Passing game failures hurting Badgers' rushing attack

Passing game failures hurting Badgers' rushing attack

Published Dec. 11, 2013 10:30 a.m. ET

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

"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

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.