It took six games, but Wisconsin finally completed a pass over 40 yards. It worked so well that the Badgers did it again, possibly starting to shed the label of being a one dimensional offense.
“I think we definitely took a step in the right direction,” said junior quarterback Joel Stave, responsible for the 43-yard and 47-yard completions that led to touchdowns. “(The deep pass) was kind of the question going into the bye week and that’s something we worked a lot on, just one-on-ones deep routes with the DBs and contested catches. That’s something as an offense we can improve on. The couple shots we took today we were able to land.”
Coming into Saturday, the Badgers ranked No. 119 out of 125 teams in FBS in passing offense, but Stave and junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy combined for 216 passing yards, the unit’s best passing performance of the season against a power-five conference opponent.
Wisconsin was a perfect 6-6 on its red zone opportunities against the No.7 red-zone defense nationally, limiting opponents to scores on 69 percent of red zone drives. The Badgers utilized their rushing game for most of those scores, but the play-action pass led to a wide-open Stave-to-Sam Arneson touchdown.
“That one play to Sam couldn’t have been more open,” said Stave, who said he’s starting to feel like the starter and getting into a rhythm. “We executed at a high level down in the red zone.”
After getting only one series against Illinois, McEvoy got three series against Maryland, finishing 5-for-7 for 44 yards. He had only one three-and-out but led Wisconsin on two scoring drives, including a 60-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that was perfectly blocked downfield.
“I figured why not slow down and let (the blockers) make it easy and get in the end zone,” said McEvoy, who had 84 yards on four carries (21.0 ypc). “We just have to take advantage of the weapons we’ve got. Today we did that. However it is, we’ve got to get that done.”
He admitted the rotation is different and difficult at times, but something he’s willing to accept considering it’s a rotation that’s tough to stop when it’s working.
“In practice it’s kind of the same deal,” he said. “I know the offenses now. They tell me when I am about to go in so I am warmed up. I just have to go out there and be prepared, stay focused and make some plays.”
Moving forward, head coach Gary Andersen is confident the Badgers can use both quarterbacks without pairing down their workload.
“I think it's the best scenario for us. We did have some positives from both young men, and the key is to me, really the key is, again, I say it, how they handle it, how this team handles it. We're in good shape. I feel very comfortable with the spot we are at the quarterback, and I'm very happy that they both had some success.”
No matter who was under center, Wisconsin didn’t commit a turnover for the second straight game, impressive considered Maryland’s 14 turnovers were third in the Big Ten.
Leading the nation in rushing offense (343.0 ypg), Wisconsin was just shy of hitting that mark with a 311-yard outing that finishing with five rushing touchdowns.
Coming into the game averaging a national-best 174.3 rushing yards per game, Gordon went for 122 and three first-half touchdowns, breaking a streak of four straight games with at least 170 rushing yards. Even so, Gordon has scored 15 touchdowns in the last five games.
“People might say he only rushed for 122 and dada da, but offensively we were hitting what we needed to hit,” said Gordon. “Our receivers did what they needed to do. I felt we were making plays down the field and our quarterbacks played phenomenal. That’s all we can ask for.”
Corey Clement continues to play more relaxed and his numbers (90 yards on 17 carries) reflect that. He scored Wisconsin’s final touchdown – a 3-yard run in the fourth quarter – and continues to get more and more comfortable with the workload he will likely inherit next season.
“It’s always good to have Derek back,” said Stave. “Everybody knows what kind of player he is. He’s been playing really well for the last two years. It’s disappointing he had to sit as many games as he did with his injury, but it’s good to have him healthy.
With things starting to be settled under center (and the better throwing quarterback under center), Wisconsin’s receivers are starting to get a little more involved. Nine different players caught 15 passes against the Terrapins, nine by the receivers, four by tight ends and two by Gordon, who should be more involved in the passing game.
Erickson is still clearly the team’s best receiver and improved his timing with Stave over the bye week, as he hauled in five catches for 121 yards and a 47-yard touchdown that ignited the crowd after halftime.
Arneson had two catches for 23, Troy Fumagalli had a catch for 17 and Austin Traylor had one catch for 11 for the tight ends, but Traylor fumbled at the end of his play that UW was fortunate to recover.
Wisconsin was ranked fourth in the country, giving up just .67 sacks per game, but gave up two sacks against Maryland’s talented defensive front. That doesn’t all fall on the line, however, with Stave occasionally taking too much time in the pocket.
Wisconsin’s protection was mostly solid, as the Terrapins only registered one quarterback hurry in addition to the sack, and the run blocking was again up to the task, as Wisconsin’s tailbacks only had one carry for minus one-yard.
With the score 45-0, senior right tackle Rob Havenstein hustled down field, which made him in the right spot to recover Traylor’s fumble. That’s effort should be shown to the second stringers, especially after the backup defense looked unprepared on the final drive of the game.
Playing his first game since injuring his knee at the end of the third quarter against LSU, forcing him to undergo surgery, Warren Herring maintained that the success of the defense doesn’t just depend on him and Marcus Trotter being healthy and in the lineup. It certainly doesn’t hurt, however.
