All the focus in the week following the Nebraska win was the performance of Melvin Gordon, a historic running showcase that goes down as one of the best all time. Hidden deep in the weeds was Joel Stave, who made a number of critical third-down throws early in that game to extend drives that resulted in Melvin Moments.
Against Iowa, Stave was farther out in the limelight, playing a critical role in Wisconsin’s two-point win. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 139 yards and no turnovers. He showed tremendous patience in the pocket and had solid presence, which was evident by his 25-yard completion to Kenzel Doe with defenders barreling down at him.
He also had a 12-yard scramble on third-and-8 that moved the chains and clinch the victory in the waning minutes.
“Joel made a great read,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “Joel saw the crease, he took a good angle and was able to make a very good play. Joel has done that in the past. When he had to do it, he did it.”
Stave’s teammates didn’t underscore the value of the scramble, although they did take some good-natured shots at the junior quarterback’s athleticism, or lack thereof. Verbal jabs aside, Stave was the critical component in Wisconsin’s going 7-for-13 on third down, going 4-for-5 for 67 yards and moving the chains on all of them.
“I know that there was some big plays that were made that kept drives alive going down the field,” said Andersen. “There’s a feel now on that offense that third down, we’re OK, we can do a lot of different things.”
That includes throwing multiple quarterbacks at the defense, which continue to pay dividends for Wisconsin during the six game winning streak.
Needing a touchdown and a spark of some sort after plodding along the first quarter, a well-designed formation gave Tanner McEvoy an easy 45-yard touchdown. McEvoy didn’t attempt to pass and is now almost exclusively a runner, but that didn’t stop him from getting 62 yards on six carries.
“We needed a touchdowns, we needed a score of some sort, and I guess my number was called and we executed,” said McEvoy. “It’s not like I made a spectacular play. It was pretty well blocked.”
Gordon’s rushing record lasted all of one week, but given the circumstances of the opponent, the situation and the ability in which he impacted the game, the junior from Kenosha made a different kind of Heisman Trophy statement.
Feeling he slightly redeemed himself from last year’s 62-yard performance against the Hawkeyes, Gordon finished with 200 yards on 31 carries and two scores, putting him over 2,000 yards for the season and earning him the distinction as the player in FBS history to reach that mark in the fewest number of carries.
“We’ve played against tremendous, tremendous defenses in this conference week in and week out, and this was another one,” said Andersen. “I don’t know how many times you can look back and say that’s happened to Iowa’s defense. I’m sure it’s not very often. I know it’s not. I guarantee it’s not with the way those guys play. Melvin’s individual performance was very impressive to me and should keep him right in the mix to be the best player in college football.”
Gordon did it all for Wisconsin, especially in the second half. Bottled up for most of the game, Gordon finally broke loose for an 88-yard scamper down the sidelines that set up a field goal. On the second to last drive, Gordon showed his patience in a collapsing backfield, waiting for his linemen to engage their blockers and tight end Sam Arneson to get out of in front of him before running for his 23-yard touchdown.
“We needed a big play from him,” said McEvoy. “He’s our best player. It’s bound for him to break a run. He hadn’t got one yet, and we really needed it when he got it.”
No play was bigger, however, than Gordon hauling in a short pass and turning it into a 35-yard gain on third-and-13, two plays before his 23-yard score. Gordon led Wisconsin in both receptions (four) and yards (64).
“He caught a couple balls that were big difference makers for us,” said Andersen. “It’s another weapon in the throw game, which is tough to deal with.”
The impressive was even more impressive considering the Badgers were trying to hold out Corey Clement (right arm/shoulder) for precautionary reasons, meaning UW was playing with one healthy back.
Five different players caught passes for Wisconsin as the Badgers’ passing game continues to see more contributors step up to the plate. The Badgers relied heavily on the tight end game by going to Arneson (three catches for 27 yards) and Troy Fumagalli catching his typical one big pass a game (a 12-yard completion on third-and-8 at the Iowa 25).
Both tight ends made huge catches on Wisconsin’s touchdown drive to make it 16-3 right before halftime.
Alex Erickson was slightly used, but Doe came up big. Not only did he have the 25-yard completion, he recovered a Gordon fumble on the UW 33 the play before his one catch. It was a heads up play that eventually got Wisconsin into the end zone.
Wisconsin gave up no sacks but 11 lost yards from its tailbacks against a punishing Iowa front. After running though the Cornhuskers the week before, Wisconsin had eight rushing plays that generated two yards or fewer and two offensive line penalties (Tyler Marz for holding, Dallas Lewallen for ineligible man downfield).
The sledding was rough until Wisconsin finally started to wear the Hawkeyes down. The Badgers cashed in a 12-play, 72-yard drive that chewed up over 6:30 in the first half and a 7-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in the game-winning score with just under eight minute remaining.
“The offensive line played their tails off,” said Andersen. “Sam (Arneson) had a couple great block on that drive that I was able to see from a distance. That was as big time drive as you’ll see against a very talented and a very physical defense.”
