Wisconsin ran the ball just 21 times against Alabama, its fewest rushing attempts in a game this millennium. The Badgers have long been known for their rushing dominance, churning out great offensive linemen and running backs. In the last five years alone, they’ve sent nine offensive linemen and four running backs to the NFL. Wisconsin has ranked in the top two in rushing yards in the Big Ten each of the last eight seasons, including four first-place finishes.
During that time, the Badgers’ passing game has been noticeably lackluster. They’ve finished in the top half of the conference in passing yards just once since 2007, thanks to Russell Wilson. Because of this dichotomy, in that eight-year span they’ve run the ball more than they’ve passed in all but seven games. Of those seven games, they’ve lost every one by an average margin of 12 points.
Redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave threw for 228 yards against the Crimson Tide, his highest yardage total since 2013. Stave was one of few bright spots in the Badgers’ season opener, looking nothing like the signal caller we saw last season. He completed 26 of his 39 passes for a 66.6% mark, including two touchdowns and one garbage-time interception.
Stave was a big target of criticism last year, after tossing more interceptions than touchdowns. It’s yet to be seen what this improvement in his game is a product of. It could be a renewed sense of confidence, as he was named the starter in the spring, while last year he lost the job to Tanner McEvoy. It could be a new offensive scheme that didn’t seem to allow him to throw the ball farther than ten yards downfield (5.8 yards per attempt). Or it could just be that Stave worked hard this offseason to improve himself. While it’s nice to see him showing signs of the player he could be, it would be better if he could do it in a much smaller role: Wisconsin is just 1-5 when he attempts at least 30 passes.
The Badgers were in possession of the football less than 50% of the time against Alabama, a historically bad sign. Since 2012, Wisconsin has lost the possession battle 15 times. The Badgers have gone a paltry 4-11 in those games, and lost some that they really shouldn’t have: Northwestern last year, Arizona State two years ago and Oregon State and Michigan State the year before that. They’ve gone 24-2 during that span when they control the ball for more than 50% of the game. This hints at the Badgers’ recent inability to throw the ball downfield. Since incomplete passes stop the clock, it’s not rare for a good passing team to lose the possession game but win on the scoreboard.
For instance, in 2011, with Russell Wilson at the helm, Wisconsin went 3-2 in games where it lost the possession battle. This reliance on possession has meant that running backs like Melvin Gordon have been heavily leaned on to keep the game under control. If Stave’s improvement is real, though, Corey Clement might not have to shoulder as big of a load as recent Badger backs.