Was it more the effectiveness of Joel Stave or in the ineptness of a Purdue defense missing some of its best players? That depends if you view the glass half full or half empty, but the junior quarterback was on point against the Boilermakers.
In going over 200 yards for the first time this season and eighth time in his career, Stave finished with 219 yards on 19-for-29 passing for two touchdowns in the 34-16 victory. He was 12-for-13 in the second quarter with the wind in his face, capping a 90-yard and 80-yard scoring drive with his touchdown passes. He completed nine consecutive passes to end the quarter, throwing for 106 yards and the two scores over that stretch.
“I thought the guys were doing a great job in getting open, and we were just taking what they were giving us,” said Stave. “We did a great job protecting up front, and I had time to stand back there and really see the field. When we can do that and can get open, I think we can be a very effective pass offense.”
The intermixing of quarterbacks wasn’t unexpected, but switching Stave and McEvoy mid-series was. The results appeared to work fine. Stave put up his best numbers of the season, and McEvoy ran for 42 yards on four carries, including an 18-yard scamper and a 13-yard touchdown run. With 442 rushing yards on the season, McEvoy is 24 yards from tying Brooks Bollinger for most rushing yards in a season by a UW quarterback.
“Now we’ve taken another step, moved forward a little bit in that area, where we can mix and match, which causes some problems some defenses to adjust within a series,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “Proud of both of them. Had great success with both of those guys playing and both types of offenses, which is great to see.”
Stave’s interception was the only sour note of a day in which he continues to assert himself as the team’s best option under center.
Andersen was asked after the game if it was possible that a tailback could have a “quiet” 200-yard rushing game.
“It’s not quiet to me,” he said. “I’ll make sure everybody I talk to knows the kid ran for 200.”
Gordon was his usual self against a defense he typically gets the better of, accumulating 249 all-purpose yards by running for 205 yards on 25 carries and catching three passes for 44 yards, while tallying two touchdowns. He averaged 8.9 yards per touch.
It was Gordon’s eighth 100-yard rushing game of the season, including the last seven in a row, and the second-best receiving game of his career (57 yards at Penn State Nov.24, 2012). Although he did have some powerful runs (his 47-yard run in the second quarter was his 10th rush of 40-plus yards this season), his 27-yard catch along the sideline and subsequent leap over a defender into the end zone was spectacular.
“I thought he was going to dive at my knees or something like that, or my legs,” said Gordon. “I figured he’d go low so I’d just thought I’d jump over him.”
Gordon wasn’t flawless. He fumbled on the opening drive of the third quarter, leading to a 52-yard Purdue field goal, and committing a tripping penalty in the red zone, eventually forcing UW to settle for a field goal in a game that was already decided for intent and purposes. He also said he left yards on the field because he missed a lot of reads, but pass protected “with a chip on his shoulder,” according to his coach.
Corey Clement – the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week – has a quiet day with eight carries for 23 yards.
With success from the quarterback comes success from the receivers, as eight different players (six receivers) caught passes for Wisconsin. That number represents the second-highest total of the season.
“It was great to see us mix it around,” said Andersen. “Different guys caught balls, we caught some contested balls, three or four times those balls were highly contested and we found a way to make the play.”
A number of different players stood out. Junior receiver Jordan Fredrick, who entered the game with six catches for 42 yards on the season, hauled in a career-high five passes for a personal-best 64 yards. Typically the key blocking weapon in the wide receiver screen game, Fredrick can now be looked at as a guy who can catch tough passes.
Fellow junior Alex Erickson made his third-career touchdown catch, a 9-yard reception with 32 seconds left in the first half that was a huge momentum lift heading into the locker room.
For the first time all year, the receivers get the gold star from me.
Wisconsin’s offensive linemen always maintained that the offense doesn’t change dependent on which quarterback is taking the snaps, a fact that hammered home again against Purdue. The Badgers didn’t have their usual 300-plus game on the ground because the pass protection was so stellar, allowing no sacks and plenty of time for both quarterbacks to throw for over 200 yards.
UW did start a little slow as it handles Purdue’s defensive line’s stunts, but the group was dominant once it got going.
“You could hear chatter down the line saying watch the twist game, watch this, watch that,” said Havenstein. “I think we did a decent job there. We did have a little bit more pre-snap awareness, myself included, to what they were bringing. Overall is a pretty good day protecting the passer.”
Not only did Wisconsin not allow a sack, the line didn’t allow a quarterback hurry or was called for a penalty the entire game.
