Jesse Temple's Sept. 18 Badgers mailbag
Apparently, Wisconsin football fans wanted to discuss last week's game against Arizona State a little more this week. I wonder why?
In this week's mailbag, we touch on the talent of running back Melvin Gordon and the Badgers' problems in the secondary. We also get a response on the Pac-12 replay review system from the conference's vice president of communications, and we even rank the three most excruciating Wisconsin losses of the past three seasons.
This is our fourth edition of the mailbag, which we'll post every Wednesday throughout the season, excluding bye weeks. Look for a link following Saturday's game to submit your questions before Wisconsin's big Week 5 matchup against Ohio State. Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. Let's get to it:
Q: With all due respect to James White, how long can Melvin Gordon continue to be a part-time player? He's one of the biggest weapons in college football. Every play that he's not on the field is a gift to the defense.-- Tom Wrigglesworth, Minneapolis, MN
A: In any other year, we'd be talking about how good James White has been early in the season. The guy is averaging 99.0 yards rushing per game and 6.6 yards per carry. Keep in mind that his career average of 6.14 yards-per-carry is the best of any UW running back in history with at least 300 rushing attempts. He is the FBS active career leader in rushing yards among running backs (2,868), total touchdowns (35) and rushing touchdowns (34).
And yet, despite all those incredible stats, we're talking about giving the guy fewer carries. That's how spectacular Melvin Gordon is playing right now. Gordon became the fastest player in UW history to reach 1,000 career rushing yards (104 carries) against Tennessee Tech. And he rushed for 193 yards with two touchdowns against Arizona State.
It's pretty clear Gordon can offer Wisconsin the complete package of speed, power and strength. You can't simply take White out of the equation, but there must be a way to tilt the balance of carries in Gordon's favor. Thus far, White has carried 45 times and Gordon 37. Even against Arizona State, Gordon carried 15 times to White's 12. The more Gordon performs at an All-American level, the tougher it will be to keep him on the sideline.
Q: Melvin Gordon III, or MG3 as I like to say, has that home run potential every time he gets a little crease. His running style reminds a lot of former Badgers RB Michael Bennett. Do you think so as well? I agree as a lot of people are saying that he should get more carries and possibly be the featured back. James White is no slouch, but with MG3 being such a threat, why not make him #1 on the depth chart? -- Steven Waldvogel, Flagstaff
A: I started covering Wisconsin's football program three seasons ago, and Bennett played for the Badgers back in 1999 and 2000, so I never saw him in person to make an accurate comparison. But both players certainly have that physicality you look for in an every-down type of running back who can run between the tackles. Bennett was listed at 5-foot-9 and 207 pounds. Gordon, meanwhile, is listed at 6-1 and 207 pounds.
There are some interesting parallels in terms of their first couple of seasons in the program. Bennett was placed in the unfortunate position of being Ron Dayne's backup in 1999 and carried 57 times for 298 yards with four touchdowns. Gordon had to serve as Montee Ball's backup in 2012 (and James White's backup) and carried 62 times for 621 yards with three touchdowns.
Once Dayne left, Bennett took over and rushed for 1,598 yards and 10 touchdowns. Gordon is in position to have an even better season now that Ball plays for the Denver Broncos.
Many consider Bennett to be the most successful modern-day UW running back in the NFL because he is the only former Badgers tailback to produce a 1,000-yard season in the pros. Gordon has a few years before he reaches the NFL, but I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually joined that club.
As for making Gordon No. 1 on the depth chart, I don't think he will ever officially be listed with the starters as long as White as healthy. But don't be surprised if he slowly takes carries away from White given the way Gordon has run the first three games.
Q: If you had to give out an MVP award after three games, who would it go to?-- Sven, Bay View
A: In the interest of fairness, I'm going to hand out MVPs for offense, defense and special teams because the roles of the three are of equal importance.
Offensively, there's no question running back Melvin Gordon has emerged as the standout player at Wisconsin. Gordon is averaging 10.0 yards per carry in his career, which is insane production. As I mentioned above, James White holds the current school record for career average yards per carry with at least 300 rushing attempts -- and that number is 3.86 yards fewer than Gordon.
