After Wisconsin’s best passing performance of the season against a power-five conference team, the Badgers followed that up with their worst of the Big Ten season.
Junior Joel Stave started for the third straight game but finished only 7-for-16 for 81 yards. Junior Tanner McEvoy played a handful of series and finished 1-for-4 for six yards with a badly underthrown interception. He also managed just 20 yards on the ground. The duo combined for no touchdowns, the third time this season the Badgers haven’t found the end zone in the air.
The conditions were tough with swirling wind and a steady rain for most of the game, but Stave isn’t using the less-than-ideal throwing conditions as an excuse.
“I thought we were right there on a number of pass plays,” he said. “That’s just how it goes. We’ve got to make sure we’re converting on them.”
Wisconsin missed a handful of chances in the passing game. McEvoy didn’t put enough air on a throw to a wide-open Alex Erickson along the sidelines that could have gone for a touchdown, and overshot an open Sam Arneson over the middle shortly thereafter.
Stave also did not putting enough air under the football that caused him to miss an open Troy Fumagalli in the red zone on a wheel route.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen admitted the passing game is still definitely concern and something the group needs to capitalize on going forward, especially with how well the defense has been playing the last two weeks.
“We’ll keep working at it,” he said, “keep grinding at it and nobody is going to work harder at it than Joel and Tanner, the receivers and all the kids involved.”
Wisconsin fell below its lofty season rushing average for the second straight game, but the Badgers two stud tailbacks again were the load-carrying figures for the offense. Corey Clement – making his one and only appearance in his home state during his college career – had a game-high 131 yards, averaged 9.4 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns.
His 43-yard run in the second quarter – a run in which he broke two tackles at the line of scrimmage and delivered a filthy stiff arm to punctuate the touchdown – was a thing of beauty, while his 36-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter was the exclamation point. If Melvin Gordon goes pro after this season, which would be a surprise if he didn’t, Clement is starting to look more and more like someone who can handle the No.1 position.
Gordon was over 100 yards for the sixth straight game and also has two athletic scores, hurdling a defender at the goal line and changing course to the right after running into a wall of Scarlet Knights to his left for a 51-yard touchdown run. That run was on the first carry of the second half, giving Gordon an average of 34.6 yards – eight carries for 277 – on his first carry in the third quarter. Most importantly he avoided serious injury when going out for a pass route in the fourth quarter and taking a helmet to the knee, looking much worse on replay than it actually was.
It was Clement’s sixth career 100-yard game and the sixth time Gordon and Clement have rushed for at least 100 yards in the same game.
With a running game averaging 6.5 yards per carry, the quarterbacks struggling with the weather and the team’s top receiver going down with an injury, there’s not much to write home about with the receivers.
Even so, there are a handful of bright spots to point out with the group’s eight combined catches. True freshmen George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders both got into the mix, which was encouraging. Rushing caught a career-best two catches for a team-high 32 yards, including a 24-yard catch on a receiver screen that was beautifully blocked by Jordan Fredrick (two catches, 15 yards). Sanders caught his first career pass for 10 yards.
Arneson had a quiet day catching the football (1 catch for 6), but had some tremendous blocks. Tight end Troy Fumagalli had a big 18-yard catch on a third-and-15 in the second quarter that set up a field goal. With Arneson graduating after this season, expect Fumagalli to transition into the starting role and stay there for the next three seasons.
Erickson got banged up in the first half and didn’t play after halftime, but Andersen said he expects him back for next week’s road game at Purdue.
Facing a defensive front that used a lot of different moving parts that is similar to Wisconsin, the Badgers had a tough challenge trying to decipher where the pressure was and wasn’t coming from. Knowing that, Wisconsin’s offensive line did a fairly solid job after the first quarter, including Tyler Marz. Wisconsin’s left tackle missed blocks on the first two drives that stunted the offense, but played well after corrections were made.
Dan Voltz didn’t have any center-quarterback exchange issues on a tough day, but drew a 15-yard play for clipping when he appeared to miss the player he was supposed to cut and ended up injuring another player. That play also wiped out a 17-yard Gordon run.
Wisconsin only gave up one sack when Stave hung around in the pocket for a tad too long, setting up a made field goal attempt.
Since the bye week, the unit has played a lot better, which will be encouraging moving forward.
As a former defensive coordinator, Andersen always lists ‘play great defense’ as the first thing on the plan to win. His reasoning is that good defensive play sets up the offense to have success and gives the special teams a boost. That has been evident the last two weeks with Wisconsin playing lights out, especially on the defensive line.
