MADISON - The first half had not gone as scripted for the University of Wisconsin.
Heavy favorites over a struggling team from the Sun Belt, Wisconsin’s offense was lacking flow since an early scoring drive that gave the 77,157 fans in attendance promise that this would be the game the ground attack exploded.
Wisconsin needed a spark, something to latch on to heading into the locker room. As has been the case through the early portions of the season, senior quarterback Joel Stave was the igniter.
While doing most of the damage on a 90-yard drive with his arm, Stave capped the drive with his legs on a four-yard scramble, giving No.24 Wisconsin the boost it needed that register a 28-3 victory over Troy at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers (2-1) rushed for 199 yards and three touchdowns and saw their defense not allow a touchdown for the second straight game.
On a day where the Big Ten West struggled mightily, excluding Northwestern moving to 3-0 with a road win over Duke, Wisconsin never trailed but also never felt entirely comfortable until Stave took the reins away from the running game.
Backed up to its own 15 and facing a first-and-25, Stave delivered a 21-yard pass to Alex Erickson, a 9-yard pass to Jazz Peavy and a 45-yard completion – the longest of the season for UW – down the middle of the field to Erickson, flipping the field to the Troy 10-yard line.
“That was tough,” said Troy head coach Neal Brown. “That was a big momentum change.”
After UW’s first two attempts inside the 10 when for naught, Stave’s third-down rollout to his left ended with him successfully lunging for the end zone when all his receivers were covered up.
Over last two games, Wisconsin has had three drives that started with less than 3:30 before halftime. On those series, Stave has gone 11-for-14, 196 yards and been responsible for two touchdowns, helping UW put 17 points on the board.
And unlike the Alabama game, where a missed field goal cost UW halftime momentum, the Badgers went into the locker room with a pep in their step after pushing their lead to 14-3.
“We really needed that,” said Stave. “You don’t want to go into half up 7-3 giving them the ball to start the next half. I thought we did a good job executing on that drive, overcoming a first-and-25 after the penalty. I am really happy the way we responded.”
From the onset, it appeared head coach Paul Chryst was determined to get Wisconsin’s running game moving in the right direction. Averaging a very un-Wisconsin-like 114 yards on the ground, which ranked dead last in the Big Ten and 107th in the country, the Badgers wanted to get back to basics.
“We wanted to get back to what the Wisconsin offensive line is known for doing,” said right guard Micah Kapoi, making his first career start in place of Walker Williams (ankle). “We wanted to get the run started early and carried throughout the game.”
Entering the weekend as the 118th rush defense in the country, Troy (1-2) had given up 251 yards to NC State and 263 yards to Charleston Southern. Surely the Badgers’ beleaguered running game would get a confidence boost? Well, yes and no.
Eleven of Wisconsin’s first 12 plays were kept on the ground and resulted in positive momentum. On Wisconsin’s 6-play, 81-yard scoring drive early in the second quarter, five were runs that resulted in 51 yards, including Dare Ogunbowale’s 17-yard touchdown.
Excluding sacks, Wisconsin only lost two yards on 34 carries but didn’t put up the staggering numbers either. Taiwan Deal (career-high 84 yards) and Ogunbowale (75) split carries throughout the day. Wisconsin finished with 199 yards on the ground, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and struggled running the ball on third down, finishing 3 of 10.
“Offensively I thought we did a better job of running the ball consistently, which I think there's some things that we can build on and certainly some areas where we get better,” said Chryst. “I think we weren’t very good offensively on third down, and so we've got more work to do.”
Thankfully Wisconsin’s defense hasn’t needed much the last two weeks to put the Badgers in position to win. Going against an up-tempo spread offense averaging 32.5 points per game and a quarterback that hadn’t thrown an interception in the previous 29 quarters, the Trojans usually didn’t keep the ball long enough to allow the Badgers to get adequate pressure.
When they did, however, Wisconsin took advantage. The unit finished with seven tackles for loss and three sacks, but none bigger than outside linebacker Joe Schobert registering one of the game’s critical plays when he outmuscled the left tackle to strip Silvers on a third-and-1. The play resulted in Michael Caputo recovering the loose ball at the UW 33 and preserving a 14-3 lead.
Seven plays later, senior Tanner McEvoy took the direct snap 32 yards for a touchdown, ensuring a comfortable margin of error.