Several Wisconsin players couldn’t help but utter a common refrain following UW’s 37-3 victory against Western Illinois at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday: "A win’s a win."
That’s their way of saying the Badgers won ugly, and the score didn’t indicate just how difficult it was to pull away from a pesky Leathernecks team. Wisconsin led just 9-3 at halftime before scoring four touchdowns in the second half to make the score look far more pleasing to the eye.
Was it a perfect performance? Of course not. But one week after a 28-24 loss to LSU, the Badgers will take it.
Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s second game of the season:
Passing offense: A-minus
Talk about a role reversal from a week ago, when this report card issued the first "F" for passing offense in four seasons covering the team. On Saturday, Tanner McEvoy showed everything he is capable of as a quarterback.
Yes, you can point out that he did so against FCS foe Western Illinois — and not a very good FCS team to boot. Still, it provided the confidence both he and his teammates needed moving into a bye week.
McEvoy completed 23 of 28 passes for 283 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. At one point between the second and third quarters, he completed 17 consecutive passes. Many of those throws were simple bubble screens or quick slant routes that gained nice yardage. He still hasn’t shown he can air out a deep play-action pass in the same way as Joel Stave could last season. But
McEvoy showed improvement. And completing 20 of your final 21 throws against any team is impressive.
McEvoy and backup Bart Houston also combined to throw four touchdowns passes, marking the first time the Badgers had done so since Nov. 12, 2011, when Russell Wilson threw four touchdowns against Minnesota.
It wasn’t simply that McEvoy completed passes, however; it was that Wisconsin showed it could have reliable pass catchers.
Receiver Alex Erickson caught a career-high 10 passes for 122 yards, including the first touchdown of his career. Consider that Erickson caught a total of nine passes for 127 yards all of last season. Erickson aslo became the first Badgers player other than Jared Abbrederis to tally more than 100 receiving yards since Nick Toon in the 2012 Rose Bowl against Oregon. Receiver Jordan Fredrick deserves credit for setting up many of those Erickson catches with his tremendous blocking ability.
Senior tight end Sam Arneson also recorded more receiving yards (87) than he had in his entire career before Saturday (81).
There were plenty of other highlights: Freshman wide receiver George Rushing recorded his first career catch, hauling in a 10-yard pass in the second quarter. Freshman tight end Troy Fumagalli also made his first career catch, a 10-yarder in the third quarter. Tailbacks Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement proved they could catch as well, each recording a touchdown.
"We’re a balanced team," Arneson said. "I think we really can be that. As Tanner keeps growing with more confidence, the receivers keep developing and especially those young guys who are kind of playing for the first time. And even a guy like Troy Fumagalli makes a big catch. You just see stuff developing and the offense that we can be."
Expectations with Wisconsin’s running game are always high, so maybe it’s unfair to think the Badgers can find a couple 100-yard rushers every Saturday. But if there was one week we thought Wisconsin would dominate in this area, it was this week against Western Illinois.
Instead, the Leathernecks stuffed the Badgers in key situations. Corey Clement couldn’t find one yard to run on a fourth-and-one play from the Western Illinois 7-yard-line in the second quarter. WIU stacked the box and made Wisconsin win with the passing game. That decision contributed to both the subpar running effort and the stellar passing effort.
Even facing a loaded box, you’d still think Melvin Gordon would find a way to do something special. He did gain 21 yards on one play. But on his 16 other carries, he netted a total of 17 yards. His totals — 17 carries for 38 yards — were his lowest numbers since the 2012 season, when he was a third-string tailback. Clement, meanwhile, finished the game with nine carries for 57 yards.
The most effective runner proved to be McEvoy, whose scrambling ability has always been a strength. He gained 55 yards on nine carries and scored Wisconsin’s only rushing touchdown of the day.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen acknowledged the running game needed to be better if Wisconsin wanted to reach its goals. He also pointed out that not having starting fullback Derek Watt out there (right foot surgery) hindered the team’s ability to create holes. Given that Watt is out until November, that is an area for concern moving forward.
Passing defense: A
A week ago, Western Illinois quarterback Trenton Norvell threw for a career-high 320 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the season opener against Valparaiso. Obviously, Wisconsin is not Valparaiso, and the Badgers made Norvell work for every pass he completed.
Norvell finished the game 13 of 21 for 108 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Wisconsin recorded the interception at an opportune time, when Western Illinois appeared to be on the verge of taking an early lead. The Leathernecks had second-and-nine from the Wisconsin 13-yard-line, when defensive end Chikwe Obasih tipped Norvell’s pass in the air. Safety Michael Caputo picked off the pass and returned it 27 yards for his first career interception.
Overall, Wisconsin held Western Illinois to 34 yards on 19 plays in the second half — an average of 1.78 yards per play.
Rushing defense: A
Wisconsin absolutely overmatched Western Illinois up front in this area. The Leathernecks carried the ball 30 times for a total of 54 yards, averaging just 1.8 yards per rushing attempt.
J.C. Baker, the team’s standout running back, required 22 carries to gain 60 yards. No other player on the team gained more than four yards. And no carry by any runner went for more than nine yards. Add all that up, and that’s about as dominating a run defense as you’ll find for one game.
Wisconsin surrendered 126 yards rushing to LSU last week. But after this performance, the Badgers are only allowing an average of 90.0 yards rushing per game. Wisconsin’s next opponent is Bowling Green, which rushed for 260 yards and four touchdowns on Saturday — against Virginia Military Institute. Expect the Badgers’ run defense to continue to excel this season.
Special teams: C
The Badgers were just average in this area, which is why they’re being graded as such. Drew Meyer had a decent day punting, hitting two kicks for an average of 45.0 yards. UW also only needed to return one kickoff for the entire game.
But there are issues that need to be cleaned up. For starters, punt returner Kenzel Doe fumbled a punt, lost four yards on the play and was lucky not to turn the ball over. Doe has had problems handling kicks in the past.
Freshman kicker Rafael Gaglianone also missed a 33-yard field goal attempt early in the fourth quarter. Gaglianone has been so rock solid throughout fall camp and into the LSU game — he drilled a 51-yarder last week — that it was a surprise to see him miss. People need to remember he’s still just a true freshman, and he’ll continue to improve over time.
Wisconsin was stellar with its passing offense and across the board defensively. But the fact the Badgers struggled as much as they did in the running game raised some eyebrows, even if Western Illinois loaded the box. This is still an FCS opponent we’re talking about.
When Wisconsin played an FCS team at home a year ago (Tennessee Tech), the Badgers rushed for 387 yards with four touchdowns and had three — yes three — 100-yard rushers. Nobody is saying UW needs to look like it has three Heisman Trophy running backs. But showing a little more against a team from a lower-tier division would have been nice.
Overall, however, this was exactly the type of victory Wisconsin needed as it heads into a bye week.