There’s no doubt that the first, second and third things most people think about surrounding Wisconsin Badgers football revolve around the running game. After all, Melvin Gordon is earning preseason accolades seemingly every day and the Badgers have turned out 1,000-yard rushers like the state produces milk.
Combine those things with the loss of one of the top wide receivers in school history, Jared Abbrederis, and it’s easy to think the Badgers will turn to a ground and pound offense in 2014. You know, run Melvin Gordon 250 times and his backup, Corey Clement, about 150 times as they grind out wins.
Except thinking that ground and pound is the way to go would dismiss what was statistically one of the best single-seasons by a Badgers quarterback in 2013 and what is happening in fall camp this year.
Last season, Joel Stave completed 208 passes, which was the third most in school history. His 22 passing touchdowns are second on the single-season list, behind only Russell Wilson’s 33 touchdowns in 2011. Stave’s 2,494 yards were the fifth-best single-season total in school history. For his career, Stave ranks fourth in school history in passing efficiency (140.8), eighth in career touchdowns passes (28), and No. 10 in passing yards (3,598).
Oh, and did we mention he’s just entering his junior season? Not too shabby, especially considering the consternation that some in the Badger fan base directed towards Stave all season long.
Despite those numbers and the relatively youth at the position, Stave finds himself in a heated fall camp battle with fellow junior Tanner McEvoy.
McEvoy has earned the right to battle for the starting job thanks to his improving passing game, his incredible athleticism and a spring without much Stave in action.
The athleticism of McEvoy was on full display as he became a reliable starter safety for the Badgers as last season progressed. On the flip side, Stave may not be the next Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota, but the reality at Wisconsin is that’s not what the quarterback has to be for his team to be successful.
So, despite all the numbers from last year and the differences in quarterbacks there has been little separation between the two through nine fall practices to date.
What will turn this battle in to a winner for one or the other? How about a vertical passing game with multiple weapons?
That’s where things have gotten tricky; because those in attendance over the past nine practices and a scrimmage have seen both quarterbacks demonstrate that the vertical game is alive and well. That’s been the goal for Ludwig since he arrived in Madison, Wis. — run the ball well and stretch the field in the pass game.
We’ve got some young skill kids that are making some plays,” coach Andersen said, via Tom Oates of the Wisconsin State Journal. “The offense has the ability to get that ball down the field.”
Additionally, Wisconsin has seen its youth at the wide receiver position become a potential strength — especially in the vertical game. Freshmen Natrell Jamerson and George Rushing have been consistent deep threats throughout the first week and a half of practice, while fellow freshman Krenwick Sanders has shown hints of explosiveness in him too.
Thinking of the Badgers passing game as a weakness just because it was an unknown appears to be proven wrong from the get-go in camp. It appears that early in camp the constant mistimed deep throws and missed open targets have disappeared.
That’s what happens when you combine good talent at quarterback with consistent talent at wide receiver. Not only have the freshmen stepped up immediately upon arriving, but sophomores Reggie Love and Rob Wheelwright along with senior Kenzel Doe appear to have stepped up to the plate as well.
Considering the injury history of Love and Wheelwright, it has to be a welcome sight for the coaching staff heading in to the season opener against LSU.
Just how much change has the coaching staff seen though? According to Andersen it’s nearly night and day in the pass game.
“I’d say it’s much better,” Andersen said of the passing game. “No. 1, we’re protecting a little bit better. We’ve still got a ways to go there. No. 2, we have more threats going down the field. You can’t just get up on one guy and double-cover him. I think the scheme has changed to help us get the ball down the field, and the quarterbacks are throwing the ball better. I think all those quarterbacks were throwing the ball. Especially the first two guys threw the ball down the field and gave our kids a chance.”
He also sees more of the wide receivers doing some of the things that Abbrederis did last year — namely coming down with contested balls.
“And you’ve got to catch the ball in contested areas. Jared Abbrederis was a great wide receiver. When the ball was in the air, a lot of times it was his. A lot of times today, when the ball was in the air, we had an opportunity to at least catch that football, and it has been that way all camp. All three or four of those things make us feel much better about throwing the ball down the field.”
As Wisconsin goes deeper in to fall camp it will be interesting to see what happens with the younger wide receivers, but the fact that a week and a half in to camp no one has fallen off — at quarterback or wide receiver — bodes well for UW’s potential in the passing game.
While the focus may be on the running game from the outside looking in, teams that chose to sleep on the Badgers’ passing game appear to be in for a rude awakening in 2014 — no matter who the quarterback will be.
*Photo courtesy of Badger247