Purdue managed a mere 26 yards rushing on 26 carries, the third straight UW opponent to fail to rush for 100 yards. UW has now held six of nine opponents below 100 yards rushing on the season. Over the last three games, the Badgers defense is allowing an average of 49.3 yards rushing.
Again, the line didn’t generate eye-popping tackle numbers, but the group’s play in the trenches continues to open things up for the linebackers. The Badgers adjusted well when Konrad Zagzebski went down with an ankle injury, as Jake Keefer stepped in right off the bat at nose tackle and Alec James also got reps at defensive end.
If Zagzebski is limited or can’t play Saturday, Wisconsin is in a much better spot with its depth to handle success than they were in the season opener when both Zagzebski and Herring went down in the first three quarters.
Wisconsin registered 10 tackles for loss and Purdue couldn’t stop Vince Biegel, who finished with seven tackles, four TFLs for 22 lost yards and registered three sacks on his way to being named the conference’s defensive player of the week. All three were career highs across the board and show that Biegel is trending upwards.
“He made some big time plays for us,” said Andersen. ‘He was physical. He was hard for them to deal with. He’s a tremendous athlete when he gets out there and rushes the passer.”
Although Biegel leads the team with 6.5 sacks, senior Derek Landisch maintained his team lead on tackles for loss when his 10-yard sack put his total to 12 for the year. Landisch was responsible for the big hit by Akeem Hunt that cut the score to 24-16, but something you can’t blame with Hunt’s speed and the Badgers’ coverage at that point.
To the defense’s credit, the Badgers shut things down from that point. The Badgers entered the game leading the nation in fewest yards allowed at 253.8 and lowered that total to 251.1 by surrendering just 230 yards.
Junior safety Michael Caputo admitted that it took some time for Wisconsin to understand the concept of playing total team defense, but added everything takes a little time to really develop. That’s why Caputo is beyond thrilled when he sees how great everything is fitting together for him, his secondary and his defense over the last three weeks.
“It’s something I can’t even explain,” said Caputo. “It’s why I play, that feeling … I don’t know. It’s a really good feeling.”
Twenty-four yards on the final 24 plays; that’s what Wisconsin allowed after getting burned on Hunt’s 79-yard touchdown catch-and-run off the wheel route. As a result Wisconsin allowed fewer than 250 total yards for the third straight game.
“Our coaches really honed in on what they took advantage of in that big play, and we just kind of hunkered down,” said Caputo. “We just kind of followed our rules, made some adjustments, some slight ones, and then we just kept playing the way we’ve been playing.”
Caputo tied Biegel for the team lead with seven tackles, but senior Peniel Jean finished with six and was active throughout the game. After being a bust at cornerback, Jean has remade his game and is developing as a solid player in UW’s secondary in his final season.
After continuing to take steps forward the last several weeks, the kicking game has become a problem for Wisconsin. Perhaps Andrew Endicott is getting worn out from all the overtime work he’s putting in on game day, but UW’s kickoff specialist only averaged 53.1 yards per kick, didn’t register a touchback and put one kick out of bounds.
Purdue returned six kicks for 123 yards, including a long of 41.
“It still remains a gigantic concern,” said Andersen. “We need to continue to try and address that.”
The other units were solid. Drew Meyer had a super performance by putting all three of his punts inside the 20-yard line, freshman Ragael Gaglianone hit two field goals to extend his streak to seven straight and Kenzel Doe had a 20-yard punt return and a 36-yard kickoff return, the latter of which set up a field goal.
Kudos to offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the offensive staff identified that Purdue’s safeties liked to play closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run coverage. Extra kudos for the staff sticking with the plan in the second quarter despite a stiff wind whipping in the offense’s face.
Dave Aranda not only puts together good game plans for his defense, but makes great adjustments, too. UW needs to make two rounds of adjustments after Purdue’s opening drive revealed some plays UW hadn’t prepared for and after Hunt’s gash on the wheel route. Purdue got 61.7 percent of its yards on those two drives.
In hindsight, two of Andersen’s decisions cost UW points. The Badgers didn’t use a timeout with time ticking down at the end of the first quarter. Instead of Purdue facing a fourth down into the wind, the Boilermakers got the kick a 40-yard field goal with the wind at their back.
Andersen also decided to gamble on fourth-and-1 from the Purdue 16-yard line instead of taking the three points. Gordon was stopped for no gain and Hunt scored on his catch-and-run three plays later. Fortunately, neither decision mattered in the end.