MADISON – Once the euphoria and energy of Wisconsin’s thrilling season-opening victory died down, the picture came more in focus.
While the Badgers’ defense appeared to not miss a step from 2015, questions remained if a young offense with a new quarterback and unproven play makers in new roles could function at a high level. The outlook after week two appears far more exciting.
Whether it was the starting unit or the reserves getting experience, Wisconsin’s offense lit up the scoreboard with touchdowns through the air and on the ground in a convincing 54-10 blowout over Akron in Saturday’s home opener.
While the defense had to switch to a whole new game prep to prepare for Akron’s spread attack, Wisconsin’s offense simply focused on correctly the miscues that plagued it from blowing out LSU last weekend at Lambeau Field – better efficiency on first and third downs, more consistent play from the receivers and the running game, limiting the turnovers and converting in the red zone.
The test wasn’t perfectly aced, but the Badgers put check marks in quite a few boxes.
Wisconsin (2-0) was almost perfectly balanced, rushing for 294 yards on 55 attempts (5.3 per rush) and throwing for 292 yards on 27 attempts (10.8 per attempt). The UW athletic communications staff had searched through the record books dating back to 1996 and couldn’t find another game with at least 290 rushing and passing yards.
“This is definitely what we want to be, what we’re striving to be week in and week out,” center Michael Deiter said. “Not too run heavy, not too pass heavy, a good balanced offense is what you want to be. I thought we did a good job, but we need to do that week in and week out.”
The Badgers had four drives of at least 70 yards and eight that went at least 50 it what was a clock-chewing exhibition of 40 minutes, 52 seconds.
“We had a lot of big plays,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I looked up one time (at the scoreboard) and the time of possession was really titled.”
And after Wisconsin went 3-for-15 on third down last week – Chryst said it “couldn’t get any worse” – the Badgers were 10-for-15 and put themselves more manageable situations. On first down plays in the first half, Wisconsin averaged 9.4 yards per attempt.
“We did a lot better there and we needed to do that,” senior quarterback Bart Houston said. “We needed to get confidence on third down.”
Going against an Akron front that is still evolving from the stout run stopping force it was a year ago, Wisconsin saw Corey Clement rush for 21 carries for 111 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw and sophomore Taiwan Deal go for 74 and 50, respectively, in the second half.
“This was a little bit of a snap shot (of what he can be offensively),” Clement said, who had 47 yards on seven carries on UW’s first touchdown drive that began the game. “I am pretty sure we’re looking forward to a big one.”
Just as important as establishing the run, Wisconsin was turnover free, a big feather in the cap of Houston. After throwing a pair of interceptions in the only two games in which he saw substantial reps, Houston threw for 231 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to receiver Jazz Peavy, the second of which was a 32-yard strike between two defenders that hit his target between the numbers.
“We have a lot of weapons out there on offense and this week was Jazz’s turn,” Houston said. “I don’t know about next week, maybe Rob (Wheelwright)’s, or Fum (Troy Fumagalli) again, or Jazz again.”
Drops plagued the Badgers at times in the win over LSU, but those issues were absent for at least one week. Wisconsin saw eight different players haul in passes, including four from senior Rob Wheelwright. He had the longest gain of the day when his receiver screen pass sprung for 47 yards thanks to a block at the line of scrimmage from Peavy.
Truth be told, Wisconsin’s defense didn’t need much help. Although Akron’s skill players were touted throughout the week, the Zips (1-1) were powerless against UW’s swarming attack. Wisconsin delivered four sacks, its first safety off a defensive play since 2008, forced two more turnovers (five now in two games) and held Akron to only 224 total yards.
In the first quarter, the Zips gained four yards on five plays. In the third quarter they had more penalty yards (35) than positive ones (18).
Most importantly Wisconsin didn’t give up a defensive touchdown, the only damage coming on a 55-yard punt return in the second quarter by receiver JoJo Natson.
“We’re a defense who’s always hungry to get better,” senior Leo Musso said, who had an interception in the second quarter. “We’ll never tell you that we played our best game. There’s always things we can improve on. But I think as we become one, it’s all about the communication and how much fun we have out there, and I think that’s what everybody is seeing.”
While the performance certainly was appetizing, it was far from surprising. Akron’s front seven included two new defensive starters and three new linebackers. Make matters worse, the Zips will likely be a better test than week 3 opponent Georgia State (0-2), which gave up 464 rushing yards in a 48-14 loss to Air Force earlier in the day.
It’s much to do about nothing, especially with Wisconsin’s solo focus being internal.
“This is in past; we’ve got to have amnesia to this past week,” Clement said. “Now we just have to kick it in.”