Badgers must amp up passing to succeed

Wisconsin had no trouble dispatching Minnesota 38-13 on Saturday to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison for another year. The Badgers have now won nine straight games in the series, which matches the longest winning streak by either team in the 122-game history.

Once again, Badgers running backs Montee Ball and James White sparkled. When both are running as they did on Saturday — they combined for 341 yards on the ground — it’s tough for defenses to catch a break.

Handing out grades for Wisconsin’s eighth game of the season:

Passing offense: C-minus

Badgers quarterback Joel Stave didn’t have to do much given the way Wisconsin ran the ball on Saturday. But it would be comforting for Wisconsin fans to see him complete a few more throws.

Stave finished the game 7 of 15 for 106 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He connected with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis on a nice 42-yard play-action pass, but there was little to cheer about beyond that throw. Stave misfired on a couple of throws and also had Abbrederis and tight end Brian Wozniak drop passes. In addition, Stave took a couple of sacks that put the Badgers out of field goal range.

Wisconsin was able to skate by without a solid passing attack by running the ball 54 times on Saturday. But passing just 15 times probably won’t cut it against tougher teams as Big Ten play continues.

Rushing offense: A-plus

For the second straight week, Wisconsin earns the highest mark possible in this category thanks to running backs Montee Ball and James White.

White was spectacular on Saturday. He carried 15 times for 175 yards with three touchdowns. That’s 11.7 yards per carry. He scored in a variety of ways, including once out of the Badgers’ “Barge” formation, otherwise known as the “Wildcat.”

Entering the day, White had just three rushing touchdowns in the first seven games of the season. But he really appears to have found his groove in the past two weeks. For his career, he is averaging 6.1 yards per carry, well ahead of Ron Dayne’s Wisconsin career record of 5.8 yards per attempt.

Ball, meanwhile, started slow but put in another solid effort. He carried 24 times for 166 yards with two touchdowns. Even though both scores came in the fourth quarter with the outcome mostly decided, the statistics still look good. With four regular-season games remaining, Ball is slowly putting himself back into the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Passing defense: B

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill opted to burn the redshirt season of true freshman Phillip Nelson on Saturday. Nelson is obviously talented, but Wisconsin’s defense held its own against him.

Nelson finished the day completing 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Certainly, it was surprising to see Nelson lead the team right down the field for a touchdown immediately following a Wisconsin score. But the Badgers’ didn’t allow him to find much of a rhythm for most of the game.

Cornerback Devin Smith intercepted his second pass of the season and the fifth of his career during the third quarter. Linebacker Ethan Armstrong later recorded his first career interception during the fourth quarter.

Wisconsin has moved up to No. 31 in the nation in pass defense, allowing 201.6 passing yards per game.

Rushing defense: A

The Gophers tried to create some advantages by letting Nelson tuck the ball and run, but he didn’t find much room. Nelson carried 16 times for 67 yards.

As a team, Minnesota ran the ball 30 times for just 96 yards — an average of 3.2 yards per carry.

Wisconsin has been especially strong in the run defense category all season. The Badgers now rank 23rd in the country, surrendering 114.0 yards rushing per game.

Special teams: C-plus

Keeping kickoffs in bounds has been a bugaboo for Wisconsin all season, and it continued on Saturday. Jack Russell couldn’t keep his second kickoff in, and he was immediately benched in favor of Kyle French.

French has had his issues with kickoffs as well. Earlier this season, he was flagged for kicking out of bounds in two consecutive games and lost his starting spot.

Another curious special teams move came when Badgers coach Bret Bielema opted not to try for a 49-yard field goal with French, who has shown himself to have a solid leg. French even made a game-changing 46-yard field goal against Illinois two weeks earlier. Instead, the Badgers punted to pin Minnesota deep on Saturday.

Minnesota’s offense wasn’t good enough to make Wisconsin pay for the decision. But does it mean Bielema doesn’t have confidence in French to let him try from 49?

Overall: B

On the whole, Saturday’s game was another solid effort from Wisconsin, which has now won three straight Big Ten games. The path to the conference championship game in Indianapolis belongs to the Badgers, who hold a three-game lead.

The passing game will have to improve with games against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State remaining on the schedule. Then again, if Wisconsin can maintain its successful 1-2 combination of Ball and White, maybe the Badgers won’t need much from Stave.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.