The poise and composure Wisconsin senior quarterback Joel Stave displayed in the season opener was one of the handful of things the Badgers were commended on from their loss to No.3 Alabama. For Paul Chryst, those were attributes he has seen since arriving in Madison in the offseason.
“How he handles himself, it's who he is and how he plays the position,” said Chryst. “Love the attention to detail that he's been putting in during the week. It's freeing him up to be able to go play the game and hopefully enjoy playing the game.”
Stave delivered another solid performance for Wisconsin’s offense to give him a win in each of his four eligible seasons at Wisconsin (and 22nd overall, fifth-most all time). He completed 19 of 30 passes for 236 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Through two games this season, Stave has a TD-to-INT ratio of 5:2.
Not only did he move up the win total, but Stave moved into fourth all-time in passing yards (5,412) and second in completions (433).
“I’m pretty happy with how we’ve been able to throw the ball,” said Stave. “We’ve been able to exploit some things we see on film.”
More importantly, Stave was balanced. On a 9-play second quarter scoring drive, Stave hit five different receivers, going 6-for-7 for 85 yards. He also had a quick memory. After a first-down interception, Stave went 10-for-13. Two of his incompletions were drops by his receivers.
“I thought he did some good things, and every game there is going to be something that he can learn from,” said Chryst. “I think he can put his ceiling pretty high. He wants to play to that and we've got to coach to that.”
Junior quarterback Bart Houston played the last half of the third quarter and all of the fourth quarter. The results were modest, but he completed a career-high four passes for a career-best 27 yards, including his second-career touchdown pass.
The Stave interception aside on first down, which appeared to be the result of a miscommunication with the route Erickson was running, he is delivering for the Badgers through two games this season.
“Everyone has got a lot of confidence in each other and a lot of confidence in the system and Coach Chryst,” said Stave. “Guys are just playing fast, we’re being decisive, making our decision quick and not trying to force anything.”
With Corey Clement in street clothes, ruled out on Friday to rest his nagging left groin, Dare Ogunbowale and Taiwan Deal had an opportunity to take advantage. It wasn’t very pretty early on, but they managed to carve out a combined 157 yards and three scores – the first three of the season.
“It was definitely fun,” said Ogunbowale. “Me and Taiwan knew going into the game we’d have a bigger role with Corey being out, so we tried to make sure we took advantage of that. I think Taiwan did a great job, especially in the short-yardage package that we have for him.”
Deal did take advantage with the running game stymied early on, plunging in from 1-yard out in the second and third quarter for the first two scores of his young career. He finished with 45 yards on 12 carries.
After being limited to only 18 yards at halftime, Ogunbowale had carries of 14, 16 and 35 yards in the third quarter, the last one being a touchdown run that was the longest of his career. In fact, the 14-yard carry was the first double-digit gain the team had all season.
“I thought Dare made some plays, couple where he kept his balance, and it was nice on the one touchdown run he had,” said Chryst. “I thought Taiwan early there was a drive on a third (and short), I thought he ran behind his pads, I liked seeing that. Dare is older, but doesn't have as much experience, started at the corner and moved over and for Taiwan he's a young, young back and every snap you get, I think, is really valuable.”
The Badgers also got redshirt freshman Caleb Kinlaw some work in the fourth quarter. After having injuries and surgeries hamper his development through two seasons, Kinlaw had 30 yards on seven carries.
The tailbacks weren’t big factors in the passing game this week (a combined four catches for 30 yards) but Kinlaw had a 5-yard catch for his first career score in his first career game.
The backs weren’t great by any means but certainly were better than they were a week ago.
“It’s something we can just continue to improve on,” Stave said of the run game. “I think it’ll be different when we get Corey back also, but I think we have good plays and good players up front. It’s just a matter of needing to work the details.”
Wisconsin is starting to see the potential junior Rob Wheelwright possesses, as his six catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns were more than his career totals. He was also inches away from another score but settled for the two and being a key contributor in a two-minute offense (2 catches for 31 yards) that led to a field goal.
The Badgers haven’t had a second receiver reach 20 receptions of 200 yards since 2011. Wheelwright (eight for 97) is nearly halfway to both of those marks after two games, as he’s emerged as Stave’s top red-zone target.
Adding Alex Erickson (5 catches, 73 yards) and Tanner McEvoy (3 catches, 29 yards) to the mix, the Badgers can continue spreading it around to different receivers (Stave hit eight different targets) but the focus will be centered around the above-named trio.
“I thought this week that group worked and had a good week of practice and they were playing fast,” said Chryst of the receivers. “You need to. We're still building chemistry and these guys are still trying to understand this offense, and I like the way that they communicate with each other. I think they know that in many ways we've got a lot of areas we can get better at.”
McEvoy is the big question mark as to how high his ceiling is. Playing between 20-30 plays on offense, McEvoy gave a glimmer of how his size and speed can impact the offense.