Defensively, you can't go wrong with picking linebacker Chris Borland. He's simply a special player who can do anything asked of him on the field. He leads the team with 24 tackles and is credited with having Wisconsin's only sack thus far this season. And in a pinch, it turns out he can throw pretty well, too. Borland completed a 23-yard pass for a first down off a fake punt play that helped keep a key drive alive against Arizona State.
On special teams, I'll give the award to punter Drew Meyer. He's one of those guys you don't hear much about, which is a good thing because it means he's not making any mistakes. Meyer has been an unsung hero for Wisconsin, handling 11 punts for an average of 40.5 yards per kick. He coolly handled two punts while backed up in his own end zone against Arizona State and is a vital component to the team's success.
Q: Are any of the defensive backs for Wisconsin on scholarship? Because if they are, they should be stripped of them. I've never seen such a terrible display of secondary defense. Also, the defensive backs coach should probably looked at, too.-- Mike Mahnke, Chandler, AZ
A: Easy there, Mike. No doubt members of Wisconsin's secondary had a tough game. But let's hold off on pushing the freak out button just yet. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who was victimized for two pass interference calls, a holding penalty and was credited with a fumble while blocking on a punt return attempt, was playing just the third college game of his career.
Peniel Jean, Michael Caputo and Darius Hillary also had their struggles with either pass interference calls or an inability to handle back-shoulder fade throws on the sideline. Still, the only way for these guys to improve is to face actual competition in games.
Yes, they surrendered a ton of yards through the air -- 352, to be exact -- and that is cause for concern. At this point, however, you've got to ride with the guys you have on the team and accelerate their learning curve.
"You can look at the pass interferences and we'll try to teach from them," UW coach Gary Andersen said Monday. "We'll evaluate from them. And again whether they're right, wrong or indifferent, we can get that stuff evaluated as we go forward. You're going to have balls caught on you and you're going to have a PI if you play corner. I think overall we're handling it well but, there was a few too many in that game and we can move forward. I'm proud of those corners."
Q: Having seen three good performances from the Badgers, what would you say the team's ceiling is?-- Pablo, Mequon
A: I'd say this is absolutely a team capable of competing for a Big Ten championship and another spot in the Rose Bowl. The most obvious game Wisconsin will have to win is Sept. 28 at Ohio State, and that is no small task. But if the Badgers' defense can find a way to slow Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller and establish that strong running game on offense, Wisconsin will have a chance.
The rest of Wisconsin's Big Ten road games are against Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. I'm willing to bet the Badgers will be favored in all three of those games. The toughest Big Ten home game for Wisconsin is probably against Northwestern on Oct. 12. But again, I think the Badgers will be favored to win that one, too.
The ceiling for this team is another Rose Bowl appearance, though plenty will have to go right for Wisconsin to get there. The basement is probably something like the Gator Bowl as a team that winds up behind Ohio State in the Leaders Division while Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern excel in the Legends Division.
Q: Did Wisconsin inadvertently build a football facility on an Indian burial ground sometime in 2009? Can you put the bad outcomes in the final minutes of road and important games into perspective? It's getting ridiculous.-- Jon, Chicago
A: Great question, Jon. I can't imagine there's a team in college football that has gone through the close losses with controversial results the way Wisconsin has the past few seasons. Consider that, dating to the 2011 Rose Bowl against TCU, the Badgers have lost their last 11 games by seven points or less.
Three came last season in overtime (Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State). Two came when time ran out as Wisconsin tried to spike the ball for one more play (2012 Rose Bowl against Oregon and Saturday against Arizona State). One involved a late onside kick that went against Wisconsin after the Badgers appeared to recover the ball (Oregon State last season). Two came on back-to-back Hail Mary touchdown passes in the final minute (Michigan State and Ohio State in 2011).
If I had to rank the top three losses on a 1-10 "gut-punch" scale, here's how I'd do it:
10: Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 21. October 22, 2011
The reason I put this at the top is because of what it meant to the Badgers' national championship hopes. Everything was lined up for Wisconsin to make one of those title runs that comes along maybe once in a generation: a stout defense, a Heisman-caliber quarterback (Russell Wilson) and a Heisman-caliber running back (Montee Ball).
