Considering the issues going on behind him and in front of him, the play of senior Joel Stave has been vital to Wisconsin through the first four games of the season. Throwing for 200-plus yards in the first three games of the season, Stave has shown a poise and confidence with his reads, decision making and throws. His interception totals are down (two) and his completion percentage is up.
As a result, Stave – a career 58.7 percent completion passer – is at 66.1 percent through four games, ranking third in the Big Ten. He also has thrown seven touchdown passes, a mark that took him eight games to accomplish last season.
He hasn’t been perfect. The offense has gone through stalls over the last several home games and happened again on Saturday in UW’s 28-0 win over Hawaii. After a methodical 16-play, 97-yard drive that chewed over eight minutes off the clock, UW’s next three drives went for a combined 15 plays and 82 yards.
Wisconsin also went 4-for-10 on third down, the second straight week UW was held 40 percent or lower.
“We stopped ourselves on a couple of those drives early,” said Stave. “We had plays there that we just weren’t making. That’s always disappointing.”
To his credit, Stave has been clutch approaching halftime. Over the Badgers’ last three games, Stave has led four drives that earned the Badgers points within the final minute of the first half. He has gone 15-for-19 for 236 yards and three touchdowns, with Wisconsin scoring 24 total points on those drives.
From the opponent’s 40-yard line and in, Stave has gone 24-for-36 for 279 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions this season for a pass efficiency rating of 195.3.
Make no mistake that the passing game is nowhere where it needs to be, especially after it went 14-for-23 against the Rainbow Warriors, but there’s no question that UW’s aerial assault has moved forward thanks to Stave.
“It’s exciting that we’re able to win the way we (did) with as many plays as I think we left out there,” Stave said. “There’s a lot of room to get better, and I think everyone knows that. I think everyone appreciates that fact. We’re just going to continue to work, continue to focus on the details and improve for next week.”
Through the nonconference portion of the schedule, traditionally a schedule that includes three patsies, the Badgers are tied for 58th nationally in rushing yards per game (188.3). That’s unheard of at Wisconsin … until you start breaking down the reasons why.
Junior tailback Corey Clement has been a nonfactor, playing minimally in the first game of the season and now shutdown for at least the next month while he rehabs from sports hernia surgery. The Badgers’ offensive line – also a traditional stalwart position of the team – has been a work in progress. And with Clement out of the mix, UW’s running game has been given to a redshirt freshman and a player who started last season as a defensive back. So, there you have it.
Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale are far from complete backs but are using their strengths as an advantage. Deal is a straight ahead power runner. Given a simplified portion of the playbook, Deal’s physicality is winning him yards.
In his first career start against Hawaii, Deal rushed for a career-high 147 yards on 26 carries and two scores. He earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week — UW’s first such honor since Clement was named the league’s top freshman twice in 2013.
“He's been working,” head coach Paul Chryst said of Deal. “That's what I love about this game is it takes everyone. I thought that he's been growing with his opportunities. I think he's been a patient back and trusting himself, and that's good to see.”
Ogunbowale is better outside the tackles and has showcased better vision on his runs than a year ago. With Clement out, Deal and Ogunbowale have combined to account for 74.3 percent of UW’s rushing attempts (110 of 148, excluding sacks and a botched snap) on the season. Together, they have combined to lose yardage on just three of their 110 rushing attempts on the year (with all three going for -1 yard).
After being held to 40 rushing yards against Alabama, UW’s rushing attack has steadily improved each week, going from 188 to 199 to 326 against the Warriors.
“I thought the running game was very effective (vs. Hawaii),” said Stave. “On first down we’re able to hit those six, seven, eight yard runs that we like to be able to do to stay ahead of the chains. Third-and-short situations we’re able to put our heads down and plow through the line of scrimmage for however many yards we needed.”
The jet sweep is still in the playbook, having been used four times in four games, but the strength of this team for now appears to be the grinding style of Deal and Ogunbowale. Putting up numbers against Miami University and Troy is one thing, but doing them against Iowa and Nebraska is another.
Eight different receivers/tight ends have been involved in the passing game for Wisconsin, a good solid number for the Badgers and a sign that players are stepping up to the plate in what has been a one-note position for the last several years.
