Passing game failures hurting Badgers’ rushing attack

MADISON, Wis. — James White slipped through the line of

scrimmage and took off down the field for a 49-yard gain. It was the first

offensive play during Wisconsin’s game against Minnesota three weeks ago, and

it looked much like the Badgers’ rushing attack had all season.

Stout offensive line. Big hole. Solid blocking. Huge run.

As explosive plays go on the ground, it also was the last.

None of the past 74 running plays against Minnesota and Penn

State has gone for at least 20 yards — the measuring stick known as an

explosive play. That might not sound like much. But consider that before the

Minnesota game, Wisconsin had put together 35 runs of at least 20 yards, and 11

of those runs went for touchdowns.

So, is there cause for concern in the running game as

Wisconsin prepares to play South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl?

Well, players and coaches don’t sound too alarmed about the

tailbacks’ ability to make plays — and how close they were to breaking several

big runs the past two weeks.

“It’s not frustrating at all,” Badgers running

backs coach Thomas Hammock said. “I think we’ve played some good defenses.

We had opportunities. We didn’t capitalize. We had three or four chances

against Minnesota. We’re a shoestring tackle away from going 70 yards. When we

get in that situation, we’ve got to win it, and that’s something we’re

certainly trying to do.”

Badgers running back Melvin Gordon, who has accounted for 14

explosive runs — two more than White for the team lead — reiterated Hammock’s

point about being close to breaking bigger plays. He also said the Penn State

game created a unique circumstance in which Wisconsin was forced to throw the

ball after trailing by 17 points. Penn State went on to beat Wisconsin 31-24.

“I was feeling it that game,” Gordon said.

“After we got behind, we knew we had to get in the two-minute (offense).

We couldn’t play our ball then and that kind of affected our rushing attack,

too. We look at it that way. I don’t feel like our rushing went down in any

way. Just some opportunities we missed in the Minnesota game to make us look

good. We kind of got behind the chains against Penn State.”

The numbers do show Gordon hasn’t endured a significant

drop, even without the big runs. Over the past two games, Gordon has carried 25

times for 170 yards — an average of 6.4 yards per attempt. Since White’s

49-yard run against Minnesota, however, he has carried the ball 38 times for

132 yards — an average of 3.47 yards per carry. The two have combined for just

one touchdown.

One of the reasons for the run game taking a dip has been

the lack of a consistent passing attack — something head coach Gary Andersen

continues to preach in the lead-up to the bowl game. Badgers quarterback Joel

Stave has missed numerous open receivers and thrown as many interceptions

(four) as touchdowns the past two games. His offensive line also has struggled

to protect him.

“A lot of it goes back to making sure my feet are

right,” Stave said. “Some of the pressure we were getting against

Penn State, I was having to move in the pocket. Sometimes I would notice I was

moving not necessarily when I needed to. Just making sure that when there is no

pressure, just staying relaxed, staying calm in the pocket, not necessarily jumping

around and getting my feet off.”

Andersen offered a much more blunt assessment of the passing

game following Tuesday night’s practice.

“As you look back at this offense, we’ve been our own

worst enemy at times in certain situations by just not finishing a play that’s

there for us possibly,” Andersen said. “Very effective running the

football, which we all know. But then again, we all know what the weakness is

right now and that is the ability to be able to throw and catch the football

and not let people gang up on us. As the year went, we appeared to not be as

good at getting the ball down the field and completing it.”

He later added: “Overall, the passing game needs to

take a step forward. If we’re going to have a chance to win this next football

game, it will have to. If not, we won’t win.”

Gordon acknowledged teams had experienced better success in

stacking the box against Wisconsin, and Andersen said the reason was because

defenses were daring the Badgers to throw.

Still, Gordon believes opportunities are out there, even if

opponents have one or two more players lined up in the box than Wisconsin.

Gordon and White still both rank in the top 17 nationally in rushing yards per

game.

“When they stack the box, if one guy misses, you can

take it for long,” Gordon said. “And it happened in the Minnesota

game. James, he broke that one. I had about two or three I could have had, but

I got nipped by the ankle. But when they stack the box, it can hurt them, too.

You can’t get too frustrated. You know it’s going to happen when you run the

ball a lot.”

Wisconsin recorded at least one explosive run in every game

except against Ohio State until coming up with nothing against Penn State. In

seven different games, the Badgers put together at least three runs of 20 yards

and hit a high mark with eight runs of at least 20 yards in a 51-3 drubbing of

Indiana.

In that game, Wisconsin also rushed for 554 yards — the

second-best mark in program history. There aren’t likely to be any rushing

records broken against a tough South Carolina defense on Jan. 1. But that

doesn’t mean the Badgers won’t continue to probe ways to find advantages and

get back to the basics in their usually dominant rushing attack.

“There’s always explosive plays out there,” White

said. “When you have a 1-on-1 opportunity, when there’s that little

crease, we can’t miss the reads. So when we get our opportunities, our goal is

to take advantage of them. Go out there and get as many explosive plays as

possible.”

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