It wasn't just that Wisconsin lost, of course. It was the way Wisconsin lost. Keith Nichol caught a 44-yard Hail Mary from quarterback Kirk Cousins and barely broke the plane of the goal line. The play was so close that it took a replay review to confirm the touchdown. After the loss, the Badgers kissed those title aspirations goodbye, dropping from No. 6 in the BCS standings to No. 15.
Wisconsin lost to Ohio State on a last-minute Hail Mary one week later, but the real damage had already been done by Michigan State.
10. Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30. September 14, 2013
This earns a 10 on the gut-punch scale because Wisconsin technically didn't do anything to lose this game at the end. In the Michigan State game listed above, Wisconsin actually surrendered a touchdown in the final seconds, even though it required replay review to confirm.
On Saturday, the Badgers appeared to do everything right to set up the potential game-winning field goal. But the referee's inability to manage the clock led to one of the most frustrating losses in recent memory. The officials should not have allowed time to keep running when an Arizona State defensive lineman jumped on the ball for six seconds. They should not have prevented quarterback Joel Stave from snapping the ball for three seconds. The entire episode was a debacle.
I believe linebacker Chris Borland when he calls it the worst loss he's ever been a part of at Wisconsin. And he's been here through every single one of those 11 losses the past three seasons.
"Our close losses in the past I think we could have done more," Borland said. "The Hail Mary games and the Rose Bowl games, I think we made mistakes. We made no big mistake that cost us the game. Made a lot of little ones. It was really just taken from us. That was what was hardest to take."
9. Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38. January 2, 2012
I'm putting this one ahead of the 21-19 Rose Bowl loss to TCU, though you could argue they're probably interchangeable. This was one of the most memorable Rose Bowl games in history -- and the highest scoring -- and it would have served as a nice cap to a special Badgers season.
Offensively, it's the best team Wisconsin has ever had. But the defense simply couldn't keep pace with Oregon's breakneck speed offense. Still, Russell Wilson had Wisconsin at Oregon's 25-yard line with two seconds left before time expired as he tried to spike the ball for one more play -- yet another controversial call involving an official.
"I didn't think there was any way that two full seconds ran off the clock there," Wilson said after the game. "It would have been nice to have a chance there. With one second left, I think we could have capitalized there."
Given what Wilson has accomplished as an NFL starting quarterback already and the offensive talent around him that game at Wisconsin, it's tough to argue with him.
Q: Will I always be remembered for the unfortunate ending in Tempe?-- Joel Stave, Madison
A: Don't worry, Joel (whoever you really are). Life will go on. I promise. As for Stave, no, I highly doubt this is how he will be remembered. The guy has started a total of nine college football games, and he's only a sophomore.
If Stave remains the starter for the rest of his college career, he'll likely play in at least 36 more games. There are bound to be plenty of memorable moments during that span.
Q: With Melvin Gordon in the backfield, why would coach Andersen elect not to run a play with 29 seconds to go before half? A screen or sweep with Gordon could've gone all the way or close enough for a field goal try.-- Jim G., Hudson
A: Wisconsin took possession at its own 25-yard line with 29 seconds left, and it would've taken one heck of a sweep or screen with Gordon to put the Badgers in field-goal range. Kyle French's longest field goal in his career is 46 yards. So let's assume UW needed to reach Arizona State's 29. That means Wisconsin would have had to pick up 46 yards just to reach the edge of French's range.
I have no problem with Andersen deciding to sit on the ball and go into halftime. Wisconsin led 14-13 at the time, and the last thing you want is some type of fumble that changes the momentum of the game in Arizona State's favor.
Q: I was at the game on Saturday and was just wondering how the game could have ended without an official review? Clearly, these officials were trying to get off the field as quickly as possible, but it just doesn't make any sense to me! I read that the officials decided against a review. Don't they automatically review everything important within two minutes?-- AZ Badger, Phoenix
A: I'll be honest and tell you I didn't know exactly what the rules were for official reviews in that situation. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said Monday during a radio interview with WTSO-1070 AM in Madison that he thought it was a situation in which a replay official could buzz to the field if a problem surfaced.
I emailed Pac-12 Vice President of Communications Dave Hirsch on Tuesday to ask for a clarification on the end-of-game rules. Here's what he emailed back:
"Replay reviews every play in college football. At the conclusion of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, what they would have looked at was whether it was a fumble or whether the spike of the ball occurred in time. Since both issues were not under debate, replay had no reason to buzz down to the officials on the field."