Warren Herring felt Iowa’s offensive line was the best the Badgers had faced all season, part of the reason Wisconsin’s pass rush came and went throughout the game.
Wisconsin did force two sacks, but the line didn’t record any tackles for loss and no quarterback hurries, not getting enough pressure on Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock.
“We capitalized on what he could,” said Herring, who finished with a pass breakup. “We have a good defense. We haven’t crumpled under pressure. That’s not us. Coach (Andersen) tells us all the time that you have to stay focused and compete.”
To the group’s credit they helped limit Iowa tailback Mark Weisman, who went over 100 yards against Illinois the week before, to 44 yards on 12 carries and the Hawkeyes as a whole to 101 yards on 28 carries (3.6 ypc).
Another bright spot was nose tackle Arthur Goldberg tying his career high with five tackles, including chasing down tailback Jordan Canzeri on a screen pass during what became Iowa’s final drive, a good sign for next year if he can step into Herring’s role on the defense.
Marcus Trotter and the rest of Wisconsin’s defenders pride themselves on being the best defensive unit in the country. In his own words, the Badgers didn’t live up to that billing against the Hawkeyes.
“Maybe it’s a good thing in the sense that it really made us stay humble about ourselves,” said Trotter. “We’ve still got a lot of things to work on. That’s a good thing.”
Iowa started attacking Wisconsin in desperation mode in the second half, and the Badgers weren’t getting significant pressures on Rudock, a bad combination that allowed Iowa’s offense to find a rhythm and start torching the secondary through the air.
Trotter and Landisch helped stifle the running game with 1.5 tackles for loss a piece. Trotter, who had a breakout game against Iowa last season when he filled in for Chris Borland, registered eight tackles.
Joe Schobert was relatively quiet with only three tackles, but broke up Rudock’s two-point conversion attempt when it was 26-24, preserving the victory with 5:01 remaining.
“It was such a big win, and I think all of us are very happy and proud of how hard we fought,” said Trotter. “Iowa is such a great team and very similar to use. Every time we face Iowa it’s always some crazy game that happens. We still have a lot of work to do, especially on the defensive side.”
As he astutely noted in his postgame comments, the ability for Iowa to complete some passes over the top of Wisconsin defense backs also stems from a lack of pass rush from the front seven. Wisconsin rushed at least four men 14 times on the final two drives, but registered only one sack. That allowed Rudock to throw for 170 yards and two touchdowns on the Hawkeye’s three touchdown drives in the second half, the first against UW’s defense since 2010.
Rudock picked on junior cornerback Darius Hillary frequently and completely a number of perfect thrown passes over Hillary’s head. Hillary was also flagged for a pass interference penalty on the second-to-last drive that could be deemed questionable.
Rudock also had scrambles of 21 and 11 yards, as Wisconsin gave up a season-high 412 yards of offense after limiting their last four opponents to under 200 yards each.
“Ugly or not, you can’t take it for granted,” said safety Michael Caputo.
Caputo (team-high 11 tackles) had the play of the day when he forced and recovered a Weisman fumble on the second Iowa play, and Peniel Jean continues to deliver hard hits. The senior finished the game with seven tackles, third best on the team.
Rafael Gaglianone booted two impressive field goals, including a 50-yard kick in the first quarter, but all he was hoping for was his for his teammates to bail him out after missing his first extra point try in the second quarter.
“Once somebody goes down or somebody makes a mistake, we hope the rest of the team would pick it up and they did,” said Gaglianone. “It feels comforting just having them not hold it against me and be able to move on with me for the next kick.”
Gaglianone has made 10 consecutive field-goal attempts overall, including a pair over 50, and is 15 of 18 (.833) this season.
“We didn’t get the one (extra point) but we got the field goals,” said Andersen. “We miss one of those, we might be sitting here with a completely different ending.”
Punter Drew Meyer had only three punts but all three were perfectly executed. He put two inside the 20 and Iowa returned the other one for only one yard. Kicker Andrew Endicott recorded touchbacks on three of six kickoffs and is averaging one touchback for every 3.5 kicks.
Kenzel Doe only had one return – a kickoff - for 16 yards.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda spent most of the game having Wisconsin in the base 3-4 defense to try to combat the 240-pound Weisman, a scheme that worked well to stop the run but didn’t give the Badgers much of a pass rush, a pick-your-poison move.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig continues to make what must be a burdensome two quarterback system look relatively smooth. On McEvoy’s touchdown run, Wisconsin lined up Clement behind McEvoy to the left, Doe directly behind McEvoy and Gordon to McEvoy’s right. Clement and Doe fakes a sweep, Gordon got hit hard by the defensive end Mike Hardy and linebacker Quinton Alston also flowed to Gordon, leaving McEvoy unguarded.
“It’s one of the core plays in what we have in our spread-run game,” said Andersen.