by Richard Branch
Rebounding from the crushing - and bizarre - defeat to Arizona State, Wisconsin opened its conference schedule with a resounding win versus the overmatched Purdue Boilermakers. The Badgers showed strength on both sides of the ball, but troubling issues still linger for this team as they prepare for their biggest test of the season in Columbus.
While the sustained strong play of Beau Allen has been mentioned here before, the stellar play of Warren Herring has not. For the 2nd week in a row Herring showed he is very capable as a nose tackle. Herring recorded a sack, consistently pressured the quarterback, and had an additional tackle for loss. While Allen is the more complete player at this stage in their careers, Herring shows a quick burst off the line.
Further adding depth to the Badgers front seven, Conor O'Neil continues to fill in more than capably in the absence of Derek Landisch. O'Neill looks equally at home rushing the passer - just missing on a sack - or in pass coverage. If Landisch is back this week as expected, it's likely the staff will find a way to keep O'Neill in the rotation.
Much could be said for the play of Vince Biegel filling in for Brendan Kelly. While his stat line wasn't overly impressive, Biegel offered a glimpse of what Badger linebackers will look like in the future. He was equally comfortable as a speed rusher on the edge as he was dropping into coverage. While he appeared to lose contain on a few plays, mistakes borne of inexperience should be ironed out over time.
Beyond the front seven, the secondary turned in another solid if not headline grabbing performance. With T.J. Reynard out this week and Peniel Jean going down early on, the Badgers played a good number of snaps with true freshman playing at both corners. Darius Hillary, Jakarrie Washington, and Sojourn Shelton more than held their own against an admittedly overmatched Purdue passing attack. I temper my enthusiasm about Shelton's interception in garbage time, but the secondary as a whole was sound, workmanlike, and consistent throughout the entire game.
The headline grabbing was done by the Badger ground attack. The run blocking of the offensive line and tight ends continues to be sound. While there were some missed assignments here and there that need cleaning up, the group as a whole looks comfortable with the offense they are running and are greatly improved technique-wise from a year ago.
What made Saturday all the more impressive was how well the running backs executed behind their blockers. Melvin Gordon and James White faced eight and even nine man fronts the entire game and were able to make unblocked tacklers miss with consistency.
I've held back on making any bold statements based on his early performances, but at this point Melvin Gordon looks like he's going to be a special, special player. What's perhaps most impressive is how effortless he runs. Even as he's pulling away from defenders Gordon doesn't look like he's going fast. He is like a Ferrari. No matter how fast he goes his motor just purrs.
While Ron Dayne was a more punishing back because of the size advantage he brought to the table, Gordon sheds tacklers in space without breaking stride. He doesn't appear to slow down as he slaps away defenders one on one or drags multiple tacklers downfield as they struggle to take him to the turf.
When he was still head coach, Bret Bielema referred to Melvin Gordon as the most physically gifted back he ever coached. While that looks to be true it may understate just how good he really is. He may be the most gifted running back to every play at Wisconsin.
THE BA D
While there were many familiar positives on both sides of the ball, the same could be said of the issues that seem to plague this team on a week to week basis. Most glaring on defense is the lack of speed along the edge. Ethan Armstrong, a player who seems better suited to play on the inside, struggles in space. On several plays Armstrong took bad angles on tackles, effectively taking himself out of plays turning small gains into bigger ones.
The offense has recurring issues in the passing game. Joel Stave is still doing things that are very...Joel Stave of him. His habit of staring down and locking onto receivers (usually Jared Abbrederis) is not going away. After making a pre-snap read, he seems to focus on one side of the field and not work through his progression.
There may be good reasons for the small number of receivers that he seems to trust, however. His interception in the 1st quarter on Saturday - one that appeared to be due to a poorly thrown ball by Stave - was in fact a result of Brian Wozniak running an improper route. Stave put the ball in Ricardo Allen's chest because his receiver simply didn't go where he was supposed to.
This problem returns us to the oft-repeated lament about the lack of playmakers at wide receiver. To put it in perspective, at this point Derek Straus, the backup fullback, has more receptions than all but two wide receivers. The team is still searching for answers and at this point it appears fair to say they won't be found this season. Going forward, this team isn't so much looking for someone to step up as they are looking for ways to work around this weakness.
While Stave's propensity to fixate on his favorite targets was certainly a known issue when he became the starting quarterback, the thought that new issues would arise further limiting his game were not part of the equation.
Stave's major appeal was his ability to consistently deliver a strong, accurate deep ball to keep opposing defenses honest and open up space for the run game. Against Purdue, Stave looked badly out of rhythm all game. He missed several open receivers badly, most notably a wide open Abbrederis some 50 yards downfield
Stave is far from a complete quarterback. He needs to hit those passes with more frequency. Without his deep ball Stave starts to look like the long line of mediocre quarterbacks not named Wilson or Tolzien who litter the Badgers' recent history.
Seeing the Badgers bounce back from such a deflating loss was encouraging. The team hit the field with purpose and a desire to execute that hid an anger and frustration that no doubt permeated the team. This win should exercise those demons and puts all that behind them.
Wisconsin will face the best team they will play all season on Saturday. Ohio State talented but untested to this point in the season. The Badgers have played better opponents but have shown they have real weaknesses.
For the Badgers to win they will need a lot more out of their passing game than they've gotten thus far. White and Gordon haven't been slowed by defenses putting nine players in the box thus far, but they haven't played a defense with the talent that Ohio State has. There are players on that defense they can't juke and stiff arm their way around.
The need for Stave to execute becomes that more critical. He needs to find his range down field to keep the Ohio State defense honest. If he can make a few big plays and establish the passing game as a credible threat, the Badgers can stay in this game. If the Badgers can throw, then they can run. If the Badgers can run then they can keep the defense off the field. If their defense stays off the field they won't fade down the stretch the way they did against Arizona State. If all that happens they have a chance to win this game.
That's a lot of ifs, but I'm going to leave any predictions on this game to my colleague Max. He did a pretty damn good job of it last week. I will say however Stanford's curb stomping of Arizona Sate showed there is a clear separation between the Badgers and the elite teams in the country. In short, Ohio State is a lot better than the Sun Devils. Columbus is a harder place to play than Tempe. Winning on Saturday is a tall order.