“With what he was able to do last year running the ball as a quarterback, if you can get him on the edges, in space or one-on-one situations, he can be pretty dangerous with the ball in his hands,” said Stave.
For the first time in ages, the Badgers’ passing attack is not an early-season concern.
Better, not great but better.
Wisconsin struggled early against a Miami defensive front that returned all four starters but eventually wore down because of sheer size and strength. Still, the Badgers should be rushing for more than 188 yards against a team like the Redhawks.
Both Hayden Biegel and Tyler Marz, twice, got beat on outside rushes that contributed to sacks or quicker throws. In an effort to find a five-man unit that really clicks, Wisconsin offensive line coach Joe Rudolph started rotating redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi at left guard with Walker Williams, shifting Williams to tackle and Biegel to the bench.
The Badgers also had Kapoi, Williams and Biegel in a short-yardage jumbo package that yielded a couple of touchdowns from Deal.
The performance was better but nowhere where it needs to be for the Badgers to be competitive in the Big Ten, especially with how inconsistent the ball was run early on.
After getting torched on the ground by Alabama, Wisconsin held Miami University to minus-3 rushing yards and allowed no runs to go longer than seven yards. After struggling in the opener, Conor Sheehy had a nice bounce back performance. He held up against double teams to open up lanes for the linebackers and registered his first career sack (a half one).
Arthur Goldberg only had one tackle but it was a big one, shedding his blockers to Redhawks tailback Kenny Young for no gain on third-and-1 on Miami’s opening drive.
Joe Schobert continues to make a tremendous amount of plays. He didn’t lead the team in tackles but was everywhere on the field with one sack and two quarterback hurries. His ability to read and react at a moment’s notice should have him playing on Sundays next season.
Same goes with Vince Biegel, although he’s hopefully two years away from that distinction. He finished with a team-best 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and four tackles. Wisconsin had nine tackles for loss, six coming from the linebackers.
“Without question it’s a confidence builder,” said Biegel. “From a defensive standpoint, we cleaned up a lot of errors which was the biggest thing.”
The group was the bridge between the defensive line allowing minus-3 rushing yards and the secondary allowing only 160 passing yards.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has stressed – probably more than any other person in the Wisconsin program – that turnovers are a must this season. UW forced only 17 in 14 games last season and was shutout in that department in the opener. Not the case Saturday, as the Badgers forced four miscues (three interceptions). Safety Leo Musso had two of them including one inside the UW 5 in the third quarter that thwarted the Redhawks best scoring chance.
“Obviously guys are always going to say that there’s stuff you can improve on, but we just want to keep building our identity,” said Musso. “We want that identity to be fast, physical defense that makes a lot of players and makes a lot of turnovers.”
It’s two different teams, but it’s evident how about Michael Caputo impacts the game for Wisconsin. Making the start after getting knocked out after three plays, Caputo played deep, close to the line and even in the flat in some nickel situations, a versatile player who made five tackles and impacted the game in multiple phases.
The same could be said about McEvoy, who got the start next to Caputo and registered an interception after jumping an out route, returning it 41 yards to the Miami 4 to set up another touchdown.
“I enjoy watching him,” said Chryst. “I thought he was a blast in practice, he was shuffling both sides and doing everything, but he's got it, and I think he can help us, and we need him.”
After the defense missed 17 tackles tackle against Alabama, a large portion of them by the secondary, Wisconsin was on the point against Miami and shut down its aerial passing attack, allowing only one play over 20 yards.
Kudos as well to sophomore Derrick Tindal, who led UW with seven tackles (one solo) and had a pass breakup. When Sojourn Shelton went to the locker room for a concussion test (he passed), Tindal moved into his role and more than held his own.
Not to be forgotten, Darius Hilary had two tackles (one for loss), one pass breakup and always seemed to be in the right place to make a play.
Shelton’s jarring hit on Miami’s punt returner caused a fumble that long snapper Conner Udelhoven recovered in the first quarter, helping the Badgers get great early field position that they converted into a field goal.
That was the highlight of a banner day for the unit.
Rafael Gaglianone made all three of his field goal attempts, tying a career high and providing a nice bounce back from week one. Drew Meyer continues solid punting with downing two inside the 20-yard line and averaging 39.8 yards on his four kicks. Andrew Endicott, who I neglected to mention last week, saw five of his 10 kickoffs go for touchbacks. On the five that were returned, Miami only managed 93 yards with a long of 24. The Redhawks only had one punt return, which went for minus-1 yard.
Alex Erickson averaged 18 yards per punt, including returns of 35 and 28 yards that set up touchdowns. Erickson wasn’t perfect though, misplaying a rugby-style punt that UW was fortunate to recover.
“The guys did a great job of giving me space to make some things happen back there,” said Erickson.