UW passing attack getting jolt from backfield

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s running back corps has predominantly been known as a bruising bunch that prides itself on dragging defenders for extra inches between the hash marks. Badgers tailbacks are tasked with carrying the ball so often in a pro-style scheme, another important skillset often goes overlooked entirely: catching passes.

If first-year coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have their way, that forgotten facet is about to become far more critical in Wisconsin’s offensive scheme. Andersen said running backs James White and Melvin Gordon were expected to increase their workload in the route running department to create mismatches against opposing defenses.

“Our screen game will continually develop,” Andersen said during his Monday news conference. “That takes reps and timing. But James has very good hands. Melvin can catch the ball well. He’s missed a fair amount of spring, but I think he’ll be back and ready to go. (We have) the screen game and then also putting them out there at the wide receiver situation.

“When you’re in certain personnel groups, defenses have a hard time reacting if you get skill on the field. James runs very good routes and has very good hands out there, so I do see that being a big part of the offense as we move through fall camp and into the season.”

Last season under offensive coordinator Matt Canada, the Badgers rarely took advantage of their running backs in the passing game. Montee Ball, White and Gordon combined to record 20 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns. The three combined to carry the ball 543 times.

A year earlier, in 2011, when Wisconsin had quarterback Russell Wilson and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Ball and White alone combined for 39 catches with 456 yards and six touchdowns.

White and Gordon certainly will get their touches in the backfield next season, but their ability to catch passes could open up the offense in ways Wisconsin couldn’t last season, when wide receiver Jared Abbrederis drew double teams in the secondary. Abbrederis, the team’s top returning wide receiver, didn’t catch a touchdown pass the last eight games while averaging just 40.1 yards receiving per outing.

Spring game information set: Wisconsin’s spring game will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, and the scoreboard should be buzzing. The Badgers released the rules for the game, as well as a unique scoring system.

The game will pit the offense (White) against the defense (Cardinal). The first half will consist of two 15-minute quarters played with normal clock rules. Following a five-minute halftime, the second half will consist of two 10-minute running time quarters (except for the final two-minutes of the fourth quarter). Both teams will have opportunities to score. The scoring system is as follows:

OFFENSE
Touchdown = 6 pts.
Conversion = 1 or 2 pts. (ALL LIVE)
Field goal = 3 pts.
Run of 15-plus yards = 2 pts.
Pass of 20-plus yards = 2 pts.
First Down = 1 pt.

DEFENSE
Touchdown = 6 pts.
Safety = 2 pts.
Conversion = 1 or 2 pts. (ALL LIVE)
Turnover = 5 pts.
3-and-out = 3 pts.
Blocked FG = 3 pts.
Stopped drive, Sack, TFL = 2 pts.

“A lot of people have been asking me, ‘Is it a game? Is it not a game?’ ” Andersen said. “It’s offense vs. defense, but it is a game. It will feel much like a game. There is true scoring, and if I at times need to skew the score to keep it close, then I might have to do that. We’ll make it fun and entertaining for everybody out there. Everybody that can come, we’d love to have them come and be part of it. I know that much.”

Andersen noted every healthy player on Wisconsin’s roster would participate in Saturday’s spring game in some capacity. The game will air on Big Ten Network.

“The young men come in and put in the work, he deserves to be able to get out there in front of his fans, his family members, and it’s on TV,” he said. “So every kid will get reps. Same thing I always say. Don’t count your reps. Make your reps count. Might not be too many, but they’ll all get an opportunity to play.”

Big Ten spring games: Andersen has been busy preparing his own team for its spring game, but he also has managed to keep an eye on the rest of the Big Ten spring games taking place.

Andersen said he would DVR the spring games of every league team in an effort to study their personnel before next season begins.

“Give me something to do on those summer days,” he said. “It can help. You get to see some personnel, you get an identity of who a team is, especially when it’s all foreign for us. I’m sure this spring game for us will be dissected by every team that we play. In those terms, we will be very generic on Saturday. We’re not going to show everything out there. I’m glad I have them. I’m excited to sit back and watch them again on the couch.”

Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan already have played their respective spring games. Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State play Saturday, while Minnesota and Iowa will hold spring games on April 27.

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