It seems simple enough. Pound the ball with Melvin Gordon, force defenses to stack the box, then take advantage of soft coverage in the secondary with a devastating play action pass.
When a team has an outstanding running back and mediocre quarterbacks like the Badgers do, play action is the most effective way to compensate for a shaky passing game. Emphasizing the run brings extra defenders into the box and opens up one-on-one matchups downfield, allowing Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy to thrive.
That was the theoretical game plan, at least. Departed head coach Gary Andersen and former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig knew that neither Stave nor McEvoy possessed the skill sets to dismantle defenses, and play action would be a great way to counteract Wisconsin’s quarterback weaknesses.
But play action didn’t work out the way Andersen and Ludwig would have wanted. Using statistics compiled by The Daily Cardinal, Stave and McEvoy combined to go 38-80 on play action pass attempts for 548 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions.
Having a dynamic running threat like Gordon should have yielded far higher returns on play action throws. But alas, Wisconsin’s issues throwing the football carried over to this situation as well.
When including quarterback scrambles, the Badgers ran play action a total of 84 times and gained 622 total yards of offense. That’s a lackluster average of 7.4 yards per play. Considering the whole point of the strategy is to stretch the defense vertically, Wisconsin’s play action game was a disappointment.
Though Stave’s biggest strength as a passer is his powerful arm, it’s surprising that his stats on play action were basically equal to McEvoy’s. Stave completed 46 percent of his throws out of this set while McEvoy completed 50 percent. Additionally, McEvoy’s two scrambles for 74 yards gave him a slightly higher yards-per-play figure than Stave.
While those two numbers seem to indicate that McEvoy was the better overall quarterback on play action, Stave was still substantially better throwing the ball. His respectable 7.6 yards per pass attempt was a full two yards higher than McEvoy’s awful 5.6. Though the converted safety had a better completion percentage, Stave was far more effective than McEvoy when he did connect on play action.
Still, Stave struggled immensely, perhaps because of Wisconsin’s lack of a dynamic receiving threat. He targeted Alex Erickson 21 times on play action, but the duo only hooked up for eight receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown.
Erickson is a solid player, but he wouldn’t be the primary weapon in any elite team’s passing attack. He fails to create separation from defensive backs and doesn’t have the ability to win jump balls.
But regardless, the horrible 38 percent success rate on play action targets to Erickson reflects Stave’s lack of downfield accuracy. Many times he simply overthrew his man by five yards or more. Erickson never had a chance on some of these throws.
Stave didn’t throw a pass until the fifth game of the season, but it wasn’t as though his play action passing made a major leap as he readjusted to game speed. In fact, his best performance on play action was in his second start of the season against Maryland, when he was 4-5 for 114 yards and two touchdowns on such attempts.
His inconsistencies just continued to be a problem throughout the rest of the schedule, such as the regular season finale against Minnesota when he went 1-7 on play action. To Stave’s credit, the one completion that game was a 17-yard touchdown to Rob Wheelwright that sealed the victory.
That game sums up the Badgers’ play action woes this season. There was enough success to stick to the theoretical advantages of the strategy. But overall, Wisconsin was forced to slog through the incompletions and interceptions on play action and just hope for those crucial connections like the one to Wheelwright.