Considering what was all on the line and the magnitude of the game, Joel Stave considered Saturday to be the biggest start of his career, and he played tremendous.
Going against a ball-hawking secondary, Stave threw for 215 yards and two red-zone touchdowns, not to mention executed some deep throws that either went for big gains or drew penalties to keep Wisconsin’s drives moving.
“I thought we did a really good throwing the ball effectively, efficiently and converting some third downs, and when we needed being able to stretch the field,” said Stave. “Even if we’re not catching it, (we’re) drawing pass interferences, and that’s 15 yards, a first down and keeps the drives going.”
The passing game has really taken some big steps in the right direction under Stave’s guidance the last several weeks, especially on third down. A week after going 7-for-13 in the win at Iowa, Stave helped the offense go 5-for-15, not tremendous numbers but had some big time conversions.
None was bigger than the 70-yard completion in the second quarter on a third-and-8 to Alex Erickson, the longest pass play of the season for Stave and one that flipped field position from the UW 22 to the Minnesota 8, setting up Wisconsin’s first score.
“That was a big play for us being in a third-and-long situation down in our own territory,” said Stave. “Being able to convert that really put our offense in a good situation.”
Over the last four weeks, Stave is completing 67.1 percent of his passes (49-for-73) and five touchdowns and only one interception, a big reason why the Badgers are heading to Indianapolis.
“To be able to keep the Axe and get the (championship) hat, it’s a cool situation for us,” said Stave. “It was a big win, and we’re just excited for the opportunity next week.”
Tanner McEvoy played a hand fill of snaps but didn’t attempt one pass and made little impact on the ground game (five carries for 12 yards).
Seldom does a running back who runs for 62 fewer yards than someone else make a bigger impact, but sophomore Corey Clement was a huge boost to Wisconsin’s running game. Only supposed to be used in an emergency situation, which was evident by UW using some timeouts to give Melvin Gordon a breather, Clement stepped in when Gordon finally needed a break and his 28-yard touchdown run on his first carry in the third quarter gave Wisconsin its first lead.
Two drives later, Clement’s 31-yard run down to the one set up Gordon’s second touchdown. Clement finished with 89 yards on seven carries, averaging a robust 12.7 yards per carry despite having an irritating pain in his shoulder that caused his arm to briefly go dead when he was hit wrong.
“I needed Corey,” said Gordon. “He made some plays. He was hot. Every time he touched the ball he was electrifying… He gave us that spark that we needed.”
If Clement was the speedy sports car, Gordon was the reliable truck, simply plowing his way through the terrain to get to the destination. He carried the ball 29 times for 151 yards and one rushing touchdown and didn’t have one carry that went for over 25. His 5.2 yards per carry were far from his usual robust numbers, but Gordon knew things weren’t going to be easy against the Gophers.
“It’s a rivalry game,” he said. “Those guys game plan as hard as we do. I knew I was going to have to grind it out. I had a couple opportunities to break some long ones. They got me in the one-on-ones. Some battles you win, Some battles you lose.”
Gordon’s 151 yards gives him 2,260 yards for the season, the best in the history of Wisconsin and the Big Ten. It also puts him fourth in FBS history, just 82 yards behind USC’s Marcus Allen. The junior also caught a four-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, giving him 29 touchdowns on the season and at least two in seven straight games.
“His performance was very physical,” said Andersen of Gordon, who finished with his 11th 100-yard game on the season. “I thought he was unbelievably tough minded in some tough sledding. There was a lot of tackles going down low on Melvin. That's good defense when you go play against a tremendous back. Those guys were good tacklers. They're physical tacklers. They wanted to get physical with him.
“These last two weeks, you get the Iowa game, this game, you'll have a hard time finding two more physical football teams playing against each other. We played them both. Melvin handled that well.”
Just like the running back position, Rob Wheelwright’s fourth-quarter catch manage to overshadow a career-day from Erickson. Having struggled for most of his career to get on the field in meaningful minutes, Wheelwright’s 17-yard touchdown catch was the key insurance score for the Badgers, as he was given the opportunity to be on the field with Erickson on the sidelines needing a breather.
“You’ve got to be ready to play whenever your number is called,” said Erickson. “Coach stresses it all the time. Rob came in and that’s what he did… Big games like that, guys got to step up. Robert was in there, made a great catch and that’s great to see. Hopefully that a sign of things to come for him because he’s a very talented individual.”
Erickson’s stat line reads an impressive five catches for 160 yards (a career high) but it was the three penalties he drew that made a big difference, especially the two pass interference penalties in the third quarter that extended drives, with one leading to Clement’s score.
“When it’s one-on-one coverage, you’ve got to win,” said Erickson. “They put their guys on an island, so it’s you vs. him, and you’ve got to win the one on ones. That’s what it’s all about. As a competitor that’s what you want. You want one-on-ones and want the quarterback to trust you can make the plays.”
Not to be forgotten, senior tight end Sam Arneson continues having a solid, underrated season. Solid in the blocking game, Arneson added two catches for 28 yards.
“Not only does he make tremendous plays, he's a big target, he's physical, he's made big time catches, especially earlier in the year when it was harder for us to be able to throw the football successfully,” said Andersen. “He was always kind of that guy that was making those plays when we needed them.”