Wisconsin clogged up the middle and didn’t allow Rutgers’ struggling rushing attack to get anything moving in the right direction. Tailback Robert Martin led the Scarlet Knights with 63 yards on 15 carries, but the work the d-line did opened up Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova to all kinds of pressure from the linebackers and safeties.
“The coaching that’s going on, the playing that’s going on, the fundamentals that are taking place is great to see,” said Andersen. “We’ll keep moving forward but I’m proud of those young men, and I’m proud of the team that they allowed the defense to play great defense. A lot goes into it.”
“That emotional boost, that momentum boost from Warren, was huge for us,” said linebacker Vince Biegel.
Wisconsin allowed just 139 yards, its fewest in a Big Ten game since limiting Penn State to 131 in 2001 in State College, Pa., and surrendered just eight first downs, the fewest in a Big Ten road game since 2009 at Ohio State. Both those numbers were helped in large part by the play in the trenches.
Although Biegel wouldn’t admit it, the defense has started to take the team lead and it’s because of the linebackers, Biegel is particular. Playing at a first-team all-conference level, Biegel had another outstanding game with five tackles, a sack and a team-high two quarterback hurries.
Marcus Trotter continues to have a great senior season with four tackles, a sack and an interception that he returned 18 yards to the Rutgers 32.
Senior Derek Landisch posted his team-leading fifth sack and 11th tackles for loss on the year. After having only 26 sacks last season, Wisconsin’s three sacks push its total to 24 for the season.
Biegel said Wisconsin wasn’t very happy with allowing a late touchdown in the final minute to Maryland last week, so putting the goose egg on the board was huge for the defense.
Michael Caputo led all UW players with seven sacks and teamed with Peniel Jean to make an athletic play late in the first half, reading a screen pass to tackle Andrew Patton for 1-yard on a third-and-2 at the Rutgers 44. Convert there and maybe the Scarlet Knights find some momentum. Instead Rutgers punted.
Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton again combined to shut down a receiver who could be a first-team All-Big Ten selection, as Leonte Carroo had only two catches for 33 yards despite averaging 96.9 receiving yards a game entering the weekend.
The Badgers’ defense allowed 63 passing yards, the team’s fewest surrendered since holding Minnesota to 51 in 2011, and held Rutgers to just 3 of 15 (20.0 percent) third-down chances. On the year, Wisconsin’s opponents are only 30-for-112 (26.8 percent) on third down.
After the secondary let in a late touchdown last week, the second-stringers let Rutgers gain 51 yards on its final drive, but time expired before the Scarlet Knights could find the end zone. That drive represented only the third time the Knights crossed midfield.
“First-team guys, guys that have been in there playing the whole game want to turn around and get that shutout, and they were able to get it,” said Andersen. “The young guys answered the bell so it’s big in the growth of the youth. For them to be able to walk into that moment and that situation and be able to deliver and get off the field, not just once but a couple times, was great to see. It’s very rewarding as a defense to get a shutout.”
Junior A.J. Jordan was supposed to create a hole for somebody else to rush the passer, but instead was given an alley and made an athletic block with his left hand. It turned out to be a jolt to the offense and the team, as the Badgers turned from a unit that had gained a combined 11 yards their first three drives to putting up points on six of their next seven possessions.
“The game started with A.J. and that block,” said Jean. “If it wasn’t for this guy, the drive wouldn’t have started.”
Going into a stiff breeze in the first and fourth quarters, Wisconsin trotted out its newest special teams weapon – Bart Houston – for his rugby style kicks. The result was a career-high four punts, averaging 35.5 yards per punt.
“The wind was a factor,” said Andersen. “The rugby kicks is what we wanted to do every time going into the wind. I thought Bart handled them and did a very good job. Drew (Meyer) came in and his last one was a very good kick too. It rolled down there nicely.”
With a career-best three field goals, Rafael Gaglianone is now 10-of-13 (.769) on field goals this season. He has a chance to go down as one of UW’s greatest kickers. Kenzel Doe returned the only kickoff UW had all day for 36 yards, and UW’s kick team – thanks to Andrew Endicott - limited Rutgers to a 19.3-yard average on six returns.
If it isn’t broke don’t fix it, at least that’s what defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is doing with Wisconsin’s defense. Wisconsin had a good mix of play calls on third down and disguising coverages, which included dropping eight man in coverage and sometimes bringing up to six players on a blitz. UW ran some cover two, blitzed from different angles and basically made Nova’s life miserable.
It’s understandable why Gordon came into the game for one play while Clement dealt with an equipment issue, but running a deep pass play to him up to 30-0 is just asking for trouble. Andersen should give Gordon a hug for helping him dodge a major black eye.