Badgers report card: Rushing out of the gates

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin steamrolled UMass 45-0 on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium to hand Gary Andersen his first victory as the Badgers’ new coach. The first half may not have been pretty, but Wisconsin found its groove in the second half with a strong run-pass combination that should bode well for the future.
Handing out grades from Saturday’s season opener:
Rushing offense: A
The bread and butter of Wisconsin’s offense has been its rushing attack for years, and that’s going to continue in 2013. The Badgers have three running backs capable of being a featured player on almost any team in college football — an astounding feat if you think about it.
James White and Melvin Gordon provided the 1-2 punch during the first half, and freshman Corey Clement stole the show in the second half when the score grew out of hand. Gordon finished with 144 yards rushing and a touchdown, White 143 yards with a touchdown and Clement 101 yards with a score.
Clement is the first Wisconsin running back to rush for 100 yards in his debut since P.J. Hill ran for 130 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown in a 35-14 victory against Bowling Green on Sept. 2, 2006. He became the first freshman to gain at least 100 yards in a season opener since the NCAA allowed freshmen to play beginning in 1972.
Gordon, White and Clement all surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark for only the third time in school history. The Badgers had three 100-yard rushers against Nebraska in last year’s Big Ten championship game and also against Indiana on Nov. 8, 2008.
Gordon has said during spring and fall camp that he wants this running back group to show it can be even better without Montee Ball, the all-time NCAA touchdown leader and reigning Doak Walker Award winner. We don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves because Saturday’s game was only against lowly UMass. Still, as crazy as this might sound, White, Gordon and Clement have a chance to put up even better team rushing numbers than in any season that featured Ball. 
Passing offense: C+
If we were strictly grading the first half, Wisconsin would have earned an F. The second half resembled something closer to an A, which is how we came up with this final grade.
Quarterback Joel Stave looked like a player who wasn’t ready for the spotlight in the first half, causing Badgers fans to contemplate the prospect of running on 100 percent of the team’s plays. Stave was 4 for 11 for 36 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. 
Stave was all over the place with his deliveries. He badly misread a play on his interception, when he didn’t see a UMass defensive back standing at the 3-yard-line. He underthrew receiver Jared Abbrederis on one of his patented play-action passes, and he overthrew Kenzel Doe on a pass in the end zone.
But offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig made a point to draw up another deep play-action pass to start the second half. And this time, Stave connected with Abbrederis for a 65-yard touchdown that seemed to ignite Stave and the rest of the offense. The Badgers scored 28 of their 45 points in the second half.
“We’ve got to be able to throw and we’ve got to be able to catch it,” Stave said. “That’s when the offense can really take off. Because we can run the ball. But when you’re able to throw and catch it, that’s when it can really take off.”
Stave finished the game 9 for 17 for 197 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. It certainly wasn’t his finest performance. But he bounced back nicely in the second half, and that should give him confidence as the Badgers move on. He was 5 for 6 in the second half for 161 yards with both his touchdowns and no picks. 
Rushing defense: A-
UMass didn’t provide much of a challenge for Wisconsin, but the Badgers still passed their first matchup of the season. As a team, UMass carried the ball 29 times and gained 100 yards — a per-carry-average of 3.4 yards. After games played through Saturday, Wisconsin ranks 32nd nationally in rushing defense.
Minutemen running back Stacey Bedell paced UMass, carrying 19 times for 70 yards. His longest run was 11 yards.
Wisconsin didn’t record a single tackle for a loss, and that should cause at least a small measure of concern. But the Badgers’ rushing defense was stout and didn’t allow any big plays. The highlight was outside linebacker Brendan Kelly forcing a fumble and linebacker Ethan Armstrong picking up the loose ball. Unfortunately for the Badgers, the offense gave the ball right back on an interception.
Passing defense: A
Wisconsin surrendered just 112 passing yards to UMass. Only nine teams have surrendered fewer passing yards early in the college football season.
UMass quarterbacks Mike Wegzyn and AJ Doyle combined to complete 14 of 30 passes for no touchdowns and an interception. Wegzyn finished 9 of 23 for 73 yards with a pick. Doyle went 5 of 7 for 39 yards. The longest completion was a 19-yard gain.
Wisconsin had no sacks and only two quarterback hurries, and that will need to improve. However, the Badgers likely didn’t show their full defensive arsenal against a team rated as one of the worst in the FBS.
True freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton intercepted one of Wegzyn’s passes for Wisconsin’s first interception of the season. A year ago, Wisconsin needed six games before it finally recorded an interception.
Special teams: B-
Another season, another up-and-down performance from Wisconsin’s special teams. And once again, it begins with the team’s kicking game.
Kicker Kyle French, who struggled at times during fall camp, made 1 of 2 field goal attempts. He drilled a 21-yarder in the first quarter but missed a 40-yard attempt in the second quarter. French said during fall camp that his range was out to 55 yards, but special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk said kicks from 42 yards and in should be close to automatic at this level. French also handled eight kickoffs, and two of them resulted in touchbacks.
Punter Drew Meyer’s services were needed just once during Saturday’s game, and he did a solid job as usual. Meyer was inside UMass territory and lofted a high kick inside the Minutemen’s 20-yard-line.
On punt returns, Wisconsin opted to use two players as return men at the same time. Neither one was Jared Abbrederis, but Andersen said that was done, in part, because Abbrederis was shaken up while trying to make a catch on a slant route in the first half. Still, Andersen wanted to see more out of his punt return team.
“We need to time it up better,” he said. “At times it looked great. At other times it didn’t look real good.”
Overall: B+
Hey, not everything is going to be perfect in a season opener. But can anybody really be that perturbed about a 45-0 victory? Wisconsin recorded its first season-opening shutout since 1994 and kept fans happy by scoring six touchdowns in the game.
The passing offense will need to improve, and Stave is talented enough to make significant gains as the season continues. Remember that Saturday’s game represented just the seventh start of his college career, and keep in mind how much progress he made as a freshman last season.
Yet again, other players not named Jared Abbrederis will need to emerge to provide Stave with a second passing option. Abbrederis caught two passes for 122 yards with two touchdowns. No other player had more than 19 yards receiving. 
But the running game is as strong as ever, and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense is going to be tough as nails. Those factors should keep Wisconsin in the Big Ten title race and make for another exciting season.

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