MADISON, Wis. — Praise has been rolling in this week by the bushel about Wisconsin’s dominant running game this season, and you’d be hard-pressed to consider any of it too outlandish given the eye-popping statistical output.
Wisconsin ranks third nationally in rushing offense (349.8 yards per game). The Badgers have three tailbacks in the top 50 in rushing yards per game and are one of just two teams with two players averaging more than 100 yards (Melvin Gordon and James White).
Gordon, who leads the country in that category (156.0 per game), has even vaulted into the Heisman Trophy discussion after four weeks. And Sports Illustrated suddenly lists the third-year sophomore as a first-round NFL draft pick for 2014.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is among the slack-jawed spectators of the Badgers’ stellar duo.
“It seems like every year they get if not the same quality back, maybe even a little bit better,” Meyer said. “I’m watching this right now and thinking, ‘My gosh, where do these guys come from?’ … I haven’t seen the whole country, but I can’t imagine two better backs on the same team.”
All of the attention focused on the tailbacks is great. But the simple fact remains that if Wisconsin can’t back up its spectacular run game with a consistent passing threat, a victory on Saturday against Ohio State will be unlikely.
No. 23 Wisconsin (3-1) travels to face No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) at 7 p.m. CT in the Horseshoe, and you can expect the Buckeyes to load the box with at least eight players and make the Badgers win through the air — a formula that could cause Wisconsin problems.
“With how successful the run game has been, I can see why teams would want to do that,” Badgers quarterback Joel Stave said. “So whatever they give us, we’ve got to be ready for it. We’ve got to be able to execute.
“If they’re going to bring the safeties down there and we have a chance to throw it over the top, things like that, that’s what you want as a quarterback is an opportunity to throw the deep ball, make the big play.”
Big plays have been the staple of Wisconsin’s passing game success in recent years, typically on play-actions after establishing the run. The Badgers will need more in that area on Saturday. Of Stave’s 60 completions this season, 11 have gone for at least 20 yards. But seven of those 11 completions have gone to No. 1 wideout Jared Abbrederis. The others have gone to tight end Jacob Pedersen twice, wide receiver Jeff Duckworth once and running back James White once.
While Abbrederis has caught 23 passes for 365 yards with three touchdowns, the rest of the team’s wide receivers have caught 13 passes for 166 yards and no touchdowns.
“They’ve been working their tails off,” Abbrederis said. ” I think they’ve got a lot of talent. When they get their number called, they can make some plays. We had a couple drops, but not too many. Obviously you want to be able to bring in every one. I think they’ve been doing a good job, especially in practice. People don’t get to see the way they work and the talent they have.”
Though Wisconsin’s run game has sparkled, the passing game has stalled, particularly in recent weeks with Stave under center. Wisconsin ranks 90th nationally in passing offense (198.0 yards per game), but the numbers have dipped against Arizona State and Purdue.
During that time, Stave has completed 27 of 49 passes (55.1 percent) for 345 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also missed a wide-open Abbrederis on a deep pass that would have resulted in a touchdown.
Stave said his feet weren’t lined up properly for the throw, and he also hadn’t gotten loose on the sideline before the drive. But he recognizes those types of throws only come along once or twice a game and can be especially vital in a close contest.
“He’s done a great job managing the offense, but we’re asking for more out of him,” Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. “We need to hit a couple of those deep balls. We’re two throws short of having a great game the other day, and we’re looking to build on that.”
Despite a dominant run game, Ludwig and the Badgers are striving for more balance and big plays — which presumably is the only way to beat an Ohio State team that has won 16 consecutive games under Meyer. Wisconsin ranks eighth in rush plays that have gone for at least 10 yards (32) and 87th in pass plays that have gone for at least 10 yards (27).
“We don’t want to be one-dimensional,” Ludwig said. “Right now, we’re leaning heavily on the run, having success doing that, but you’ve got to be able to counterpunch. So we’re looking to continue to develop the passing game.”