“We’re improving each game, and that’s what’s important,” said receivers coach Ted Gilmore. “Are we a finished product? By no means. We’ve got a lot of things we can clean up … It’s always under constructions. Each game we’re trying to pile it on and get to the point where we don’t make the same mistakes.”
One of those areas that needs improvement is blocking downfield on run plays, something Gilmore said cost the Badgers a lot of yards against Troy. With senior receiver Jordan Fredrick – UW’s best blocker - again grinding through issues, Gilmore is looking for other players to take on that gritty role.
In terms of pass catching, the results have been good. The drops have been minimal (except for the three in the first half against Hawaii) and players have stepped up to the plate. Although held without a catch against Hawaii, Rob Wheelwright’s 10 catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns are all clear career highs. With Troy Fumagalli missing two of the last three games, senior Austin Traylor has stepped into a big leadership role and responded by averaging a team-best 15.1 yards per catch (minimal two catches) and tied Wheelwight for the team lead with three touchdowns.
Both players put a ton of work in during the offseason, including Traylor trying to catch 100 passes a day, and it shows. That’s allowed senior Alex Erickson (23 catches, 320 yards) more opportunities in favorable matchups.
“Alex is a terrific young man, first and foremost, and where he has impressed the most is his leadership skills,” said Gilmore. “He’s taking on a role at that position on the field and in the classroom. He has ownership in that. I didn’t expect that from him, so that’s been a huge blessing. On the field, he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there. As a coach, having that trust factor is invaluable.”
Tanner McEvoy hasn’t made the impact we thought he was going to at receiver to this point (three catches, 29 yards) but Jazz Peavy (6 for 47) has been a real nice surprise and somebody Stave and the coaching staff is starting to trust consistently.
UW has also started to get the ball in the direction of fullback Derek Watt more. Having eight catches through four games, he has two catches for 35 yards against the Warriors, including a 27-yard play down the slot.
“We’re getting everybody mixed it – tight ends, running backs, fullbacks, receivers,” said Watt. “Everyone is getting involved … I feel like we have good balanced and made good progress going forward.”
Make no mistake that this is still a work in progress, but the Badgers have to feel good about where they stand after four games. Decimated by injuries in fall camp and embarrassed by Alabama in week one, UW’s line has started to grow together to help the running game move forward and limit the pressures being thrust on Stave.
Tyler Marz – the lone senior of the group - and Dan Voltz have been the critical pieces to Wisconsin’s success. Not only have they been responsible for the majority of the calls on the field, the duo have set the tone by how they practice, watch film and prepare.
“Those are the things that you don't often see, but where older guys kind of guiding the younger ones,” said Chryst. “I think all the positions that you see are older guys putting their arm around a younger guy and, ‘This is what you’ve got to do.’ It's been fun for me to see.”
Michael Deiter plays beyond his redshirt freshman age and has really benefited from playing between Marz and Voltz. Watching game tape, Deiter has been a stout pass blocker, limiting the pressures on the quarterbacks, and has been making nice strides in the run game.
The right side of the line is a different story. Hayden Biegel has not looked comfortable in a lot of instances, forcing offensive line coach Joe Rudolph to rotate starting right guard Walker Williams to right tackle and bring redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi into the rotation. Redshirt freshman Jacob Maxwell has also been involved at the right tackle rotation, but Kapoi has been steadily getting better since the tail end of fall camp. His technique still needs work but his intensity in the trenches shows up.
“Micah and Deiter playing as redshirt freshman is pretty impressive,” said Voltz. “It’s a tough spot, but they’re getting better each game. It’s clear and it shows up on the tape. It’s exciting heading into Big Ten play.”
After running for 326 yards against Hawaii, controlling nearly 40 minutes of clock and keeping the ball on the ground 2/3rds of the time, Wisconsin got some of its identity back at a critical time. Seeing that success of sustaining blocks, opening up gaps and protecting the quarterback will be essential over the next two months.
“My message to the guys before the game was this is a statement game for us going into Big Ten,” said Voltz. “We’ve got Iowa (Saturday) and then Nebraska, two physical games. We’ve got to come out and prove we’re going to put up a fight like that, and we did that. That gives us a lot of confidence going into (this) week with a great defense in Iowa, and we’re excited about that.”