defensive tackle Elkino Watson, who registered a two-yard tackle for loss on Gordon. Voltz didn’t correct the mistake as he was the blocker who missed the assignment that led to Gordon being blindsided by Watson in the backfield and fumbling on UW’s 5-yard line.
He did combine with Costigan to have nice downfield blocks that sprung Clement’s screen pass, but those two blocking errors, not to mention his fourth fumbled quarterback-center exchange flub, made it a bad day at the office.
“We’ve got to be able to adjust,” said Voltz. “We’ve got to get stuff figured out so when we get back out on the field it doesn’t happen again.”
It got so bad that Andersen decided to kick the field goal on fourth-and-goal from the one instead of going for it because of the lack of faith in the line to execute the base offense.
“As offensive linemen we’re really stubborn on that,” said Havenstein. “It was third-and-1 before that, didn’t get it. That’s squarely on us.”
The unit gave up only one sack, helped the offense get to 454 yards of total offense (the third straight game UW surpassed the 450-yard mark) and provided good protection on the final touchdown drive that spanned 18 plays from 90 yards in 9:33, but there’s no question the group needs to start playing better to help UW get off to faster starts.
Facing one of the top young running backs in the country, Wisconsin defensive line held Marlon Mack – who has a 275-yard rushing performance under his belt this season – to only 34 yards on 10 carries. Mack never got loose, only having a long rush of 11 yards.
Chikwe Obasih led the line with two tackles and is line for breakout player of the year for the defense. He was credited with one quarterback hurry, but there were a number of instances where Obasih beat his man off the line and forced quarterback Mike White to move out of the pocket.
A week after letting a critical interception pop off his fingers (and into the hands of Lubern Figaro), Derek Landisch recorded his first career interception in the second quarter off a deflection. Landisch also added three tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack. One of his tackles for loss came on a third-and-1 at the USF 18, coming practically unblocked to nail Mack in the backfield for a 3-yard loss (pictured above).
USF punted and Gordon scored on a beautiful 43-yard run on the very first offensive play.
“We need to play with that chip on our shoulder and play with that attitude because defense you can cut loose a little and play with more emotion,” said Landisch, who has 5.5 TFLs and 3.0 sacks the last two games.
Senior linebacker Marcus Trotter had five tackles, but was a step slow on covering a pair of wheel routes that fullback Kennar Swanson took for 22 and 52 yards, chucks of yardage that Trotter knows the Badgers have to change moving forward.
“There were a lot of plays left out there that we should have made,” said Trotter. “I really wish we could have made those plays, but we’ve got to learn from it. In Big Ten play, we’ve got to make those plays. We can miss those plays against teams like Nebraska and Iowa.”
To his credit, Trotter combined with safety/linebacker Michael Caputo for a nice stop on Mack on third-and-goal from the UW 10, forcing USF to kick the early field goal. That was the Bulls’ only trip to the red zone, leaving Wisconsin as the only team in the nation to not surrender a red-zone touchdown this season.
The hustle Figaro showed on chasing down Swanson on his 52-yard run and forcing a fumble might have been the turning point of the game. Kudos as well to linebacker Vince Biegel for his pursuit and recovering said turnover. Instead of USF cutting the score to three, its defense had to endure an 18-play drive by UW’s offense. That’s two weeks in a row that Figaro has been in the middle of a key defensive turnover for Wisconsin. He’s emerging as a multi-year starter for Wisconsin.
Caputo made a nice open field tackle on Mack that resulted in a paltry gain instead of a touchdown. It’s a good example to show Darius Hillary, who over-pursued Rodney Adams on an end around, slipping to the turf and watching him to the red zone for USF’s lone touchdown.
Sojourn Shelton made five tackles, but has yet to look like the dominant cornerback we saw during the middle part of last season.
Doe has four punt returns of at least 17 yards this season, including his 24-yard return in the third quarter where he made two players miss and set up Gordon’s 43-yard touchdown run. It was Doe’s only return of the game, although the officials took one return away from him when they thought he signaled for a fair catch when instead he was motioning for his blockers to get away from the football.
Freshman Rafael Gaglianone is now 5-of-6 on field goals for the season after making a 24-yard FG in the first quarter and a 19-yarder in the third quarter. He looked much more comfortable with his rhythm, routine and salsa dancing than the week before.
Punter Drew Meyer averaged 38.0 yards on his three punts, including one inside the 20, but doesn’t appear to be getting the same type of hang time that he did in two previous seasons. That’s resulting in some line-drive kicks that are becoming returnable, like the 23-yard return USF’s Chris Dunkley had.
Dunkley also had a 31-yard kickoff return but not much else thanks to Andrew Endicott. UW’s kicker had nine touchdowns past season and equaled that total through four games when he put three into the end zone.
Andersen felt Wisconsin was pressing and not prepared for the speed of USF’s defense, both of which were a little surprising to hear considering it’s the fourth game and not the opener. Going into Northwestern and other Big Ten environments down the road, that won’t cut it.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig added some new wrinkles in the bubble screen game with Erickson and Fredrick, bringing Fredrick in motion to get the defense moving. Erickson is UW’s best receiver and those plays might give him a little more room to move.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda put together another good game plan and really took away the strengths of the Bulls defense. Kudos as well to special teams coach Jeff Genyk for getting Gaglianone into a better rhythm.