Badgers report card: Passing game remains a concern

Wisconsin took a step in the right direction, but questions remain about their passing game.

Wisconsin players and coaches spent the week edgy and angry about losing to Arizona State after a controversial decision involving botched refereeing. But the Badgers took their aggression out on Purdue to secure an easy 41-10 victory Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium.

Running backs Melvin Gordon and James White ran wild, while the defense held up its end of the bargain. Still, questions remain about the passing game that continues to dog Wisconsin.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin's Week 4 performance:

Rushing offense: A-plus

What's not to like about the things Wisconsin's tailbacks are doing on the field right now? Melvin Gordon and James White continue to try and one-up each other, and it has resulted in perhaps the most dominant one-two running back punch in all of college football.

On Saturday, Gordon carried 16 times for 147 yards and three touchdowns. White totaled 16 carries for 145 yards and one touchdown -- a career-long 70-yarder in the first quarter. And let's not forget about freshman Corey Clement, who continues to take advantage of every opportunity tossed his way. Clement rushed 13 times for 83 yards and also scored a touchdown.

There has been some debate in recent weeks about why Gordon is not earning more carries than White, but part of the Badgers' rushing success is from the way each player is used. If Gordon carried 25 times a game, he might wear down, and you can bet his yards-per-carry average would sink.

Regardless of how they're used right now, both are producing at an astounding rate. Gordon leads the country in rushing yards per game (156.0), and White ranks No. 23 overall (110.5). Gordon's 11.8 yards per carry also leads the nation.

"There are some different touches, a different feel that you do for what they do the best," Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. "They're fired up for each other when things go well and when things aren't going so good, they look to each other to get it fixed. It's a friendly competition. Trust me, it is a competition."

Passing offense: C-minus

This is developing into the biggest concern for Wisconsin ahead of its huge Big Ten road game against Ohio State on Saturday. The Badgers have proven they can run well, but without a solid passing game, there is likely little chance they can beat the Buckeyes.

Against Purdue, quarterback Joel Stave completed 12 of 19 passes for 158 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. With Wisconsin leading 14-7 in the second quarter, Stave tried to fit a pass into a tight window on the right side of the field for tight end Brian Wozniak. Instead, cornerback Ricardo Allen intercepted the pass, which led to a field goal that trimmed Purdue's deficit to 14-10.

"I thought he threw the ball sideways real good as far as the bubble screens and the underneath passes," Andersen said. "The out-breaking routes, I thought he handled them very, very well. It seems to be the in-breaking routes right now is an issue, just in a nutshell. We missed the one slant.  Had a couple of those. We missed the long one. I couldn't tell what happened on the long ball.  It was like it was up there forever.  Jared (Abbrederis) just couldn't quite get his sights on it."

Stave said he was more upset about missing Abbrederis on a deep pass in which Abbrederis was wide open down the field.

"I've just got to do a better job of staying loose on the sidelines," Stave said. "I sat there for about 10 minutes, and I can't expect myself to come out and throw a 65-yard bomb. It was cooler than I realized, and I've got to just make sure that I'm staying loose and staying ready for whatever is called."

Rushing defense: A

Wisconsin moved up from No. 10 to No. 6 nationally in rushing defense following yet another dominating performance against Purdue. The Badgers are allowing just 76.3 yards rushing per game and trail only Michigan State (58.3 yards) among Big Ten teams in that area.

On Saturday, Purdue carried the ball a total of 21 times for 45 yards (2.1 yards per rush). It was simply a dominant performance at the line of scrimmage against a team that has struggled with its running game this season.

Akeem Hunt carried nine times for 31 yards, Dalyn Dawkins four times for 15 yards and Rob Henry seven times for a total of zero yards. Henry was sacked four times in the game.

The only breakdown came on a busted play when Henry scrambled up the middle for a 22-yard touchdown that cut Purdue's deficit to 14-7.

"I knew it was a fly sweep or a power," Andersen said. "It was one of the two. So they were running the fly or the handoff -- the same play that we run a lot of times out of that. I really had no idea. I just saw it open up on the backside. We were in our quarters coverage, and we ran across the field. We had to get cut off somewhere on the backside. I don't know who got cut off or where it was. But somebody in the structure of the defense had to get cut off, and the kids saw the hole and ran it in for a touchdown."

Overall, however, the Badgers continued to show the strength of the defense is the front seven.

Passing defense: A

One week after a miserable performance from the secondary against Arizona State, the Badgers found their groove. It's difficult to tell how much was on Wisconsin and how much was on Purdue, which does not have a particularly stellar passing game.

Quarterback Rob Henry completed 18 of 36 passes for 135 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Henry's longest pass play went for 19 yards, and he faced constant pressure from the Badgers up front. He was sacked four times for a total of 29 yards.

Freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton found some redemption when he picked off Henry in the end zone during the fourth quarter. A week ago, Shelton was flagged for two pass interference calls and a holding against Arizona State.

"I just wanted to go out there, and for me it was just to get my swagger back, play with confidence," Shelton said. "I think overall it turned out well."

Wisconsin's pass defense still ranks among the national leaders. The Badgers are tied for 19th in passing yards allowed per game (167.0).

Special teams: B

Wisconsin found itself behind the 8-ball somewhat even before the game started because Kenzel Doe tweeted Thursday he would not play due to an injury. But Jared Abbrederis stepped in well and safely handled three punt returns. Kyle Zuleger cleanly handled two kickoffs.

The other major development came when freshman kicker Andrew Endicott was thrust into action midway through the game to handle kickoffs for Kyle French. Endicott, who had not played a college game before Saturday, took five kickoffs, with one resulting in a touchback.

Afterward, Andersen said he preferred using different kickers for kickoffs and field goals. And given that Endicott had no idea he'd be kicking the night before, he performed reasonably well and may have found himself a recurring spot on the team.

"I was confident with it," Endicott said. "First few kicks into the wind were a little shorter than I wanted. But I can't complain. Then after halftime I started getting in the groove and started going back to what I know how to do. So I felt good. It was a pretty wild experience for sure. So it was fun."

Overall: B-plus

The Badgers handled their business with an easy victory against the Boilermakers -- exactly as most expected entering the game. It provided a nice bridge between last week's Arizona State loss and next week's road matchup against Ohio State.

Wisconsin's defense recovered well, but there are big questions marks about the Badgers' ability to move the ball through the air. Stave connected with Abbrederis seven times for 94 yards. The rest of the receivers caught two passes for 15 yards.

A victory against Purdue was a step in the right direction, obviously, but the Badgers will have to perform better to beat Ohio State and take control of the Leaders Division in late September.


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