MADISON, Wis. — If you’ve seen even a sliver of game action involving Wisconsin’s football team over the years, chances are you could easily predict what the Badgers’ offense would look like. Run the ball. Run again. Sprinkle in an occasional play action pass to set up the run even more.
This is the staple by which Wisconsin has excelled, behind an offensive line hell-bent on mauling its opponents up front. It turns out last season, however, was unusually one-dimensional.
In 2012, under first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada, Wisconsin ran the ball on 68.5 percent of its total plays, the most lopsided run-pass ratio for the Badgers since Ron Dayne’s Heisman Trophy season in 1999. The Badgers ran on more than 65.0 percent of their plays in only three other seasons since ’99 and never above 67.9 percent.
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With Wisconsin set to open its 2013 season Saturday against UMass, players are confident they will be part of a more balanced offense with new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig in place.
“Last year, we struggled to find consistency in the pass game,” Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen said. “This year, I think we’ve got the guys to make plays, and I think we’ve got the plays that we can really keep the defense on their toes and not let them just be able to expect run.”
The factors that contributed to the lack of a passing game were numerous a year ago. For starters, Wisconsin cycled through three quarterbacks, which didn’t help with the offensive stability. By the time Curt Phillips was inserted into the lineup in Week 10, Wisconsin was especially conservative. In a game against Indiana, the Badgers ran the ball an astounding 64 times and passed on just seven occasions.
It didn’t help that Wisconsin couldn’t find a No. 2 wide receiver threat behind standout Jared Abbrederis, who caught 49 passes for 837 yards with five touchdowns. The rest of the team’s wide receivers combined for 48 catches and 446 yards. Over Wisconsin’s final eight games, Abbrederis’ numbers dipped significantly, to 2.8 catches and 40.1 yards per game, as opposing defenses double-teamed him with great success.
Add in the fact returning Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball was in the backfield, and Wisconsin’s offense seemed obligated to give him the ball more than necessary.
“Last year, we were getting some pretty heavy boxes and trying to run against them,” Badgers left tackle Tyler Marz said. “It’s just a big disadvantage no matter how good you are. I think it’s only going to benefit us in the run game if we do pass more, whether it’s play action or drop backs.”
Players believe they have more experienced wide receivers with returners Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and newcomer Alex Erickson, as well as a capable group of tight ends and running backs who are willing to catch passes out of the backfield.
“It’ll be exciting,” UW running back James White said. “(Ludwig) is trying to get his best players the ball in space. That’s all you can ask for as a skill player on offense.”
The coaching staff kept the same terminology in place for many of Wisconsin’s offensive plays, which helped curb the learning curve for players. Ludwig noted he drew heavily from former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who left after the 2011 season to take the head coaching position at the University of Pittsburgh.
Chryst certainly is remembered fondly in Wisconsin. The 2010 Wisconsin team set the program record for points per game (41.5) and ranked fifth in the country. In 2011, the Badgers averaged 44.1 points per game to break their own mark. Though the run game was featured heavily in both seasons, Wisconsin also had an ability to make defenses account for its passing game.
Ludwig would like to see similar results.
“We always talk about balanced or better,” Ludwig said. “The more you can run the ball, the better you’re going to be because you’re running because you want to and you can and you’re doing anything off of that. But you want to be balanced and hopefully in the fourth quarter, the emphasis shifts to the run because you’re running the ball to win. But it’s going to be a balanced approach.”
Before coming to Wisconsin, Ludwig spent two seasons as offensive coordinator at San Diego State. His 2011 Aztecs ran the ball 486 times and passed 449 times — a running ratio of 51.9 percent. That season, quarterback Ryan Lindley threw for 3,153 yards and running back Ronnie Hillman had 1,711 yards on the ground.
Does he consider those numbers to be an ideal scenario?
“Every season is different,” Ludwig said. “You try to draw on your strength and the ability of the players to put them in position to be successful and the program be successful. To say a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher, that’s the magic equation, let’s play to our strengths. We’re still early in the season and are going to be identifying what our strengths are and build on that and try to roll.”
If Joel Stave is named Wisconsin’s starting quarterback over Phillips — and all indications point in that direction — the Badgers will have a capable, confident passer who loves to take shots down the field. His willingness to throw deep could provide Wisconsin with a dimension that was missing during the eight games he didn’t start a year ago.
Make no mistake: With James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement in the backfield, the strength of Wisconsin’s offense is still its running game. But expect the Badgers to mix up their playcalling more this season to keep defenses on their toes, even if the exact run-pass ratio remains a question.
“We want to be able to run the football, we want to take some shots in the play action game and make people honor the run game,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “But we do want to spread the field and throw the ball consistently.”
McEvoy on defense? As if Tanner McEvoy wasn’t versatile enough, Andersen dropped this little nugget during his weekly Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday: McEvoy could even play some defense this season.
“He’s so athletic, we need to get him on the field,” Andersen said. “It’s not out of the question that you may see Tanner back there doing a few things in even some defensive situations.
“He wants to get on the field and he wants to play. His time at quarterback may be ahead of him. We’ll see how it goes. But he is talented enough and he’s definitely smart enough to affect the game in a positive way on Saturday.”
McEvoy began fall camp in a battle for the starting quarterback spot. But when he fell behind Stave and Phillips, he met with coaches to discuss the prospect of playing wide receiver, which he played in high school.
McEvoy also was a defensive back as a junior at Bergen Catholic (N.J.) High School. That season, he recorded 49 tackles and three interceptions.
Andersen said McEvoy would still be involved at quarterback but was open to playing wide receiver as well.
“I can’t say he was running off doing backflips of happiness,” Andersen said. “He understood it. He knew where he sat. I think he spent enough time going through camp and through the cycle of the quarterback situation understanding he’s still a young quarterback. He has not taken a lot of snaps over the years. He accepted it very well and he really made the decision at the end. I think that’s important for a young man to be involved in that decision-making process, and he was all in favor.”