HOUSTON — Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen’s defense of new quarterback Tanner McEvoy was not what you would call "vigorous," but it did exist. For the public record, anyway, Andersen said McEvoy was not the problem.
"When you can’t protect the passer it doesn’t matter who your quarterback is," he said. "Guy was running for his life."
That running ability is thought to be the main reason McEvoy started at quarterback in Wisconsin’s 28-24 loss to LSU on Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston. Last year’s starter, Joel Stave, watched from the sideline as his replacement showed just enough ability to sidestep an LSU pass rusher and throw a dirtball to an un-open receiver.
McEvoy went 8-for-24 for 50 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions as Wisconsin blew a 24-7 lead to a team that completed just 9 of 21 passes (for 239 yards and two touchdowns).
Andersen gave McEvoy every out he could. He credited LSU’s defense. He blamed the offensive line. He said receivers ran the wrong routes. But Andersen will not be able to control this narrative. Fans in these situations know better than to take the coach’s words at face value, and until the Wisconsin passing game shows some sign of competence with McEvoy at quarterback, Andersen is going to be answering questions about the state of the position.
But, for the public record, he did not consider putting in Stave on Saturday.
McEvoy came out of the locker room and got through a line of media questioning without saying any of the wrong things, which seemed to be his only goal. He said the offensive line did "very well." He said LSU was "a great team" that covered Wisconsin’s receivers very well. He said he didn’t play as well as he wanted to play.
"It’s a team game," he said. "I made a few mental mistakes, and it happens, but that can be the key to winning and losing."
So the line out of Wisconsin on this is that there is nothing to see here, which also was Andersen’s take on the situation with running back Melvin Gordon, who had a 63-yard run on the first play of the third quarter, and had just three carries the rest of the game, finishing with 140 yards on 16 carries. Andersen said Gordon wasn’t hurt, but flatly refused to explain why Gordon was benched for most of the second half.
Gordon also said he wasn’t hurt, and also had no explanation for his absence.
"We go with what our coach says," he said.
It was a curious case, because Gordon had been all Wisconsin had in the first half. He put the Badgers up 17-7 with a 14-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter and finished the half with 78 yards on 12 carries.
It looked, then, that Wisconsin’s offensive line was going to bleed LSU dead with the running game. The Tigers to that point had made only random plays on offense, the sort of stuff that’s more a matter of statistical inevitability than a well-executed plan. LSU’s only first-half touchdown had come from 80 yards out on a busted play, so with 12 minutes left in the third quarter the whole thing felt more like 24-0 than anything else.
The Badgers were, in all likelihood, one scoring drive and one big stop from putting away LSU.
"We knew 24 points wasn’t going to be enough," said offensive tackle Rob Havenstein.
But Wisconsin’s last five possessions went punt, punt, interception, interception, punt, and LSU’s went field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, punt. So here the Badgers are, having blown it. Nobody seemed to know exactly what to say, most of all Havenstein, who felt compelled to accept an extraordinarily large amount of blame for an offensive lineman.
"You can go ahead and throw that loss squarely on my shoulders," he said.
It was a nice thought, something to say when you’re trying to be a good teammate, but nobody is going to put that loss on Rob Havenstein’s shoulders. Wisconsin can have a moment to itself, to just get out of Houston before anything else bad happens, but this thing with the passing game isn’t going to evaporate in their sleep.
"Obviously," Andersen said, "tonight it was a concern."