Jesse Temple’s Sept. 3 Badgers mailbag
Well, it took all of one game for the sky to be falling around the Wisconsin football program. At least, that’s the general vibe from this week’s mailbag questions after Wisconsin blew a 17-point third-quarter lead and lost a gut-wrenching 28-24 decision to LSU in the season opener.
Was it a bad loss? Given the hot start and the way the offense crumbled in the second half, most people would say yes. Losing to the No. 13 team in the country by four points is obviously respectable. But Wisconsin and its fans weren’t going for simply respectable when the Badgers held a 24-7 lead in the second half.
The response to our Week 2 mailbag has been overwhelming, but let’s get this out of the way up front. For those of you calling for head coach Gary Andersen’s job after one game in his second season, please relax. Seriously. Did you see Vanderbilt lose 37-7 at home to Temple? How about Houston’s 27-7 loss to Texas-San Antonio? Or Colorado’s 31-17 loss to Colorado State? Or Iowa State’s 34-14 defeat against North Dakota State? Those are programs with real issues.
Wisconsin obviously has problems to solve. But the fact remains the Badgers are still likely to be favored in the rest of their games this season. If UW can take care of business in the Big Ten, there still is the possibility for a memorable, enjoyable season. Now, if Wisconsin dumps one against Bowling Green or South Florida later this month, then we can talk.
On to the Week 2 mailbag. And let’s just lump all the questions about Melvin Gordon’s lack of second-half touches into one right out of the chute:
A: This topic dominated the early part of the week, largely because nobody really heard a clear answer after Saturday’s game. Gary Andersen said he didn’t know why Gordon’s carries were limited, and Gordon said he wasn’t injured.
On Monday, Andersen tried to bring some clarity to the situation by saying Gordon sustained a hip flexor during the second quarter against LSU. He also said it was obvious Gordon "pulled up" during his 63-yard run at the start of the third quarter. Andersen simply wanted to do what he thought was best for Gordon and his future this season after consulting with the team trainer.
Gordon acknowledged he got hit against LSU but maintained his stance Monday that he could have played every down if necessary. The most bizarre part of the story was that Gordon, apparently, was never told he wasn’t being put back into the game, which left him fuming Saturday night.
Gordon also said he should have done a better job of sharing with coaches that he could have played and chalked up the entire situation to a "miscommunication."
"I put it on me," Gordon said. "Maybe I should have really let them know, let coach A know and stepped up and told them, ‘Look, I need to be in there.’ I kind of just sat back, and I put that on myself. I wasn’t really forceful with it. I really wasn’t demanding with it, and I probably should have been."
A: Now, we finally know the answer to this question. Stave is not injured. Instead, he appears to be suffering from some form of the yips, a mental block that causes him to have trouble making basic throws. Stave informed the media Tuesday night of his situation.
"I’ll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long," Stave said. "One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, ‘Oh I’ve got to hang on to it longer.’ That’s what happens when you start thinking too much."
Stave does not have a timetable on his return, but the decision is up to him. For now, he is only working in individual drills instead of team drills. As an aside, I feel absolutely awful for him, as I’m sure all Badgers fans do. He has been great with the media, he works hard and does everything he is supposed to do as a leader and a teammate. Hopefully, he is able to recover and return to the team at full speed.
There was some confusion as to why Gary Andersen initially issued a press release Tuesday morning hinting at the fact Stave was injured before later backtracking. Andersen, apparently, wanted to get information out before the team’s second game in case a backup was needed (which wouldn’t have been Stave). He also was trying to protect Stave from the actual reason for his demotion. But Stave called for a previously unscheduled interview session with the media Tuesday night to explain his situation.
A: Obviously, McEvoy didn’t inspire much confidence in the fan base with his performance Saturday night. He continually threw passes off his back foot and seemed to leave the pocket and run before examining all his options down the field. When he did throw, he missed badly on several attempts.
McEvoy has a long way to go to be a Big Ten caliber quarterback, but keep in mind that was his first Division I game at the position. He also doesn’t have the benefit of a Jared Abbrederis to throw to among the receiving group. That makes his job even tougher.
Having said all that, this Wisconsin team cannot win big games without a consistent play-action passer. Maybe McEvoy can ultimately be that guy, but he certainly didn’t show much in that area on Saturday. His longest completion went for 14 yards. And you can’t get much worse than 8 of 24 for 50 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
With Stave sidelined, Bart Houston is the only quarterback on the roster who can deliver the ball down the field with consistency. He’s been moved into the backup quarterback role, so we’ll see if the coaching staff sees a need to use him in games.
A: I have not heard one word about players calling for Stave to be the starter in the locker room, though I certainly have read the rumors. Gary Andersen has made it clear that McEvoy will continue to be the starting quarterback against Western Illinois, so players had better jump on board and simply try to win as many games as they can.
Melvin Gordon, for what it’s worth, said he still had plenty of confidence in McEvoy to get the job done.
"It was a rough game but he definitely made some plays with his feet," Gordon said. "I think Tanner is better than what he showed or what his stats showed on Saturday. I have all the faith in the world in Tanner that he can make the plays that are needed and the receivers to help us win the ballgame."
A: Well, that wasn’t exactly a question, but here’s the answer anyway: No, Joel Stave will not start this week against Western Illinois. Gary Andersen was asked specifically if Tanner McEvoy — who is listed atop the quarterback depth chart — was still the starter.