Nearly at full strength for the first time since the season opener, Wisconsin held Maryland to just 46 yards rushing and 1.6 yards per carry. The Badgers ranked No. 22 in the country coming in, limiting opponents to just 116.8 yards on the ground per game, and doing all but three quarters of it without Herring in the middle of the defense.
“It builds your confidence a lot, especially on what we have here, but we’re always confident,” said Herring. “You have to carry that swagger.”
No defensive lineman had above one tackle, but their work locking up linemen cleared the way for the Badgers’ linebackers to have a huge day on the stat sheet.
Maryland came in averaging 35.1 ppg and had scored 24 points or more in its last seven outings. Wisconsin held the Terrapins to not only a season-low seven points but a season-low 175 total yards. The reasoning for that could be traced to the Wisconsin linebackers.
Derek Landisch had a team-high eight tackles and two tackles for loss; Marcus Trotter has six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack; Joe Schobert had five tackles, one forced fumble and one sack and Vince Biegel had 1.5 tackles for loss, one pass breakup and one fumble recovery that he would have run in for a touchdown had his knee not been on the turf upon the recovery.
Production like that is the reason Wisconsin held Maryland’s offense to 12 straight drives without the Terps running more than five plays and picked up just 20 percent (3-15) of their third down conversions.
“It means that we’re mentally focused and we’re consistent,” said Trotter. “They are really good at triple option, so we knew coming into this game that we had to stop the run, specifically triple option. When they pass it, just go after the quarterback. Just having a chance to go after the quarterback and knowing every single play just to do your job, we knew we’d be fine.”
Maryland wide receiver Stefon Diggs was averaging 80.6 receiving yards per game in his career, a mark that ranked second among active FBS players. Darius Hillary and his teammates knew that, and they were well aware that Diggs didn’t record his first catch until the final minute, a 21-yard touchdown after he beat reserve cornerback Devin Gaulden.
“You always want to go up against the best, and Stefon Diggs is one of our top receivers in the Big Ten,” said cornerback Darius Hillary. “I definitely had fun being out there, and I accepted the challenge that coaches presented last week.”
The Terrapins had 30 passing plays of 20 or more yards this season, but Hillary and his cohorts only gave up three passing plays of over 20 yards, a reason the Terrapins (averaging 270.3 passing yards) finished with only 129 Saturday.
Michael Caputo, who Andersen said is currently the face of the defense, was outstanding again with five tackles, played solid at the line of scrimmage against the run and, along with senior Peniel Jean (five tackles), accurately timed the snap count to force pressures.
Andersen said the ability of Caputo and Jean to be that effective came from good prep work in the film room.
“It is young men caring when they leave the facility and spending time focusing on the little things that win you football games,” said Andersen. “It's very difficult. It's an art. It has to be practiced, and I would also pass on to our young men on the scout team who have to give us that look. It's so important, and the scout kids in this program take tremendous pride in that, and the center did it all week long, was able to time it out, but those kids definitely prepared.”
Hillary said the group still need to improve with their run fits, swarming to the football and forcing takeaways, but felt the secondary made a statement with their performance.
Drew Meyer’s jump pass on fourth-and-9 from Maryland’s 36 worked to perfection, as he took the snap, ran toward the line of scrimmage to bring forth the defense and plopped a pass over their heads to Troy Fumagalli. It was a successful fake called from the sideline with Maryland in a punt safe formation with its defense on the field and one that got Meyer some personal gratification.
“Football is a game where you are supposed to have fun, so that was one of those moments,” said Meyer. “Even Brad Nortman texted me and he has the most famous fake in the University (referring to 2010 at Iowa). That was nice of him to reach out.”
In addition to Meyer’s 17-yard pass, he punted four times and put three of them inside the 20, a nice bounce-back performance for him after a couple of tough weeks.
Bart Houston’s rugby punt was ugly but effective and opens the door for Wisconsin to possibly run a fake out of that formation down the road.
“He did a great job,” Meyer said of Houston. “It was a new formation we were trying. They have a great returner and we were trying to game plan for that by mixing up the game.”
The returner Meyer referring to was William Likely, who was in the top 10 in the country in punt returners. He managed only one punt for no yards against Wisconsin. On the flip side, senior Kenzel Doe had three returns for 33 yards, including a long of 15. Doe now has seven punt returns of 15 yards or more. Each time it's led to a touchdown for Wisconsin.
Andrew Endicott did his best to quarantine Diggs in the kickoff return game, booting four of his nine kicks into the end zone for touchdowns, but Diggs did manage 138 yards on five returns that included a long of 41.
Toss in Rafael Gaglianone making his only field goal attempt from 36 yards and it was a solid day for UW’s special teams.
Andersen said Wisconsin made special teams a big focus during the bye week and the fake drawn up by assistant coaches Bill Busch and Jeff Genyk worked to perfection. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig called a solid game and the utilized both quarterbacks effectively and efficiently. Giving defensive coordinator Dave Aranda multiple weeks to prep for an opponent is almost unfair, as the Badgers starters always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.