Football: Wisconsin heads east to play Rutgers

Joel Stave ended Wisconsin’s deep-pass drought when he connected twice downfield with Alex Erickson against Maryland. He finished 9-15 for 155 yards and two touchdowns.

Image By: Wil Gibb

After obliterating conference newcomer Maryland last week, Wisconsin will face another Big Ten rookie this Saturday when the Badgers take on Rutgers in Piscataway Township, N.J.

Wisconsin (2-1 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) played its most complete game of the season against Maryland. On offense, the Badgers accumulated 527 yards of offense and averaged 7.3 yards per play. They could have another field day against Rutgers (1-3, 5-3), a team that ranks in the lower third of college football in all major defensive categories.

After being the team’s biggest weakness all season, the passing game finally showed signs of life against an FBS opponent last week. Redshirt juniors Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy combined to go 14-22 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. It was only the third time this year the Badgers completed more than 60 percent of their throws.

Both passers have grown accustomed to the new two-quarterback system after two weeks of operation.

“As an offense we’ve done a really good job of buying in, understanding what we’re trying to do offensively when I’m in, when he’s in, and then just buying in 100 percent,” Stave said. “I think the offense has really done that.”

With a rejuvenated passing attack, Wisconsin is no longer pigeonholed into a one-dimensional rushing offense. The Badgers finally exploited a new level of the defense for the first time this season when Stave went deep twice to Alex Erickson off of play action last week, with both passes traveling more than 40 yards.

“It can loosen the safeties up a little bit,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “When you’re not hitting the explosive plays with the balls over the top, the safeties get lower and lower and more comfortable playing closer to the box.”

After holding Maryland scoreless for 59 minutes before allowing a garbage time touchdown, the Wisconsin defense finds itself in an uncertain position as it prepares for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have not announced whether starting quarterback Gary Nova will be available Saturday after injuring his knee last week against Nebraska.

Nova has been solid for Rutgers this season, completing just under 60 percent of his passes and averaging a superb 9.9 yards per pass attempt, a figure that ranks fourth nationally. However, he has had some nightmarish moments, such as when he threw five interceptions in a loss to Penn State.

If the senior can’t play, redshirt freshman Chris Laviano will likely start. Laviano led Rutgers to 17 points across his five drives after replacing Nova last week. He went 4-7 for 49 yards and also ran for 54 yards on five carries.

“Both of them can move pretty well and both of them can throw really well,” said redshirt senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski. “They both present a really great challenge for our defense. We’ll have to keep them in the pocket and not let them get out on those scrambles.”

The Scarlet Knights also present a unique challenge on the ground. After losing starter Paul James to a torn ACL in September, Rutgers has split carries between Desmon Peoples and Justin Goodwin.

Neither has been very effective. Both average just over four yards per carry and have combined for just four touchdowns all season. That’s one less score than James had, and he only appeared in four games. But defensive coordinator Dave Aranda sees similarities between Rutgers’ rushing attack and Wisconsin’s.

“The power extra play that our offense runs where the fullback leads, the guard pulls, the backside tight end comes around, a lot of pulling and moving gaps,” Aranda said. “Their running backs do a great job making one cut and going.”

Like Maryland last week, this will be Wisconsin’s first ever meeting with Rutgers. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m.

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