Badgers report card: Wisconsin enters bye week on a high note

When it comes to road night games this season, Wisconsin is finally off the schneid.

Wisconsin obliterated Illinois, 56-32, at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night to secure its first road victory of the season. The Badgers (5-2, 3-1 in Big Ten play) put together their highest point total this year and look primed for a great run to close 2013.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s performance in Game 7:

Passing offense: B-plus

Badgers quarterback Joel Stave didn’t have to do much with the way Wisconsin’s running game crushed Illinois. But he did enough to keep the Illini honest, completing 16 of 21 passes for 189 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Stave still has areas to improve, and though it was windy at Memorial Stadium, he still made a couple of ugly throws. On one particular play, he had wide receiver Jared Abbrederis out in front of the secondary by five yards off a play-action pass and missed him entirely with an underthrow.

The good news is that Stave didn’t throw the ball to the other team, which is something he has done too many times this season. Stave’s 212.3 yards passing per game rank fifth in the Big Ten, and he is sixth in passing efficiency.

Rushing offense: A-plus

Wisconsin’s bread and butter has been its running game all season, and that continued with a dominating performance against Illinois. The Badgers rushed for 289 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

Sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon carried 17 times for 142 yards with three touchdowns and has now rushed for at least 140 yards six times in seven games this season. He tied P.J. Hill for the quickest to 1,000 yards rushing for any UW player in a season, and the Badgers have now had at least one 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last nine seasons — the longest active streak in the country.

Senior James White added 20 carries for 98 yards with two touchdowns and also caught a touchdown pass. White now has 39 career rushing scores and 41 total touchdowns, which both lead all FBS players.

Freshman Corey Clement also continues to amaze in the limited action he sees. Clement carried seven times for 54 yards and a touchdown in the final minutes of the game. It must make Badgers fan drool about the prospects of Gordon and Clement in the backfield next season.

Passing defense: C-plus

The Badgers continue to be victimized by big plays in the secondary, and though it didn’t come back to bite Wisconsin on Saturday, it certainly could in the future.

Cornerback Darius Hillary was beaten for a 53-yard completion from Nathan Scheelhaase that led to the Illini’s first touchdown, and he later was flagged for a pass interference call. Scheelhaase also completed a 39-yarder on cornerback Peniel Jean before halftime that led to another score.

In the second half, Scheelhaase completed a 29-yard pass on safety Dezmen Southward on a crossing route. Backup corner Jakarrie Washington gave up a 29-yard touchdown pass to Reilly O’Toole in mop-up duty.

Illinois threw for 319 yards, which marked the second time this season an opponent has gone over the 300-yard plateau. Arizona State passed for 352 yards last month. Wisconsin still ranks 18th nationally in passing defense (197.4 yards per game), but those numbers are slightly skewed from playing inferior competition the first two games against UMass (112 passing yards) and Tennessee Tech (69 yards).

Rushing defense: A-minus

Illinois finished Saturday’s game with 29 carries for 72 yards — a yards-per-carry average of just 2.5. Scheelhaase fumbled twice, which dropped that figure significantly, but the Badgers deserve credit for being stout up front.

The Illini did manage to score twice on the ground, but one of the highlights of the night came when Wisconsin snuffed out a fourth-and-goal play from quarterback Aaron Bailey at the 1-yard-line. Officials ruled his run a touchdown initially, but it was overturned on replay.

Wisconsin now ranks No. 5 in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 87.6 yards per game. Michigan State is tops in the country at 59.1 yards per game.

Inside linebacker Marcus Trotter deserves credit for anchoring the front seven after Chris Borland was sidelined in the first quarter with a right hamstring injury. Trotter finished with a team-best nine tackles and also recovered a fumble. Though the defense isn’t the same without Borland, Trotter showed himself to be a worthy replacement.

Special teams: A

Jack Russell didn’t have an opportunity to make the first field goal of his career, but the sophomore drilled all eight extra point attempts. It would have been nice to see Borland attempt a long-range field goal since coach Gary Andersen proclaimed him the go-to player in such a scenario. But that’s about the only unanswered question to come from Saturday’s game. The more Russell has chances to kick, the more confidence he will gain as he replaces Kyle French.

Wisconsin didn’t have any major gaffes in the kick return game. Kenzel Doe’s 54-yard kickoff return was the longest of his career and the longest since Jared Abbrederis’ 60-yard return against Minnesota on Nov. 12, 2011.

Freshman Andrew Endicott was just fine handling nine kickoffs, and punter Drew Meyer averaged 42.3 yards on his three kicks. The less you can say about the special teams unit, the better because it means you can’t find any glaring mistakes.

Overall: A-minus

It’s hard to complain about a 56-32 victory on the road in Big Ten play. Wisconsin continues to do what it needs to in order to have a chance at an at-large BCS berth. The Badgers still need to win out, but the more they play like this, the better their chances seem to be.

The most major issue to emerge from Saturday’s game is the play of Wisconsin’s secondary, which must be better down the stretch if games are close and teams want to throw long. Wisconsin has scored at least 24 points in every game this season, but you have to believe there will be a low-scoring Big Ten game on the horizon, when the defense will need to step up in a key situation.

That certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday, and Wisconsin can feel awfully good about itself as it enters the second of two bye weeks.

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