Jordan Fredrick gets my unsung hero award, as his work as a blocker is tremendous. UW’s 31-yard screen pass to Erickson in the fourth quarter doesn’t work if Fredrick does lay it on the line.
The running game has been there for Wisconsin against every FBS team on the schedule, evident by the Badgers finishing with a net gain of 233 rushing yards against Minnesota. What we have started to see in the past few weeks was the improvement by the front in protecting the quarterback, protection that wasn’t always top of the line but was masked by the limited number of attempts UW sometimes threw.
With three seniors on the line, including two (Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein) who were named consensus first-team All-Big Ten selections Monday, the pass protection allowed just one sack (a speed rush against Tyler Marz in the third quarter) while giving Stave plenty of time to throw.
“I really believe that (Stave) feels comfortable with his protection now,” Andersen said. “Probably as comfortable, I believe, as he's been since we've been all been here together. If this gets blocked up, I am going to have a chance to throw the ball. He is seeing the field very, very well.”
Minnesota tailback David Cobb got running early, signaling that it could be a long day for the Wisconsin defense. The Gophers ran for 78 yards and two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter and were imposing their will on the Badgers. Cobb only had 2.6 yards per carry in the second half.
“In order to be a great team, you have to face some type of adversity and that’s what we did,” said Herring. “We had to dig in and that’s what we did.”
Down 14-3 entering into the second quarter and soon finding themselves down 17-3 shortly into the second, Vince Biegel said the linebackers didn’t panic, simply “looked at each other and said that we had to get business done. We had to make the stops and put our offense in a good position so they could do what needed to be done.”
The first critical stop happened on that field goal, a red-zone stand after the Gophers got to the UW 10. Wisconsin had very little going for it on either side of the ball, but that stop started a run for Wisconsin of preventing Minnesota from getting inside the 30 for the next five drives.
“At that point, we had our backs against a wall,” said Biegel. “We couldn’t give up seven points. Giving up 17 points in the first half is not something we pride ourselves on. Adversity struck and we had our backs up against a wall a few times and being able to rally back in the second half like we did was good.”
After missing a tackle that would have prevented Cobb’s 40-yard touchdown, Marcus Trotter rebounded and continued his tremendous late season success with a career-high 14 tackles, including a key tackle for loss on third-and-short stop in the third quarter. Minnesota was forced to punt a drive after UW took the lead.
The only big blemish was somebody among the linebackers forgetting to cover Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams, who rumbled 53 yards on third-and-3 down to the UW 3. The Gophers scored on that drive to make it 27-24 but would get no closer.
Another player who rebounded from some missed tackle opportunities, Caputo finished with 12 tackles and made the key forced/fumble recovery late in the second quarter. It was a play that his head coach and his teammates said was a turning point of the game, as it prevented Minnesota from possibly improving its lead to 20-10 while giving UW an opportunity to get a late field goal to cut the deficit to 17-13 at halftime.
“It definitely sparked some momentum,” said Herring. “It gave the ball to our offense and let them do some things to it. We pride ourselves on getting turnovers and getting the ball back to our offense because we know they’re going to score.”
Jean finished with a career-high eight tackle and is doing a fine job. Lubern Figaro, who played alongside Caputo and Jean in some three safety sets, had four tackles and a tackle for loss in his best game in quite some time.
Kenzel Doe had the hat trick Saturday, but nobody was throwing any caps on the field. The senior fumbled his first punt return (leading to a score), had a 15-yard personal foul penalty when he tackled Minnesota’s punt returner trying to catch the ball and muffed another punt late in the game.
Leo Musso also had a damaging 15-yard facemask penalty that gave the Gophers the ball on their own 49. They would eventually score a field goal on the drive.
Andersen said punter Drew Meyer is doing a nice job punting the football right now and I would tend to agree. He averaged 41.4 yards on his five punts with one inside the 20 and one touchback. He rebounded from his 40-yard line drive punt that gave the Gophers great field position that led to their second touchdown.
Andrew Endicott's kickoffs, including three touchbacks on six kicks, helped control Minnesota's return game, and freshman Rafael Gaglianone pushed his consecutive field goal streak to 12. He’s 17 of 20 overall (85.0 percent). After two bad years, UW doesn’t appear to have to worry about kickers for the considerable future.
In much the same fashion as the Nebraska game, a Doe fumble and a bad punt led to quick points against the Badgers and eventually a 17-3 deficit. Wisconsin dug itself out against the Huskers by halftime and pulled away of the Gophers in the third quarter.
Everyone stayed poised, including Andersen, who recognized the defense was doing a decent job against a really good offense despite having starting field position at the UW 13 and 30 and Minnesota 49 on three scoring drives.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig decision to throw play-action passes into the mix pushed the defensive backs further into the secondary, allowing a little bit of room to run. After a shaky start to this season, Ludwig has put Stave in the right position to succeed, as UW has had good balance in recent weeks.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wasn’t one of the five finalists for the award given to the top assistant in college football, but he is definitely the top assistant on UW’s roster right now, considering what he’s done for UW’s defense week in and week out. Pay the man, Shirley.