by Richard Branch
The first game of the season is in the books. After an interminably long offseason, the Gary Andersen era got out of the blocks with a convincing 45-0 win against the UMass Minutemen.
The talent difference between the two squads was obvious from the early moments of the game. As such the scoreboard belies some issues the team needs to address going forward.
Compared to the line that opened the season barely able to move the ball against Northern Iowa last year, this group looked cohesive, athletic, and confident in their execution. As Andersen mentioned in the post game Ryan Groy looks at home pulling at guard. Putting aside the level of competition or the fact they really weren't tested in the pass game, it looked like an offensive line with the potential to be a game changer akin to the lines of 2009-11. At it's core their execution was textbook "Wisconsin Football".
The running backs took every advantage afforded them by the line's play. The 1-2 punch of James White and Melvin Gordon were impressive in their season debut. Despite some concerns, this team will not miss Montee Ball. James White can work inside or use his lateral quickness to bounce to the edge. Corey Clement lived up to camp hype in his debut - he gets a pass on his last second fumble as it appeared to be a young player trying to sneak in one last score before the game clock ran out; the decision to stretch the football was done consciously and isn't an issue of poor mechanics. Clement is a part of this team's future.
The star of the show has to be Melvin Gordon. In his first game as a true tailback rather than on the jet sweep, Gordon looks every bit the next great Wisconsin back. This team has the talent to move the ball on the ground.
Despite all the talk of the offense, the real star of the show was the defense pitching a convincing shutout. Their performance was so dominant the Minutemen never reached Wisconsin's red zone. Most impressive was the play of the defensive backfield. As a unit they looked very sound. Peniel Jean is still a sound tackler and looked good in coverage. Darius Hillary was beaten on one play (UMass' quarterback overthrew the receiver) but otherwise didn't appear to be a liability in any way.
The two standouts were Michael Caputo and Sojourn Shelton. Caputo was used all over the field. In coverage he looked very good as a complement to Dezmen Southward - whose role appeared to be intentionally limited - and was used to good effect bringing pressure on the blitz. Shelton lived up to his billing. He appeared completely unfazed playing in his first game as a freshman with a spectacular interception as statistical proof of his day.
While he wasn't spectacular, Joel Stave's improving performance throughout the game was encouraging. After starting out shaky, Stave did exactly what they needed him to do: force the opponent to respect the deep pass and keep extra defenders off the line of scrimmage. He did exactly that in the 2nd half. That's all he really needs to do throughout the season to be effective.
Despite the score, there are things that could stand to improve. While he looked better on kickoffs than he has at any point last season, Kyle French looked no better kicking field goals than he did in 2012 when he couldn't separate himself from Jack Russell all season. His only real attempt (his 1st field goal was just a glorified extra point) was missed badly. There will be close games this year and French will need to get better for the Badgers to win them.
While they did pitch a shutout, it's worth noting the defense wasn't able record a single sack or tackle for loss against an overmatched opponent. This may be more a function of a defense not wanting to reveal much to future opponents than any deficiency in the scheme or players but it's worth monitoring. Shelton, Caputo, and Joe Schobert all came close to recording a sack but no one sealed the deal.
A group that was not holding back but still left a lot to be desired were the wide receivers. Outside of Jared Abbrederis - who had one if not two drops of his own - the group looked like it was what we expected: lacking in athleticism and explosiveness. Stave threw for just under 200 yards, but only 28 were on completions to receivers not named Abbrederis. This holds the potential to limit the offense a lot down the road.
Not to belabor the point, but finding ugliness in this game requires projecting a few weeks out when the Badgers play the likes of Arizona State, Ohio State, and Northwestern. There are real problems that need to be addressed before the Badgers get to the meat of the schedule if they want to contend in those contests.
Most troubling were the exchange issues between Joel Stave and Dallas Lewallen. Lewallen was pressed into service when Dan Voltz went down with injury, and it's apparent there is still more work to be done there. The Badgers were lucky to not lose either of the two botched snaps from Saturday, with a notable save by Corey Clement on the first play of his college career. This offense cannot be putting itself behind the sticks again marquee opponents.
Equally as troubling were special teams coverage. On multiple occasions UMass looked 1-2 missed tackles away from breaking a kickoff for a huge return. Kyle French prevented a likely touchdown in the first quarter making a solid tackle. Again more talented and better prepared teams special teams could yield points the Badgers cannot afford to give up.
Caveat Emptor. The Badgers' first game was a glorified scrimmage. Saturday's game against Tennessee Tech shapes up to be much the same. The offensive line and quarterback won't face a real pass rush - something they both struggled against last year - until the team travels to Tempe. With much the same cast - and limitations - as last year this offense could struggle down the road.
Much can be said on the defensive side of the ball. While it looked like they held much of their arsenal close to the vest, against a better passing attack the secondary may have holes in it that weren't apparent Labor Day weekend.
Fans should enjoy these first two games. They get people excited and the blood flowing. The real tests are coming soon enough.