1. Stave’s roller coaster ride
After a phenomenal opening touchdown drive Saturday, the Badgers and redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave, who completed 3-of-4 passes on the drive, looked like they were on their way to a crushing victory.
With just under two minutes left in the first quarter, the Badgers were in field goal range again and seemed to be within a few plays of extending their lead to 14-0. Stave received a shotgun snap, stepped up in the pocket and overthrew junior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright. The ball landed in the hands of the Purdue junior safety Leroy Clark, who returned the easy interception 66 yards all the way to the Wisconsin 29-yard line. Stave’s brutal pass ended up giving Purdue the momentum to score a tying touchdown on their ensuing drive, handing them one of their only ways back into the game.
The rest of the game, however, Stave was nearly perfect. He went through his progressions, moved well in the pocket and made accurate throws to open receivers. He ended up completing 30-of-39 passes for 322 yards, and threw no interceptions the rest of the game.
Despite the exceptional technique that Stave displayed throughout the majority of the game, his one dreadful interception highlighted his continued inconsistency. Stave often exemplifies poise and precision, but on some plays he inexplicably deviates from his solid mechanics and make errant, game-changing throws that turn the momentum in the other team’s favor.
Next week, the Badgers travel to Illinois to face a Fighting Illini secondary consisting of three seniors and a junior. If Stave is not more consistent in his technique, Illinois’ experienced corners and safeties will take full advantage of Stave’s inattention to detail, and likely come up with turnovers over the top.
2. Young guns step up
In college football, the Badgers are known for having one of the toughest, best defenses in the nation. However, coming into the 2015 season, the Badgers had unanswered questions in their starting lineup.
The defensive backs, led by senior safety Michael Caputo, in conjunction with outside linebackers redshirt junior Vince Biegel and senior Joe Shobert, were poised to have big seasons. Still, the youth at inside linebacker created skepticism about whether the Badger defense could continue its recent dominance.
After graduating inside linebackers like Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter, DeAndre Levy of the Detroit Lions and Chris Borland, who retired from the San Francisco 49ers, the upcoming linebackers had big shoes to fill.
Now, seven games into the season, the inside linebacker duo of freshman Chris Orr and redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards have surprisingly proved themselves as two of the most important pieces in the Badger defense.
Against Purdue last Saturday, Edwards deserved defensive player of the game, recording 16 tackles – nine more than anyone else on the team. With seven minutes remaining in the game, Purdue looked like it was on the verge of a big play, when Edwards chased down Purdue freshman running back Markell Jones 20 yards down field and forced a fumble on a diving tackle from behind, helping seal the Badgers victory. Orr also recorded seven tackles in the game, the second most on the team.
Over the course of the season, Edwards leads the team in tackles with 54, and Orr is in third with 42. The play of those two on the field are erasing any questions that are still lingering about the talent of the Badgers in the middle of their defense.
However, in next week’s matchup at Illinois, Edwards and Orr will face an even tougher challenge. The Fighting Illini are third in the Big Ten in passing offense, and their offensive line allows the fourth-fewest sacks in the Big Ten. If the Badgers are going to pull out a win on the road, Edwards and Orr will need to find a way to get to Illinois’ junior quarterback Wes Lunt in the backfield.
3. Spreading the ball around
After running back Melvin Gordon declared for the NFL draft, the Badgers knew that they lost an irreplaceable part of their run game. Then, just a few weeks into the season, the Badgers found out that their new, highly skilled starting running back, junior Corey Clement, suffered an injury that would sideline him for four to six weeks.
With these key loses, the Badgers, for the first time in recent history, have had to rely more on their passing game than their running game. Fortunately, the Badgers receiving core has proved deeper than many predicted.
As expected, redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erickson is playing great, catching 42 passes for 549 yards. More significantly, however, are the contributions in the air from the Badgers less experienced players. Junior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright is making big plays in the offense, leading the team in receiving touchdowns. Even more surprisingly, redshirt sophomore Jazz Peavy is averaging over 11 yards per catch on his 12 receptions this season.
In the absence of a steady running game, an effective passing attack became a necessity for the Badgers offense, and their receiving corps is surprisingly turning that goal into a reality.
As the Badgers head on the road to face an Illinois team with an experienced secondary, the wide receivers will have a tougher time getting open down field. Erickson, Wheelwright and Peavy will all have to find a way to create space in the secondary so Stave will have more open lanes throw the ball down field.