Jared Abbrederis did not even seem to notice the question.
Not that the redshirt junior and newly-minted consensus First Team All-Big Ten wide receiver is one to focus on personal numbers—or statistics at all, for that matter—but still, he must have thought about it at some point.
The last time he crossed the goal line with a football in his hands during live action was in the fourth quarter of Wisconsin’s 31-14 win over Illinois Oct. 6. When he left Saturday’s game against Penn State in the fourth quarter with concussion symptoms, it made six full games—half of UW’s season—without a touchdown.
“Obviously it’s nice when you get opportunities and are able to score, but you just have to do your part and try to make plays when they come your way,” said Abbrederis, who has seven catches for 89 yards over the last three games. “Whatever my job is as a teammate to these other guys, I just have to make sure I go out and do my job.”
Abbrederis’ job appears to have morphed over the course of the season, through increased attention from defenses, two changes in quarterback and the accompanying styles of play. He gets the biggest share of attention because of his past production, but all of the Badgers’ pass-catchers have had to adapt.
“The game plan definitely changes with each of [the quarterbacks], because they have different strengths,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “They have to get used to each other a little bit. Some guys throw the deep ball better than others, some guys throw the short ball differently or better than others.
“We’re not to that level yet in the passing game with young wideouts and three different quarterbacks to just come out and adjust on the fly. We have to really work at it.”
In three starts with redshirt senior Curt Phillips under center, the passing game—in particular for Abbrederis and the wide receivers—has been relegated to mostly short and intermediate throws.
The sample size is small. Phillips is 30-57 (52.6 percent) overall and only threw the ball seven times in his first start, a 62-14 win over Indiana Nov. 10. Still, UW has just three, 20-plus-yard completions in the last three contests. Redshirt junior tight end Jacob Pedersen gained 29 yards on a crossing route against Ohio State, redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon caught a pass in the flats against Penn State and turned it into a 57-yard touchdown and fullback Derek Watt picked up 33 yards on a wheel route in the fourth quarter against PSU.
Prior to Nov. 10, UW averaged over two 20-plus yard passing plays per game (22 in nine games). Redshirt freshman quarterback Joel Stave took over for junior Danny O’Brien at halftime Sept. 15 against Utah State and was injured on the first play of the third quarter Oct. 27 against Michigan State. Measured in quarters, that’s six full games plus one play. Over that span, UW had 18 pass plays of 20 yards or more.
In nearly six games before and after Stave, the Badgers have seven. No wide receiver has a catch longer than 19 yards since Stave’s injury.
After averaging 103.2 yards per game and 19.1 yards per reception over the first five games of the year (despite missing half of UW’s 10-7 loss against Oregon State Sept. 8), Abbrederis is averaging 41.3 per game and 14.5 per catch since. Partly, that is because opponents have made the Badgers beat them in other ways.
“We threw the ball seven times against Indiana, and the first play of the game they had two guys on Abbrederis,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “No matter what it was, they weren’t going to let him get loose.”
However, the numbers also suggest UW is struggling to throw the ball consistently. In two game-tying, fourth-quarter drives the last two weeks, Phillips is 11-13 (84.6 percent) for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Outside those drives, he has completed just 43.2 percent (19-44) of his attempts.
“Whenever it’s come down to crunch time, we’ve done pretty well, but we’ve got to find a way to have that urgency throughout the rest of the game,” the Kingsport, Tenn., native said. “Obviously, the guys have done a great job trusting the plan and executing it, but we have to have to do that the rest of the drives as well.”
Numbers cannot tell an entire story. Ohio State’s pass defense ranks No. 11 in the Big Ten overall (243.5 yards per game), but is tied for the league-lead in interceptions and boasts an elite cornerback in sophomore Bradley Roby. On Nov. 17, Abbrederis’ three catches for 35 yards were the only catches by a receiver before UW’s game-tying drive in the final two minutes. Before the final drive, Phillips was 9-19 for 106 yards. Then, he completed 5-6 for 48 and a touchdown to Pedersen.
“When you’re in those situations [the defense] is a little softer, it’s a little bit of a different time,” Canada said. “A lot of time they’ll get into a little bit of a mode where they’re keeping you in front, but we’ve had blitz, we’ve had zone, we’ve had everything and he’s made plays.”
Before the tying drive against Penn State Saturday, Phillips had just six completions to three targets—Gordon, Watt and Abbrederis. Then, on the 14-play, 66-yard march, he completed six passes to five different receivers.
“When we’ve got to go two minutes and we have to throw the ball, people actually see that we can,” Azzanni said.
How much of the late-game success is attributed to opponents playing prevent defense? How much of it is Phillips and the receivers getting in rhythm? For his part, Phillips said he thinks the passing game will produce against Nebraska Saturday in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
“I’m starting to feel much more comfortable and feel like I’m on the same page as the receivers,” he said. “At first, I felt like I knew what was going on and what I was seeing from the defense, I just wasn’t getting the ball out that fast because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making any mistakes. Now I feel like I can just play a little faster and just trust myself.”