No. 18 Wisconsin hosts WIllinois in home opener
MADISON, Wis. (AP) What an odd week for No. 18 Wisconsin.
There was mystery over running back Melvin Gordon's health and confusion about backup quarterback Joel Stave's supposed injury.
Maybe just getting back to playing football will restore a sense of normalcy among worried fans.
FCS school Western Illinois visits Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday for Wisconsin's home opener. Coach Gary Andersen's team will look to bounce back from last week's deflating 28-24 loss to LSU.
The combination of a blowing a 17-point lead in the second half and the struggles of new starting quarterback Tanner McEvoy would be enough cause for concern in a typical week.
''I was just (doing) things I haven't done really ever,'' McEvoy said about going 8 of 24 for 50 yards and two interceptions against the Tigers.
''My footwork and my reads and stuff, (I have) got to clean up. First game and I've got to clean it up for Week 2 and get things going,'' he said.
McEvoy ended up getting overshadowed by other issues.
Gordon was limited to four carries in the second half against LSU, but the questions about the lack of carries lingered until Andersen revealed Monday that Wisconsin's star player had a hip flexor injury.
On Tuesday, Wisconsin said in a statement that Stave would be sidelined indefinitely with a shoulder injury, only for Andersen and Stave to clarify later that day that there actually was no injury.
Stave, it turned out, was working through throwing issues. Regardless, no Stave means Andersen doesn't have an experienced backup behind McEvoy.
After the Western Illinois game, Andersen plans to reassess how he handled the situations.
''Take a big, deep breath and reevaluate things from all over the place - from how we handle things as a university to things that you talk about or how you display things,'' he said. ''I feel good. The kids understand that I've got their backs. I really, truly believe that.''
For now, it's all about getting ready for the Fighting Leathernecks.
Western beat up Valparaiso 45-6 in its season opener last week. Trying to stop Gordon figures to be a bit of a tougher challenge.
''You're not going to stop them running the football. You have to find a way to contain their rushing game,'' coach Bob Nielson said.
Things to watch as Wisconsin tries to prevent an unlikely upset:
TANNER TURNAROUND?: McEvoy isn't solely to blame for Wisconsin's passing game struggles. The Badgers also have a young and inexperienced receiving corps that struggled to get clean looks.
But McEvoy's mistakes stood out the most, especially when he threw off his back foot.
''I've seen it before with a first-game starter where you lose some of those fundamentals,'' offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. ''I anticipate great improvement in Week 2.''
BAKER PRODUCTION: McEvoy, who played safety last year, might be able to share some insight into Western Illinois running back J.C. Baker. They were teammates at Arizona Western junior college. The 5-foot-8 running back rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown, and also caught a 40-yard touchdown pass last week against Valparaiso. Wisconsin's defense is at another level.
RED HERRING: The Badgers defense will, however, be without top defensive lineman Warren Herring. He's out at least four weeks after injuring his right knee in the LSU game. A position group already thin on experience took a hit, and it showed with the run defense deteriorating against LSU after Herring left. Andersen does expect Konrad Zagzebski, another defensive lineman who got hurt last week, to be available Saturday.
ON THE RUN: Speaking of the run, Gordon doesn't figure to see extensive work either this week if the game follows the typical blueprint for a Big Ten-against-FCS school game. But after practicing all week, Gordon should be eager to prove that he's fine on Saturday.
PHASING IN: Nielson is in his second year at Western after a successful 10-year run at Minnesota-Duluth, where he won two Division II national championships. He's relying on players like Baker and quarterback Trenton Norvell, who also came into the program last year, for offensive production.
''We've got a ways to go here ... to be what I called a highly competitive program at this level,'' Nielson said.
AP freelance writer Tammy Madsen in Madison contributed to this story.
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