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Monday, December 11, 2023

Bowling Green: Five things to watch

1) Wanted: Melvin Gordon

Wisconsin’s most obvious question mark so far is Melvin Gordon. The redshirt junior entered the year as a Heisman candidate and has since put up mediocre stats, with just 178 yards and one touchdown.

Gordon has averaged 5.4 yards per carry, but take away the 67-yard run he had in the season opener, and that number drops to 2.9. He actually had far more success against LSU than he did against Western Illinois. Against the Leathernecks, Gordon ran for just 38 yards on 17 carries.

However, it should be noted that this was mostly due to WIU routinely putting eight and nine men in the box, effectively eliminating the Badgers’ best offensive weapon and encouraging Wisconsin to throw.

Bowling Green has allowed 4.2 yards per carry to its opponents and was thrashed last Saturday by Indiana’s Tevin Coleman for 190 yards and three touchdowns. Gordon is much closer to the player he was against LSU (16 carries, 140 yards) than the one that showed up versus Western Illinois. Though his Heisman candidacy is probably finished, expect a big game from Gordon.

2) Will the real Tanner McEvoy please stand up?

Tanner McEvoy is perhaps the biggest key to Gordon and the rest of the Badgers’ offense. After a horrific performance against LSU, McEvoy was brilliant against a Western Illinois defense that dared him to throw the football.

Thanks to that game, opponents now have to account for an aerial attack from the Badgers. That will take away the stacked defensive fronts Gordon dealt with two weeks ago and open up room to run.

Still, McEvoy’s outstanding game was against an FCS school, and with defenses now giving him a little more respect, he probably won’t see as much single coverage downfield, forcing him to throw the ball in tight spaces.

McEvoy does not need to replicate his 283-yard, three-touchdown stat line every week. As long as he can maintain some reliability and consistency, he will force defenses to account for him and allow Wisconsin to get back to its foundation—giving the ball to Gordon.

3) Bowling Green’s porous defense

Bowling Green ranks 125th out of 128 FBS programs in total defense, allowing an average of 569 yards per game to opposing offenses.

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It all began in the season opener against Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers’ Brandon Doughty threw for, coincidentally, 569 yards and six touchdowns while completing over 80 percent of his passes.

Even in a blowout win versus FCS program Virginia Military Institute, the Falcons still gave up over 400 yards of total offense. In the shootout victory against Indiana last week, Bowling Green allowed 582 yards and was ineffective defending both the run and the pass.

With Wisconsin still trying to fine-tune its offense, this is the perfect opponent for the Badgers to face coming off a bye week.

4) No more Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson, Bowling Green’s opening day starting quarterback, was one of the MAC’s best players and could have put together a dark horse Heisman run. However, a hip injury suffered in week one ended his season, even though he took all the snaps against Western Kentucky.

His replacement, James Knapke, has filled in admirably while leading the Falcons to two victories. He has completed 65 percent of his passes and thrown four touchdowns and two interceptions.

He’s no Johnson, though. VMI and Indiana each have terrible pass defenses and this will be his first test against a capable secondary. This will also be Knapke’s first road start of his career.

5) Making plays on defense

Last year, Wisconsin ranked seventh in the country in total defense, but if there was one caveat to the 2013 success, it was the lack of forcing turnovers and making big plays.

The 2013 Badgers had just 20 takeaways, tied for 71st in the nation. They averaged less than five tackles for loss per game and less than two sacks per game. This year, it’s pretty much the same for Wisconsin, though there is some slight improvement. The Badgers have forced three total turnovers, which is essentially the same rate as the 2013 team, and have averaged 2.5 sacks per game.

The defense has certainly improved in one area—tackles for loss. Wisconsin has averaged 6.5 per game, largely due to linebackers Joe Schobert (three total) and Marcus Trotter (2.5).

The Badgers need to increase their turnover output, however. Improving upon their currently even turnover margin would give the offense better starting field position and take away opponent scoring chances.

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