Here’s his exact answer: "Yeah, Tanner will start the game this week."
So, there you have it. And since Stave is dealing with throwing issues, he won’t be playing in the near future.
A: After all we heard about Derek Watt spending time at tight end in addition to fullback, it is curious the coaches did not try to utilize him more Saturday. Watt did not record a catch, and the tight ends as a group accounted for only two catches for 14 yards. Sam Arneson caught one pass for five yards, while Austin Traylor hauled in a nine-yard catch.
Much like last season, I’d expect the tight ends to become more involved in the offense as the season goes along. Given the lack of playmakers we saw from the wide receivers, the catches need to come from somewhere. Arneson and Traylor are two solid options, as is Troy Fumagalli. McEvoy tried to find Fumagalli during the fourth quarter but threw the ball to the front shoulder instead of his back shoulder, and the pass was intercepted.
A: All I can do at this point is go by what the head coach says, and he seems to think Herring’s injury is not as significant as fans might think. Andersen said Herring was "day to day" with a knee issue, and he expected him to be back soon. I have heard Herring could be out longer, perhaps a few weeks, but nothing I’ve heard suggests it will last the entire season.
In case anyone is worrying about Herring applying for another year of eligibility, let’s wait and see.
A: Gary Andersen said he spoke to a couple of LSU’s assistant coaches, who told him the Tigers’ secondary was the best it had been in a long time. That’s an awfully big challenge for any true freshman, and Andersen said LSU’s press coverage made life difficult.
I don’t think any of the three freshmen receivers were overhyped. George Rushing had the ball thrown his way Saturday night, and he also earned his first start. Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders did not play, but coaches are still high on all three players. Expect each player to make a meaningful contribution as the season progresses.
A: I hate to break it to you, but this coaching staff has recruited at those positions. If you consider the fact they’ve had just one full recruiting class to deal with, it means all of their recruits are freshmen. Wisconsin has upgraded at the wide receiver position, adding Krenwick Sanders, George Rushing and Natrell Jamerson. All three wide receivers made the trip to Houston. Rushing even had a few passes thrown his way. But to ask true freshmen to step in and perform against a team like LSU in the season opener is asking a lot. That’s why players get four years of eligibility and are generally much more prepared as upperclassmen.
On the defensive line, Wisconsin added Conor Sheehy, Billy Hirschfeld and Jeremy Patterson. Patterson is a 6-foot-3, 326-pound nose guard who could became an absolute beast down the line. And he picked Wisconsin over scholarship offers from the likes of Clemson, Florida and Florida State. Andersen said Monday that Sheehy had made great strides and was the third nose guard currently behind Warren Herring and Arthur Goldberg.
Before people get up in arms about the recruiting job that Andersen and his staff has done, why don’t we give the players time to develop? Consider that Wisconsin finished with the No. 29 recruiting class for 2014, according to Scout.com. That’s better than nearly every class Bret Bielema had while he was at Wisconsin.
And now, on to the vast overreaction portion of this week’s mailbag …
A: Um, I guess the honeymoon period for Gary Andersen as Wisconsin’s coach is over. Let’s not stand out on the ledge just yet, shall we? No, one four-point loss to the No. 13 team in the country is not going to cost Andersen his job. And no, Tanner McEvoy is not going to lose a scholarship because he did not play a great game.
Is it hot in here? Sheesh.
A: For starters, Andy Ludwig isn’t going anywhere. It’s easy to point out the team’s offensive struggles — and there certainly were plenty in the second half. Not having Melvin Gordon on the field didn’t exactly help. And people also tend to forget some of the good things the offense did — like that 45-yard jet sweep from Reggie Love that went for a touchdown.
We know now the situation surrounding McEvoy as the starting quarterback, and it was difficult all the way around. Stave appeared to be in position to win the job, but his throwing issues sealed the deal for McEvoy to start. Given that Stave performed poorly during warmups before the LSU game, he wasn’t in a position to play. That meant Bart Houston would have been the backup despite earning next to zero reps with the first-team offense throughout fall camp. It meant McEvoy really had to stay out there almost no matter what.
I will say that Ludwig had a pretty darn good first season overall, and he deserves more time with this year’s team. Don’t forget that Wisconsin set a school record by averaging 480.8 yards per game in 2013. Wisconsin also was one of four FBS teams to gain 3,500 rushing yards and 2,500 passing yards.
A: Andersen said Saturday night he didn’t know why Gordon wasn’t used more in the second half. But it’s pretty clear he just did not want to dive into injury specifics, particularly after enduring such a difficult loss.
As for the receivers, there is still a long way to go with that group as I’ve written above. Guys like Reggie Love and George Rushing are seeing their first significant action as Badgers, and it takes time to develop a relationship with the quarterback. The fact they had to face a secondary as tough as LSU did not help matters, but I’d expect the receiver play to improve.
This coaching staff has made a commitment to playing Tanner McEvoy, at least for the time being. It would have been quite difficult for Bart Houston to be inserted late in Saturday’s game with the task of going 90 yards for the win. Houston is now the backup, but there’s no question there are issues at quarterback for Wisconsin — some of which clearly are beyond the coaches’ control at this point.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter