Quarterback Joel Stave figured that was going to be the game plan, too, especially with a stiff breeze pelting the Badgers in the face in the second quarter. But based off the way Purdue plays, using its safeties actively in the run game, a couple completions needed to be made.
“We knew we would have to be effective in the passing game to make sure we keep them honest,” he said.
Honesty turned out to be best policy for Wisconsin, which did get its yards (264) on the ground, but relied on the junior quarterback’s performance through the air for a hard-fought 34-16 victory over Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium Saturday.
In winning for the ninth straight time in the series, Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) finds itself in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten West Division with Minnesota – a 51-14 winner at home over Iowa – and Nebraska, who comes to Camp Randall next weekend off its bye week.
“Each week is a playoff game,” said safety Michael Caputo. “It’s single elimination. We’re just concentrating on the next game. We’re just concentrating on the next week, who we got and that’s all the farther we’re looking.”
After this latest showing, the Cornhuskers might have to take a closer look at the Badgers’ passing game. Wisconsin entered the weekend 119th out of 125 FBS teams in passing yards, throwing for 143.6 yards per game, but the Badgers threw for 190 yards in the first half and 225 for the game.
All but six of those yards came from Stave, who a little over a month ago was on the sidelines, shut down because of trouble throwing the football with confidence or accuracy after Tanner McEvoy was named the starting quarterback out of camp.
Since being unofficially named the full time starter, Stave is 42-for-74 (56.8 percent) for 528 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the last four games.
“It’s been rough for him, but I knew he’d bounce back,” said Gordon. “I had complete faith in Stav. He’s always played well in the big games. He can make the plays when plays need to be made. He came out here and performed. We needed Stav today.”
Unlike last week at Rutgers where the wind and rain grounded the passing attack to 87 yards, Stave appeared in his element with the wind blistering in his face in the second quarter.
He capped consecutive scoring drives of 90 and 80 yards with touchdown passes, a 27-yard strike to Gordon in the flat and a 9-yard fade pass to Alex Erickson with 32 seconds left until halftime.
In all he completed nine straight passes and 12 of 13 throws to six different receivers for 143 yards, helping Wisconsin outgain Purdue 227-34 in the quarter and turned a 10-6 grinder into a 24-6 halftime edge.
“We’ve got to understand that in the Big Ten, we’re not always going to play in great conditions, especially in November,” said Stave. “We’ve just got to be ready for whatever the conditions are.”
Stave didn't do it alone, as his Heisman-hopeful tailback certainly lent a helping hand. Gordon’s 14-yard touchdown run put Wisconsin up 7-3 at the end of the first quarter and delivered a “Heisman Moment” in the second on his 27-yard touchdown catch, hurdling cornerback Leroy Clark with little effort at the goal line to put UW up 17-6.
That play was pretty, but Stave’s 9-yard pass to Erickson was critical. Running the two-minute offense, Stave led the offense 80 yards down the field in only 2 minutes, 29 seconds by going 7-for-7 for 68 yards. Stave hit four different targets on the drive and eight different targets for the game.
”The key is what’s going to happen for the next three games and we’ll see what happens from there, but we’re much harder to defend,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “You just don’t get ganged up the way you get ganged up when you can’t throw the ball or you aren’t taking those long play-action shots down the field. It’s definitely a step in the right direction of where we need to go.”
Playing without its top safety, a linebacker corps that already had lost its best player and a defensive line last in the Big Ten for sacks in a conference game without its best nose tackle, Purdue (3-7, 1-5) slowly was worn down. Gordon finished with 205 yards on 25 carries, his 18th career 100-yard game and third 200-yard game of the season.
Running wild over Purdue is nothing new for the Badgers, who are averaging over 255 yards on the ground against the Boilermakers during the nine game winning streak in the series, which has helped Wisconsin win by an average of 23.4 points per game.
“Every time we step on the field we don’t want to be a one-trick pony, whether that’s passing the ball or running the ball,” said tackle Rob Havenstein. “We want to have a balanced offense. Being able to hurt defenses through the ground, through the air really comes down to guys making plays.”
Entering the weekend as the No.1 defense in the country in terms of total yards, Wisconsin took advantage of its second straight injury-riddled opponent. A week after holding Rutgers to 139 total yards, the Badgers held a Purdue offense – playing without wide receiver Danny Anthrop – to 230 total yards, 142 of which came on two drives.
All Purdue’s two speedy backs – Akeem Hunt and Raheem Mostert – could managed was a 79-yard touchdown reception from Hunt off a wheel route early in the third quarter, cutting Wisconsin’s lead to 24-16 and energizing the sparse Boilermakers faithful.
It was a momentary lapse for Wisconsin on both ends. McEvoy’s 13-yard scramble put Wisconsin up 31-16 at the end of the third quarter, and Rafael Gaglianone capped a 7 minute, 12 second drive with a 31-yard field goal to put UW three scores midway through the fourth quarter.
Including the touchdown, Wisconsin held the duo to 141 all-purpose yards and the offense has a whole to 24 yards on 24 plays after Hunt’s scamper, including three drives that ended in negative yards.
“Some people are going to make plays; that’s just one thing that happened,” said cornerback Darius Hillary. “Other than that, we came together as a defense and said we had to bow up.”