Badgers report card: Rising to the challenge against Northwestern

The Badgers showed off a formidable defense and sparkling offense in their homecoming victory.

It was homecoming at Camp Randall Stadium. It was the biggest recruiting day in recent Wisconsin football history. It was one of the most difficult challenges remaining on the schedule.

Wisconsin responded with a performance to match the magnitude of the moment, drubbing No. 19 Northwestern 35-6 on Saturday afternoon. The defense showed itself to be as formidable as any team in the country, and the offense sparkled despite losing standout wide receiver Jared Abbrederis.

After the game, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen refused to say anything negative about his team. It would have been difficult to find much to say anyway.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin's performance in Game 6:

Passing offense: B

Badgers quarterback Joel Stave lost his go-to receiver, Jared Abbrederis, for the final three quarters after he suffered a head injury. Considering Abbrederis entered the game with twice as many catches as the rest of Wisconsin's receivers combined, his absence could have proved to be catastrophic.

Instead, Stave handled himself quite well. He made finding tight end Jacob Pedersen more of a priority and hit receivers Jeff Duckworth and Jordan Fredrick for a couple of throws each.

Stave completed two early passes to Abbrederis for 74 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown. But Stave still finished the day 17-of-28 for 241 yards and tied a career high with three touchdowns.

If there is cause for concern, it's that Stave continues to throw interceptions. Though he's thrown 11 touchdowns this season, he also has been intercepted six times. His first interception on Saturday was more the result of an incredible play from Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell. But his second pass was badly underthrown and picked by Jimmy Hall as the Badgers were driving for a potential score just before halftime.

Despite his propensity to make a few mistakes, Stave quickly is becoming one of the better Big Ten quarterbacks, even as a sophomore. He is averaging 216.2 yards passing per game, which ranks fourth among Big Ten signal callers. And his pass efficiency rating is fifth.

Rushing offense: A

Given that Joe Mixon, one of the top running back recruits in the country, was in Camp Randall for Saturday's game, it's a good thing the Badgers did what they do best: dominate in the running game.

The 1-2 punch of Melvin Gordon and James White continually gashed Northwestern's defense. Gordon carried a career-high 22 times for 172 yards and a touchdown. His 71-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was his third run of at least 70 yards and seventh of at least 30 yards this season.

White, meanwhile, finished with 19 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps the most amazing stat is that White has never rushed for 100 yards in a game by himself while at Wisconsin. All 13 of his 100-yard games have come when another tailback also gained at least 100 yards.

It's probably a long shot that Gordon can worm his way back into the Heisman Trophy discussion -- though it seems to change on a week-to-week basis. But Gordon continues to put together an incredible season.

Gordon ranks third in the country in rushing yards per game (145.0), but he's gotten there on just 90 carries. Washington's Bishop Sankey (149.8 yards) has needed 159 carries, and Western Kentucky's Antonio Andrews (147.0 yards) has taken 124 carries.

However the Heisman race shakes out, Gordon is a special player. And having White alongside him should mean Saturday wasn't the last time we'll see both players rush for at least 100 yards.

Passing defense: A

Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian was forced into full-time action after Kain Colter re-injured an ankle during the first quarter. Given that the Wildcats' past successes this season were predicated on a two-quarterback system, it spelled trouble for Northwestern on Saturday.

Siemian finished 13-of-34 for 163 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Colter completed 4 of 5 passes for 34 yards but also was picked off by cornerback Sojourn Shelton. Colter tried to play quarterback on the first drive of the second quarter and then played receiver in the third quarter before being ruled out for the remainder of the game.

Of course, the most impressive feat of the entire game was Wisconsin's defensive pressure on the pass rush, which resulted in a whopping seven sacks from seven different players. It marked the first time Wisconsin recorded seven sacks in a game in 10 years. The Badgers forced Northwestern into third-and-long situations, which is why the Wildcats finished just 2-of-17 on third-down attempts.

There appeared to be only one breakdown in Wisconsin's pass defense, when Siemian found receiver Rashad Lawrence for a 46-yard pass that sailed over Badgers cornerback Darius Hillary, who was out of position on the throw. The play helped Northwestern make a field goal, but that only cut the deficit to 21-6, and the Wildcats never scored again.

Overall, Wisconsin was solid and prevented the big plays that have haunted the secondary in the past. Wisconsin ranks No. 13 nationally in passing yards allowed (177.2), which is second in the Big Ten only to Michigan State (170.3).

Rushing defense: A

Consider that Northwestern entered Saturday's game averaging 218.4 yards rushing per outing. Now consider Wisconsin held Northwestern to just 47 yards on the ground. That figure represented Northwestern's fewest rushing yards since a 2007 game against Ohio State.

There were seven different ball carriers for the Wildcats, and none of them reached even 20 yards of net rushing. Northwestern closed the day with 25 rushes for 42 yards -- 1.8 yards per carry.

Wisconsin now ranks 10th in the country in rush defense (90.2 yards per game). Only 13 teams allow fewer than 100 yards per game.

Special teams: B-minus

The most glaring negative from Saturday's game was kicker Kyle French's continued inconsistency on field goal attempts. French missed a 38-yard field goal wide left and was replaced by backup Jack Russell. Though Russell didn't attempt any field goals, he made the team's final three extra points.

Afterward, Badgers coach Gary Andersen declared Russell the starter moving forward. But Russell hasn't necessarily proven that he's any more reliable than French. During his college career, Russell has missed all three of his field goal tries. Russell's only attempt this year came in Week 2 against Tennessee Tech -- after French was pulled from the game for missing an extra point. But Russell missed a 31-yard field goal try off the right upright and gave the starting job back to French.

Given that there are solid kickers from the state of Wisconsin playing on other college teams -- see Northwestern's Jeff Budzien (Arrowhead, Wis.) or Texas A&M's Josh Lambo (Middleton, Wis.) -- it makes it seem as though the Badgers whiffed in recruiting.

Aside from kicking issues on Saturday, Wisconsin's special teams were just fine. Kenzel Doe returned from a hamstring injury and showed immediately why he is back handling kicks and punts. Doe took his first kickoff return 50 yards. More importantly, he keeps Jared Abbrederis from having to be on the field more than he needs to.

Punter Drew Meyer punted four times for an average of 35.2 yards per kick, though the numbers were down because he often kicked with a short field.

Overall: A-minus

This was arguably the most important game remaining on Wisconsin's schedule. The Wildcats entered the day ranked No. 19 in the country, and a loss would have dropped Wisconsin to .500 overall this season and 1-2 in Big Ten play. Instead, Wisconsin is on track to run the table and make a legitimate attempt to sneak into a BCS bowl game.

For the most part, Stave showed poise despite not having his best receiver in the game for three quarters. The offensive line won the battle up front to open holes for Gordon and White. And the defense completely dominated a Northwestern team used to putting up more than five touchdowns a game.

Issues in the kicking game are a cause for concern moving forward, but that doesn't take away much from Wisconsin's overall performance on Saturday. This was about as it good as it gets against a quality opponent.

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