MADISON - A lot of football teams use the bye week to rest their weary legs and take a break mentally from the season. Not at the University of Wisconsin, especially when there’s a lot more work left to be done.
“For the guys who are healthy, we did a good job not really taking the week off,” said junior quarterback Joel Stave. “Working on some of the deep balls, working on some of the contested catches down the field with the DBs. I think that really showed today.”
Possibly overlooked as contenders in the Big Ten West with a shaky start to the season, the Badgers delivered a sound message on Saturday that they are still a factor in the division following a dominating performance in all phases during a 52-7 Homecoming victory over Maryland at Camp Randall Stadium.
One of four teams with one loss in the West Division and facing a challenging November with three road games and home games against Nebraska and border-rival Minnesota, this was the perfect starting point for Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten), especially when the Badgers can show some semblance of an aerial attack.
Making his second straight start under center, Stave completed passes of 43 and 47 yards, the two longest passing plays of the season for Wisconsin, and moved the Badgers effectively down the field. He finished with 155 of the team’s 216 passing yards, the most the Badgers have thrown for since the 289 yards against Western Illinois in week two.
After being frustrated with Wisconsin’s lack of success throwing the football down the field, head coach Gary Andersen appears to have found his quarterback.
“We’ve been looking for it,” said Andersen of the play-action passing game. “We got the opportunity to get the ball up in the air and the kids were running under it and catching a contested ball. That catch by Alex was a tremendous, tremendous catch.”
The Erickson catch Andersen referred to came in at the beginning of the third quarter with Wisconsin already leading 24-0. With Melvin Gordon having already scored three touchdowns and the Badgers putting him in motion, Stave said the Maryland safeties inched closer to the line of scrimmage to respect Gordon’s abilities, allowing Erickson to get separation on a deep post route and tight end Sam Arneson on a deep slant.
The result was a perfect pass and a leaping grab by Erickson in the end zone for a 47-yard touchdown that continued the rout.
“Those (deep passes) aren’t the highest percentage plays,” said Erickson. “We’re not going to get every single one, but you’ve got to hit a few here and there, and today we landed them.”
The bye weeks evidently have been good this season for Wisconsin. Combine Saturday with Wisconsin’s performance against Bowling Green, in which it registered their biggest point total and margin of victory of the season, the Badgers have outscored their opponents 120 to 24 and outgained them 1,283 to 446.
“We grinded on the bye week,” said Gordon, who has scored 15 touchdowns in the last five games. “Maybe we’re a little different from other teams, but we practiced as if it was a regular game week. Obviously you scale down the reps a little bit, but it’s the same thing.”
Maryland (5-3, 2-2) brought with it the fourth best scoring offense in the Big Ten (35.1 per game) but generated nothing against a Wisconsin defense that was well rested and brought pressures from every angle.
Wisconsin registered seven tackles for loss, three pass breakups and held Maryland to 12 straight drives registering fewer than five plays. The Terrapins finally broke through with a touchdown drive in the final minute against Wisconsin’s reserves.
That drive was capped by receiver Stefon Diggs, a potential All-Big Ten selection who only caught that 21-yard touchdown pass.
“You always want to go up against the best and Stefon Diggs is one of the top receivers in the Big Ten,” said cornerback Darius Hillary, who said he was aware of how many catches Diggs had during the game. “I definitely had fun being out there, and I accepted the challenge that the coaches presented last week.”
Gordon continued his Heisman Trophy push with another productive performance, scoring three touchdowns in the first half and finished with 122 rushing yards. As a team, Wisconsin rushed for 311 yards and five touchdowns, seeing the passing attack open things up in Maryland’s defense allowing 198.3 rushing yards per game.
“Me and Corey (Clement) were looking at each other, like ‘thank you,’” said Gordon. “We needed that because those (defensive backs) have to back up a little bit. They have to back up some. After that we knew that would help us out a little bit, get a little running room. You have a deep threat, guys can’t play that close to the box “
Wisconsin also appeared to use the bye week to have a little fun. Punter Drew Meyer successfully executed a 16-yard jump pass to Troy Fumagalli on fourth-and-9 to give UW a first down at the Maryland 19. That led to a 36-yard Rafael Gaglianone field goal.
“We scouted their look on the safe look and saw an opportunity,” said Meyer, saying the play was put in last week and practiced daily. “The guys did a great job. I think a couple of them starting yelling we might be faking it during the play to get those guys to come up.”
When Wisconsin finally had to punt after scoring on its first four series, sophomore quarterback Bart Houston unleashed a rugby-style punt from inside his own 10-yard line. The punt never got more than 15 yards off the ground but bounced and rolled all the way to UW’s 35.
“We tried to be a little more aggressive,” said Andersen of the special teams. “We changed some things up…Equal I would say very proud of the offense, defense and special teams, and they all delivered in a big way.”