MADISON – Against better football teams, the University of Wisconsin might not be as lucky. Fortunately for them, the Badgers don’t have a great opponent on their schedule until late November and even that could be up for debate.
The Badgers got another impressive performance from their defense, allowing the offense to scratch out enough points in a 24-7 Homecoming victory over hapless Purdue at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday. But make no mistake, Wisconsin’s offense is still a work in progress as the program crosses the midway point in its season.
“We’re not clean on all of our execution,” said head coach Paul Chryst. “We kind of have our moments, and that’s where we have to be strong enough to overcome the adversity. I think the group owns it. I like that about them, so I feel like we can get better.”
Wisconsin (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) ran nearly twice as many plays as Purdue and outgained the Boilermakers, 272-61, in the opening 30 minutes but led only 10-7 at the half. The final numbers also looked decent. Wisconsin finished with 418 yards, had a 15+ minute edge in time of possession, completed 50 percent on third down and scored three rushing touchdowns.
But the Badgers didn’t develop a rhythm against a Purdue (1-6, 0-3) team ranked 100th in total defense (429.2), 102nd in scoring defense (34.3), and 110th in rushing defense (215.2).
It was the main problem that hurt Wisconsin two weeks ago against Iowa, which destroyed Northwestern, 40-10, on the road to remain a game up in first place in the Big Ten West.
“I just always feel like there’s one play every drive,” said senior receiver Alex Erickson. “Whether it’s a penalty, a missed opportunity to make a play, there’s just something like that that’s just stopping us or putting us to a halt.”
It didn’t start out negative; UW scored a touchdown on its opening drive for just the second time this year after going 81 yards in 10 plays. It was the familiar story of leaving points on the board after that.
On drive No.2, quarterback Joel Stave threw an interception at Purdue’s 5-yard line that was returned 66 yards to set up the Boilermaker’s lone first-half touchdown.
On drive No.3, a 15-yard chop-block penalty on Troy Fumagalli pushed UW back to a first-and-25 from the Purdue 27. UW had to settle for a field goal after Stave didn’t see a wide-open Rob Wheelwright at the goal line.
On drive No.4, right tackle Beau Benzschawel gave up a sack at the Purdue 13, forcing the offense to burn its last timeout and attempt a field goal in the final seconds, an attempt that was missed after it was partially blocked.
“We had four drives there and every one of them we got down close and got ourselves in position to score,” said Stave. “To only come away with 10 points is disappointing.”
Wisconsin – on its fifth different offensive line combination in seven games due to Dan Voltz (elbow) being relegated to emergency status – got no production from the run, a rarity against Purdue. Last in the Big Ten in rush defense, giving up 215.2 yards per game, the Boilermaker held the Badgers to 96 total yards. More notable, no UW player rushed for over 100 yards for the first time in seven meetings.
“It can be frustrating at times,” said tailback Dare Ogunbowale, UW’s leading rusher at 56 yards on 12 carries. “The comfort in it is we’re one play away. We’re right there. A couple things here and there, maybe a block here, a read by the running back, stuff like that. I still feel like we’ll get things going. When we do, it’s going to be a tough offense.”
For the second straight week, the Badgers did a lot of their damage through the air. The interception and a handful of gaffs aside, Stave threw for 322 yards on 30 of 39 passing (76.9 percent). He improved to 4-0 against Purdue – the first QB in school history to post a 4-0 record against a school – and has thrown 89 passes in two weeks, very un-Wisconsin-like.
“I wasn’t expecting this going into the season,” he said, “but we need to do what we need to do to move the ball.”
But while the concerns on the offense are notable, Wisconsin’s defense continues to make life miserable for opponents. Wisconsin held Purdue to 191 total yards on its 11 drives. In the second half, Purdue punted four times, fumbled once turned the ball over on downs the last two times.
“I thought that was probably the best defense we’ve faced coming into the game on film,” said Purdue head coach Darrell Hazell, now 1-18 in Big Ten games. “We’ve played some pretty good defenses at Michigan State and Virginia Tech, but I thought this one put as much pressure as teams on film coming into this one as anybody did, just because of Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel.”
Worst yet for Purdue, Schobert and Biegel were even the unit’s biggest problem. While Schobert (7 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks) and Biegel (4 tackles) were good, redshirt freshman inside linebacker T.J. Edwards was a one-man wrecking crew.
Finishing with a career-high 16 tackles, Edwards finished with 1.5 TFLs and a forced fumble, coming at the end of one of only two 20-plus-yard plays UW allowed all game.
In five home games this season, Wisconsin has allowed only two touchdowns, both coming after interceptions flipped the field position.
“As a defense if you make a big play, a big hit, a big play, a turnover, the crowd gets into it,” said Edwards, as Wisconsin allowed just 12 plays to be run in its territory in the second half. “You feed off that, especially at the Camp. There’s nothing better.”
Heading back on the road next week against Illinois, the Badgers’ defense will have to again bring the energy. With an offense in flux, the margin for error on the field – and in the standings – remains slim.