Badgers report card: RB Melvin Gordon makes case for more carries

Wisconsin lost an absolute heartbreaker on Saturday night, 32-30, at Arizona State. Like many of the Badgers’ losses in recent years, the game was close and contained its share of controversy when Wisconsin ran out of time before spiking a ball to set up a potential game-winning field goal.

This is one of those losses that will probably linger for quite some time because of the manner in which the game ended — and the mistakes made by officials in the waning seconds.

Handing out grade’s for Wisconsin’s Week 3 performance:

Rushing offense: B-plus

Melvin Gordon was an absolute stud Saturday night, and you have to wonder if his performance will lead to even more carries moving forward. Gordon finished the game with 15 carries for 193 yards and two touchdowns. Through three games this season, he is averaging 12.9 yards per carry. When you factor in that his career yards-per-carry average was 8.8 entering the season, it makes it difficult to take the guy off the field.

Of course, with senior James White still in the backfield, Gordon may not be given the opportunity to take more than 60 percent of the carries. Against Arizona State, White had 12 carries for 45 yards. Perhaps the most head scratching decision was to not have Gordon on the field when Wisconsin attempted its two-point conversion while trailing 32-30 late in the game — after Gordon had scored his second touchdown.

Gordon and White still form one of the top running back duos in the nation, but it’s becoming difficult to not let Gordon carry more. As Saturday night demonstrated, there probably won’t be room for No. 3 running back Corey Clement, who carried just twice for one yard.

Passing offense: C

Badgers quarterback Joel Stave deserves credit for leading Wisconsin down the field in a two-minute drive. His longest pass completion was a 51-yarder to Jeff Duckworth that put the Badgers in field goal range. But Stave also was at the center of the most controversial play of the entire college football weekend. He took a knee at the Arizona State 15-yard line and dropped the ball on the field. It wasn’t a fumble, and referees botched the re-setting of the play. Still, Stave needed to be aware of the time situation and get his players to the line of scrimmage for one last spike.

Even outside of the last series, Stave looked pretty average. He finished the game completing 15 of 30 passes for 187 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. The passing game wasn’t a consistent enough threat, and that will need to develop in Big Ten play.

And this part is a broken record, but Wisconsin still needs to establish some depth at wide receiver behind Jared Abbrederis, who caught six passes for 87 yards. Running back James White caught four passes and tight end Jacob Pedersen three, but the rest of the wide receiving group caught a total of three passes.

Rushing defense: B-plus

Some might see that Arizona State running back Marion Grice scored four touchdowns and think the Badgers rushing defense was terrible. Grice became the first Wisconsin opponent to rush for four scores since Iowa’s Shonn Greene on Oct. 18, 2008. But Grice had to work for his yardage, and those touchdowns came on runs of 1, 1, 2 and 12 yards.

Grice finished the game with 22 carries for 84 yards — a yards-per-carry average of 3.8. In total, Arizona State carried the ball 42 times for 116 yards — a yards-per-carry average of 2.8 yards. That average was hurt by a botched punt attempt that resulted in a 32-yard loss and a Wisconsin touchdown. If we take that play out of the equation, then Arizona State had 41 carries for 148 yards, which is still just 3.6 yards per attempt.

Through three games, Wisconsin ranks 11th in the country in rushing defense (86.7 yards per game), and this figures to be a strength for the Badgers all season.

Passing defense: C-minus

Wisconsin knew ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly would try to air the ball out, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. The Badgers’ secondary, however, looked like it had a long way to go to perform at an elite level.

It is true that Kelly didn’t actually throw a touchdown pass. But he still completed 29 of 51 passes for 352 yards. And what isn’t factored into those numbers was the amount of pass interference calls on Wisconsin’s secondary. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary each were flagged for pass interference twice. Shelton also had a holding call against him.

Additionally, Wisconsin’s secondary looked lost as Kelly repeatedly attempted back-shoulder throws to his receivers down the right sideline in the fourth quarter. Kelly hit back-shoulder throws against Hillary, safety Michael Caputo and cornerback Peniel Jean, which helped set up Arizona State’s rushing scores.

Special teams: B

The most obvious special teams blunder came on a punt-return attempt with Wisconsin leading 21-13 in the third quarter. Freshman Sojourn Shelton — who had an all around tough night — was credited with a fumble when an Arizona State punt bounced off his leg and he tried to block down the field. Badgers punt returner Kenzel Doe didn’t call Shelton off and alert him of the ball’s location, and Arizona State recovered the fumble.

For the most part, however, the Badgers should feel pleased with the special teams. In particular, kicker Kyle French and punter Drew Meyer were solid. French, as most know, has endured his share of kicking struggles. But on Saturday, he made all three of his extra-point attempts and drilled a crucial 34-yard field goal to put Wisconsin ahead 24-19. If only French would have had an opportunity to kick that potential game-winning 32-yarder that never materialized.

Meyer handled seven punts for an average of 38.7 yards. But he also escaped trouble when punting from his own end zone on the first two tries. During his UW career, Meyer has proven to be one of the most vital players on the team. And the less you hear about him, the better because it means he isn’t making mistakes.

Overall: B-minus

Despite an anemic passing game, Wisconsin’s offense did enough to put itself in position to win. But the defense surrendered more than 300 yards passing for the first time since a 2009 game against Northwestern, and the high rate of pass interference calls and inability to handle back-shoulder throws four times on the same drive is cause for alarm.

Wisconsin’s players needed a significant challenge after outscoring its first two opponents 93-0. They certainly received that test and then some on Saturday. The way Wisconsin lost was especially gut wrenching. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t deter the Badgers from achieving their goals — unless one of those goals was a national championship.

Wisconsin begins Big Ten play this Saturday with a home game against Purdue, and then the big one — a Sept. 28 road game against Ohio State — is on tap. If the Badgers can beat the Buckeyes, perhaps the pain of the Arizona State loss will dissipate. Maybe only slightly, though.

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