No matter who won the quarterback battle, the plan against Akron was never to pass the ball with great regularity. Akron gave up over 180 yards average on the ground last season and Wisconsin with its healthy stable of running backs (we'll get to them in a minute), there was no real reason to open up and expose parts of the playbook nor was it necessary to abandon the running game.
"We wanted to get the run game going," Allan Evridge said. "Anytime you can get the run and get those big guys going, it's good. It just started working out that way. Those guys were opening up huge holes and don't pull away from it if it's working … At the end of the day, we didn't show a lot of the stuff (our offense) and it's good."
After UW opened the games with six straight runs, Evridge's first pass was perfect, floating the ball in between two defenders and into the hands of Garrett Graham. Two plays later, Evridge had his first touchdown pass as a Badger.
The rest of the way, however, Evridge was 5-for-8 for only 52 yards (finishing with 75 yards overall). The big blemish on his day was in a visit to the red zone in the second quarter, as Evridge made what Bielema described as an ‘ill-advised throw' and tried to force the ball on an end-zone out route. The result was an interception that was returned pass midfield and set up an Akron field goal.
It's hard to gauge what Evridge is capable of in his offense because of the ‘reigns' that were put on him, although his teammates praised him for managing the game and showing confidence and leadership in the huddle. With another poor defense coming into Madison next week, the jury may still be out on Evridge for an extended period of time.
As stated earlier, it was no surprise that the Badgers wanted to establish the run against a porous defense. With Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst calling 63 run plays Saturday and their runners running behind one of the most veteran lines in the conference, the Badgers did what they do best – pound the football, racking up 404 rushing yards between four running backs in the process.
"This is Badger football," P.J. Hill said. "We play physical football (and) come straight at you. We want to show them that it's going to be a long day and that nothing is easy."
Between Hill's second-career 200-yard game (finishing with 210 yards and two touchdowns), sophomore Zach Brown's 87 yards and one touchdown and freshman John Clay's 71 yards and one touchdown, Wisconsin's top three running backs averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
The only sour note was a red zone fumble by P.J. Hill when he attempted to extend the ball over the goal line. The result was the ball being knocked out of his hand and rolling out of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and the ball going back to Akron.
While the numbers are impressive, consider the opponent and that Akron's 3-3-5 defense had enough holes in it to drive a truck through. Wisconsin has much more work to do but the when the Badger offense stalled in the second quarter, the back to back to back touchdowns by Hill, Brown and Clay in the second half swung the momentum back to UW.
Grade: A –
The biggest casualty of Wisconsin's pounding the football on the ground was Evridge not being able to build chemistry with his young wide receivers, something that is and will be a concern throughout the early goings of the 2008 season.
Only four Badgers caught passes and Lance Kendrick was the only new receiver to etch his name into the stat book (one catch, eight yards). With All-American tight end Travis Beckum sidelined because of a nagging hamstring, Garrett Graham became the featured tight end and caught the first two passes thrown to him, the second for UW's first touchdown.
"I knew that I had to step up and do what I can to help this team win," Graham said. "We got off to a good start and keep the team rolling with a touchdown."
After that, one would have to dive into the play by play chart because no catch really stands out. Jefferson and Gilreath each caught two passes but Jefferson didn't catch a pass after the first quarter and Gilreath was unable to haul in a touchdown pass, forcing UW to kick a field goal.
As stated before, the jury is still out for this group until the Badgers really air out the football. Until that time happens, the unit will have to focus on holding their blocks and running to catch Hill as he sprints towards the goal line, which Maurice Moore and Jefferson did admirably on Hill's longest run (46 yards) on the afternoon.
Wisconsin suffered a huge blow even before they stepped on the field after Kirk DeCremer, the Badgers' sophomore defensive end, regressed with his back rehab and likely will not play college football anymore. With that news, ends like O'Brien Schofield and Brendan Kelly will be counted on to pick up the slack. In game number one, the ends succeeded, as Schofield registered one of UW's two sacks and Kelly notched two tackles in his first college game.
"Brendan Kelly got a lot of reps today and we're going to need him as the year goes on," Bielema said.
The front four held Akron is just 70 rushing yards on 22 carries, which is a good building block to start from.
"I was really interested to see how Blake was going to play today," Bielema said. "He's never played as many reps as he did today. There's a lot of stress on the outside backers … and he played well at times."
In his first game at the team's Mike linebacker, Jae McFadden led all Badgers in solo (six), assists (five) and total tackles (11). McFadden, who played outside linebacker in his time at Wisconsin, started to learn the middle linebacker position when neither Elijah Hodge or Culmer St. Jean stepped up to secure that position.
Finishing second on the team in tackles was DeAndre Levy, who played another sound game in the linebacker unit.
With Aaron Henry (knee) definitely out for these first two non conference games and probably the third at Fresno, Wisconsin is relying on its young cornerbacks to bridge the gap and looking at the stats, UW gave up 227 passing yards. Look deeper, Niles Brinkley and Mario Goins never were singled out by being beat by an Akron wideout … but that easily could have not been the case, as the Zips dropped countless wide-open passes and beat the young corners on deep routes but couldn't connect with their quarterback.
"I know they gave up some players there in the beginning that were overthrows by there guys to give us a break," Bielema said. "But I thought our young corners played halfway decent."
Returning to the starting lineup after missing the last three games of last year due to a torn ACL, Allen Langford played the majority of the game on the right side of the defense. Much like the young guys, Langford showed some rust and was beaten deep by his receiver multiple times but caught a break because of the overthrow.
"We all made mistakes out there but that is going to get corrected tomorrow," Langford said.
Grade: C -
After an unsettling spring watching the kickers and punters, freshman Phil Welch, who Bielema said looked more confident once he was given the starting job, showed his head coach what he is capable of doing.
Welch had seven kickoffs and six were beauties, as the ball carried to the Akron 1, 12, 5, 4, 24, 9 and to the goal line. Brad Nortman booted one punt that had enormous hang time that resulted in a net of 58 yards.
Gilreath continues to be a huge boost to the offense when he returns kicks and it's clear that he hasn't lost a step, which was shown by his career-best 63-yard kickoff return after Akron's first score of the game.
"I was very happy with our coverage units," Bielema said. "Early on, the guy they had returning was a preseason All Americans brought a very dangerous element into our game and use those as momentum builders. I'm happy we limited that."