There are many words to describe what has gone on under center for Wisconsin the first six games, many of them negative. The Badgers rank 119th out of 125 FBS teams in passing yards per game (141.0) and 81st in the country in yards per completion (11.43). In the Badgers’ 38-28 win over Illinois, Wisconsin passed for 97 yards on 18 attempts and didn’t throw a touchdown pass.
But the word I am choosing to describe Wisconsin’s quarterbacks is hope. It’s evident from three halves of football that Joel Stave needs to be the starting quarterback. Having started 20 games in his career, Stave has big-game experience and a comfort level with the offense. He is not the ideal quarterback to run what UW coach Gary Andersen wants to run, but it’s evident that Tanner McEvoy isn’t the right quarterback either.
That became evident on Saturday when Wisconsin’s two quarterback system resulted in Stave running 12 series and McEvoy running only one.
“I’m obviously not going to complain about how it was split up, but I am not sure what it’s going to be like moving forward,” said Stave.
The McEvoy experiment has not worked for Wisconsin. In six games, McEvoy has missed wide-open targets and been limited because of his arm strength. His numbers (58-for-100, five touchdowns, five interceptions) are OK, but averaging 108.8 passing yards per game doesn’t win many football games.
All the blame shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the quarterback, but it’s evident that McEvoy is not ready to be a quarterback at the Big Ten level. Having run for 296 yards and two touchdowns on the season, it might benefit Wisconsin to move McEvoy to receiver and let his athleticism shine.
Stave is not perfect by any means. He threw an ugly interception that cost Wisconsin points and time in its 20-14 loss to Northwestern two weeks ago and missed a wide, wide open Alex Erickson Saturday. It was those easy throws that Stave struggled with the most last season.
What he does bring to the table is the ability to throw the deep passes, something the offense couldn’t do with McEvoy under center. The Badgers have tried to hit the deep go route each of the last two games and have failed, but the threat of that in the offense will likely soften up the defense in other areas for Wisconsin to take advantage of.
“It’s just a matter of time before we land one of those, and it’s going to be a good feeling,” said Stave. “We haven’t necessary hit that (play) very often this year, but it’s something I think I have shown over the course of my career that I can stretch the field with the deep ball, give the guys an opportunity to make a play down the field. That itself makes defenses know they have to respect it. We have to keep taking those shots and land them.”
Saying he’s overcome the mental problems that impacted his ability to throw the football over the last month, Stave might be the answer to getting UW’s offense moving in the right direction. If he’s not, the Badgers are probably out of options.
If it weren’t for the Wisconsin rushing attack, more specifically Melvin Gordon, the Badgers would be in dire circumstances heading into their final stretch run of the season.
Gordon is now second in the nation in total rushing yards with 1,046 (trailing Indiana’s Tevin Coleman by 14 yards) and has scored 13 rushing touchdowns. After rushing for 175 yards on Saturday, the fourth straight game he has rushed for at least that number, Gordon is the eighth UW player to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and the fastest Badger to reach 1,000 yards in a season.
Break the numbers down even farther, Gordon has 10 runs of at least 30 yards this season and is becoming the workhorse of the offense, as he had at least 27 carries in three straight games.
“We need a tremendous player to do special things for us,” said Andersen. “I don’t think that’s any different than any successful team or any team that has an opportunity to be a good team. There has to be a couple special players. He is the best player I’ve ever been around and his ability to change the game at any moment is amazing.”
Corey Clement has been serviceable as Wisconsin’s No.2 tailback and showed Saturday that he can be explosive. He rushed for a career-high 164 yards on 13 carries, including a 72-yard touchdown run against Illinois that he admitted afterwards gave him some confidence after trying to do too much with his limited work in previous weeks.
“Every game should be downhill for me,” said Clement. “I’ve got to go out there and do what I have to do. I don’t want to be a selfish player. It’s all about getting a win.”