So basically, because Stave didn't fumble and because he did not spike the ball in time, there was technically nothing for replay officials in the booth to review. Still, you'd think some common sense would take hold.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen sounded just as up in the air about the interpretation of the rules when he spoke Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference.
"I thought for sure when it did go down to zero, with what had taken place and the knowledge that I have in the rules that it would for sure be looked at and re-evaluated at that point through the officials," Andersen said. "I never felt until the official basically jogged off the field without communicating that the game would be over.
Q: How is it that the Pac-12 has different on the field rules than the Big Ten, according to what happened in Sun Devil Stadium?-- Larry Motzer, Eau Claire, WI
A: Well, I'm not sure the Pac-12 has different on-field rules compared to other conferences, but some wacky things have taken place involving officials from that conference over the years. And it's enough to make you wonder when change is coming.
Right now, every Pac-12 home game is officiated by Pac-12 officials. Most conferences use crews from the visiting team's conference if it's a non-league game. I don't believe the Pac-12 is out to get anybody, as some might think, but there would be less reason to question these decisions if the Pac-12 didn't officiate those home games.
Last season, Oklahoma State lost 59-38 at Arizona. In that game, the Cowboys were flagged for 15 penalties totaling 167 yards. Arizona, meanwhile, was flagged four times for 27 yards. The Big 12 reviewed the tape and discovered several of those penalties shouldn't have been called on Oklahoma State.
And in 2006, Oklahoma famously lost 34-33 at Oregon when the Sooners recovered a fourth-quarter onside kick but had the ball inexplicably given to Oregon anyway.
The mistakes are slowly adding up, and for the sake of college football fans, the Pac-12 needs to dump its officials at home games as other conferences do to eliminate any possible doubt about the outcomes.
Q: Who was managing the game clock? Why didn't Badgers fans see Curt Phillips? What was the entire coach staff thinking?-- Carl, Madison, WI
A: As far as managing the clock, the Badgers handled themselves just fine until the last play. And even then, they had no way of knowing the referees would allow 15 seconds to run off without allowing Wisconsin to snap the ball. You simply can't account for a defensive lineman falling on the ball for six seconds and an umpire standing over the ball for three seconds with his hand out preventing a snap. Wisconsin was out of timeouts but fully prepared to spike the ball to line up a field-goal attempt.
I'm not sure what you think Phillips could have brought to the equation here. Joel Stave might not have played his best game, but he put the team in position to win. This season, Stave is averaging 201 yards passing per game. Phillips has never passed for 200 yards in any game during his career.
And finally, what was the coaching staff thinking? They wanted to center the ball for kicker Kyle French to give him the best opportunity to make the kick. Gary Andersen said that, percentage-wise, the middle of the field was French's favorite spot.
"You track all that stuff and look and see where it is," Andersen said this week. "I know that's where he feels most comfortable. But the other thing is besides that, even if it's not, with 18 seconds left, it's not impossible but it's almost impossible to not be able to line up and kick the ball."
Q: What was the overall mood of the Badgers players this week following their gut-wrenching loss at ASU? Did they seem depressed, or resilient?-- Kelly, Minneapolis
A: I'd be willing to bet the mood inside that locker room in Sun Devil Stadium was depression, anger and confusion. How else can you react when a game you've worked so hard to win is taken from you in the final seconds by the incompetence of a referee crew?
At this point, the mood has clearly shifted. Players aren't going to forget about that loss, but they understand the bigger picture here and are determined to change their fortunes. In all honesty, it's not like Wisconsin was going to win the national championship this season. So, really, all the goals the Badgers had at the beginning of the season are still in place.
Wisconsin plays Purdue this week and controls its path to a fourth straight Big Ten title. I think we'll see the team's resilience and a big victory at Camp Randall Stadium.
Badgers defensive end Ethan Hemer, one of the most well-spoken players on the team, put the mood of the team into perspective this week.
"We've got a team that doesn't quit," he said. "A team that when it comes down to the wire, guys will make plays. Guys will come up big. There are a lot of guys that can provide sparks, which will benefit us now going down the road. I think this game, while there were a lot of negatives, provided us with a lot of positives in that aspect."
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