No one will ever suggest losing the Big Ten opener to Northwestern did Wisconsin some good back in early October. The loss essentially ended whatever small talk remained of the Badgers competing for the College Football Playoff and raised serious questions about whether this team could even compete in the Big Ten West.
But a shift has gradually taken place since the loss, and now Wisconsin looks as formidable as it as been all season. For further evidence, see Wisconsin’s 34-16 victory against Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium on Saturday. The defense is playing great, the running game has a sure-fire Heisman Trophy finalist and the passing game is beginning to find its rhythm.
Wisconsin won its fourth consecutive game and can now look ahead to a huge contest against Nebraska that could decide which team plays in Indianapolis on Dec. 6 for the Big Ten championship.
But first, let’s look back one more time and hand out grades for Wisconsin’s performance against Purdue:
Passing offense: B
For a stretch during the second quarter, Joel Stave was as hot as any quarterback Badgers fans have seen in years. We’re talking Russell Wilson hot. Of course, the difference between Wilson and everybody else to come though Wisconsin is Wilson could maintain that roll for entire games. Stave had to settle with perhaps the best quarter of his career.
During the second quarter, he completed 12 of 13 passes for 143 yards with two touchdown passes despite a brutal wind batting down throws. He connected on his final nine passes, which included a 27-yard touchdown to Melvin Gordon and a nine-yard score to Alex Erickson to put Wisconsin ahead 24-6 at halftime.
"I thought the guys were doing a great job getting open," Stave said. "We were just taking what they were giving us. We did a great job of protecting up front. I had time to stand back there and really see the field. When we can do that and get open, I think we can be a very effective pass offense."
Stave finished the game 19 of 29 for 219 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It clearly was his best performance in four starts this season, which is an encouraging sign as Wisconsin prepares for three of its toughest games all year.
Yes, Stave made one poor throw that Purdue’s Landon Fletcher picked off in the third quarter. Wisconsin faced a third-and-two from Purdue’s 28-yard line, and Stave tried to force a pass to tight end Sam Arneson when he had tight end Troy Fumagalli open underneath. Stave finished the third quarter 2 of 6 for 14 yards with an interception. Overall, however, this was perhaps the most balanced Wisconsin’s offense has looked this season — 42 rushes and 30 passes.
Badgers offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig did a nice job of rotating Stave and Tanner McEvoy in the middle of a series for the first time as part of the team’s two-quarterback rotation. McEvoy threw just one pass, but he did run four times for 42 yards and scored a 13-yard touchdown to push Wisconsin ahead 31-16 and provide some breathing room late in the third quarter.
Rushing offense: A-minus
Any time Melvin Gordon is carrying the ball, a team has a chance for a special day. And Gordon did not disappoint on Saturday, carrying 25 times for 205 yards with a touchdown.
How good was Gordon? Even the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier took notice, with a clever sports page headline entitled "OH, M.G." Well played. Gordon averaged 8.2 yards per carry and only enhanced the likelihood of him being a Heisman Trophy finalist.
The only major blip for Gordon against Purdue was a rare fumble on a drive to open the third quarter, which helped set up a Purdue field goal that trimmed the Boilermakers’ deficit to 24-9.
"It was a tough 200-yard game," Gordon said. "I made some mistakes. I just want to say thank you to the offensive linemen and all those guys up front. I made some bad reads. I had that fumble that cost us points, and I needed a pick-me-up this game.
"As a leader, I got down a little bit, but those guys were there and they helped motivate me and kept me going. And our defense played phenomenal to keep me up. I just want to say thanks to Big Rob (Havenstein) and all those guys that encouraged me today after those mistakes I made."
Corey Clement carried only eight times and rushed for 23 yards, while Tanner McEvoy added 42 rushing yards. All told, it was another solid day for Wisconsin’s rushing attack.
Wisconsin’s defense has been so good for so long this season — and the Badgers came out of the week still ranked first nationally in total defense. But UW loses at least a partial letter grade here for one bad play that cost the team a touchdown at a critical juncture.
Purdue trailed 24-9 in the third quarter and faced a third-and-five from its own 21 when quarterback Austin Appleby connected with tailback Akeem Hunt on a wheel route down the right sideline that went for a 79-yard touchdown. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton and linebacker Derek Landisch collided at the line of scrimmage, while allowed Hunt to sneak free and bring the Boilermakers to within one score. Ultimately, the touchdown did not cost Wisconsin the game. But similar mistakes in the next three weeks very well could.
Appleby did not do much of anything outside of that one play. He completed 17 of 37 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. And nine of his 17 completions went to tailbacks Hunt and Raheem Mostert because the Boilermakers played without top receiver Danny Anthrop, who sustained a season-ending ACL injury one week earlier.
Wisconsin ranks third nationally in passing defense (156.8 yards) behind only San Jose State and New Mexico State — two teams that are a combined 5-14 this season, curiously enough.
Rushing defense: A
One again, Wisconsin’s run stuffers absolutely dominated on Saturday. Mostert is the Big Ten’s outdoor track champion in the 100- and 200-meter races, but he found next to no room at tailback for Purdue. Mostert carried five times for 20 yards, while Hunt carried nine times for 12 yards. In total, Purdue rushed 26 times for 26 yards. That’s a cool 1.0 yards-per-attempt — a number that dipped because Wisconsin sacked Appleby four times (three by linebacker Vince Biegel).
The Badgers have been stout against the run all season and now rank fifth in the country in that category, allowing 94.3 yards per game. There is some concern because defensive end Konrad Zagzebski sustained an ankle injury early in the game and did not return. At this stage, his playing status for next week’s game against Nebraska is unknown, and Wisconsin will need all of its big guns available.
But the overall team effort against Purdue was excellent. Biegel tallied a career-high seven tackles, while Derek Landisch added six. Safety Michael Caputo added seven tackles, and cornerback Peniel Jean six. Wisconsin’s defense has been so special this season because it receives contributions from all over, and that trend continued on Saturday.
Special teams: B-plus
Wisconsin performed fairly well on special teams considering the difficult weather conditions, which featured plenty of wind and rain for stretches of Saturday’s game.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone buried both of his field goal attempts from 24 and 31 yards. He also made all four of his extra-point attempts. And punter Drew Meyer pinned Purdue inside the 20 on all three of his attempts. The numbers will show he averaged only 31.3 yards per punt, but that does not do his performance justice.
Kenzel Doe, meanwhile, returned both of his kickoffs 36 yards to set Wisconsin up with great field position. His first return put the Badgers at their own 42 and led to a Wisconsin field goal that gave Wisconsin a 10-6 lead. He also returned a kickoff 36 yards in the third quarter.
The only big hiccup for Wisconsin’s special teams was on kickoff coverage. Purdue’s Raheem Mostert returned a kickoff 41 yards that led to a Boilermakers field goal. Still, Wisconsin was solid for the most part.
Road wins are difficult to come by, even if they come against teams at the bottom of the Big Ten. Wisconsin took care of its business to set up what should be an extremely entertaining final three weeks of the regular season. Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa all are fighting to win the Big Ten West division, and the Badgers will be crowned as champions with three more victories.
Wisconsin’s defense continues to be the best in the Big Ten — first in scoring defense, first in total defense, first in passing defense, second in rushing defense — and that will go a long way toward determining the Badgers’ fate. With an equally dominant running game and an improved passing attack, this team is beginning to put all the pieces together to make a push for a Big Ten title.