It’s still unknown what Dare Ogunbowale will give UW as a No.3 tailback, but his reps will likely always be limited as long as Gordon and Clement are staying healthy and productive, allowing UW to slip by this season redshirting both true freshman tailbacks Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw. Kudos as well to Austin Ramesh, who is improving weekly as the lead blocker out of the backfield.
Considering the up-and-down play around him and that his best fullback, Derek Watt, has been sidelined for most of the season, Gordon’s numbers and production are tremendous.
The group everyone knew was in trouble because of a lack of depth heading into the season has been just that through six games. With struggles under center, teams can survive with multiple consistent wide receivers. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the Badgers have only had Alex Erickson step up and be a reliable target in the passing game.
Erickson – a converted quarterback – has led UW in yards and catches four times this season and led the receivers in those categories in every game. Erickson has 27 receptions on the season and the next highest receiver has six.
Kenzel Doe has started to come alive as of late, catching five passes the last two weeks and his first career touchdown against Northwestern. But as the senior of the group, the Badgers need more from him.
Wide receivers coach Chris Beatty does not appear comfortable using Rob Wheelwright or the three incoming receivers in games at this point. Wheelwright has hardly played since his route-running error caused an interception in week two and the young freshmen struggle adapting to the college game. They have a ton of athleticism, which might mean UW will have to deal with the mental errors on game day to get more pop on the field.
Jordan Fredrick continues to battle through nagging injuries to be a tremendous down-field blocker, opening up wide receiver screens for Erickson and holes in the running game.
Sam Arneson has stepped up and become a leader for Wisconsin’s tight end group, which as predicted would be sneaky good this year after losing three seniors. Arneson has developed into an all-purpose threat and has used his athleticism to bail out McEvoy on numerous occasions with athletic grabs. His blocking has also become a weapon for him, likely earning him a spot on a NFL roster next year.
Troy Fumagalli only gets limited reps, but makes the most of them with his blocking and ability to pop up and make at least one important catch a game. Against Illinois, that was a 12-yard catch to move the chains and get the Badgers to the Illini 10-yard line, setting up a Gordon touchdown. Fumagalli is quickly becoming the No.2 passing option, especially after Austin Traylor, who has done a good job in a lot of areas, dropped a would-be touchdown in the third quarter Saturday.
Arneson, Erickson and the blocking save this grade from being lower.
Execution has been hit and miss for Wisconsin and its experienced offensive line, as the run blocking has been good while the pass protection has been inconsistent. Northwestern generated too much pressure on the Badgers’ quarterbacks, resulting in at least two interceptions and several quarterback hurries and deflected passes. Things were much crisper on Saturday against Illinois, as the Illini – who average two sacks a game – didn’t even register a hurry on UW’s two quarterbacks.
“Pass protection was a major concern (after Northwestern),” said senior right tackle Rob Havenstein. “We worked real hard on it doing different things, different drills in practice, and I think it paid off. I think we were a lot more comfortable just being out there.”
Havenstein admitted he and some of his teammates are overthinking things at times, thinking there’s going to be pressures coming on every play, instead of letting the play develop in front of them. After scoring only once on their opening drive in the first five games, Wisconsin started against Illinois with a six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.
“I think it all comes down to practice and seeing the looks,” said Havenstein. “Each team is going to do something a little bit different and try and slow down our running game. It’s really taking those looks in practice and really hammering them in so when it comes to game time you’re not thinking about it. You’re just reacting to it and know what you are looking for.”
The line has potential and has cleared the way for some powerful running attacks this season. If Wisconsin can figure out its quarterback situation and the offensive line can become stronger in pass protection, the Badgers could catch a spark down the stretch and become a fully functional offense.
“I think as an offense we’re starting to click and get a little bit better each week, so we can use this bye week as another get better bye week,” said Havenstein. “It’s not going to be a get healthy week or take time off. It’s going to be a head to the grindstone and getting better and better at everything you do.”