Last week Wisconsin ran for a Big Ten record 644 yards last week in a 68-17 domination of Bowling Green. Today they were tasked with following up one of the most impressive rushing performances in school history. And they did, but it wasn’t easy.
Wisconsin defeated South Florida 27-10 for its 32nd consecutive non-conference home win. The Bulls hung with the Badgers into the third quarter, but then Wisconsin, and Heisman candidate Melvin Gordon, flexed their muscles. No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers moved to 3-1 while South Florida dropped to 2-3.
Melvin Gordon followed up his 253 yard, 5 touchdown performance with 181 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns. Last week he did his damage on only 13 carries, today he needed a bit more (32), but impressively took over in the second half.
Quarterback Tanner McEvoy had thrown an interception in all three games this year, today he had an efficient game going 11/18 for 160 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions.
The game began as Wisconsin scripted with a three and out for the Bulls. The Badgers looked to get their running swagger going early, but a long run by Melvin Gordon was called back because of a hold. Gordon ended up getting stuffed on third and one and Wisconsin had to punt. That set the tone for the rest of the first half.
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On South Florida’s next possession redshirt freshman full back Kennard Swanson caught a 22-yard pass on third and three to get into Wisconsin’s red zone — only the sixth time a team had gotten inside the Badgers’ 20-yard line. But Bucky’s defense stood up and held the Bulls to just three points.
With 6:49 left in the first quarter, 3-0 South Florida.
Early on in the game the Bulls loaded up the box and dared the Badgers to pass. McEvoy called their bluff and hit Jordan Frederick for a 17-yard pass, which he hung on despite taking a viscous hit on third down and nine. Alex Erickson then caught a 23-yard pass downfield and the Bulls’ defense had to start respecting the pass. But Bucky couldn’t capitalize and were held to a field goal.
End of first quarter 3-3.
Later in the second quarter, on third and 17, linebacker Derek Landisch (former Badger Chris Borland’s replacement) came up with a huge interception and returned it 19 yards to the South Florida 36 yard line. But a holding penalty killed the drive, and on third and 15 Tanner McEvoy was sacked for a 10 yard loss. Wisconsin was pushed out of field goal range. It was a sack McEvoy cannot take, but the Bulls’ defensive line simply dominated and confused the Badgers — there was not much he could do.
With 4:48 left in the first half the Badgers got the ball back.
Gordon finally broke through with an 11 yard run on second down and it seemed as though the Badgers were going to finally break through as they moved the ball down the field with each play. With about thirty seconds left in the half the Badgers were knocking on the door for a touchdown right before the half. But a fumble occurred on the exchange between Gordon and McEvoy and the Bulls jumped on the ball. South Florida took over with 25 seconds left in the half and let time expire.
It was 3-3 at the half. Camp Randall was quiet and nervous.
"“We weren’t playing Wisconsin football,” Gordon told ESPNU about the Badgers’ first half on the field after the game."
Gordon also said he addressed the team in the locker room at the half. In the second half he backed up his words and came out with a purpose. He came out angry. And an angry Gordon is a scary Gordon.
On the first play of the second half Gordon made a statement running for 22 yards. The next play he went for 10 yards and the Badgers were rolling as they’re accustomed to. At the 10:43 mark Gordon powered his way for a seven yard touchdown run. 10-3 Badgers and they hardly looked back.
Gordon had 50 yards rushing in the entire first half and 41 yards on the first drive of the second half alone.
Landisch made his second huge play of the day on the Bulls’ next possession on third and one, stuffing South Florida’s running back for a three yard loss and forced a punt.
The Badgers got the ball back and on the first play Gordon ran for a 43 yard touchdown. You don’t want to make Gordon angry, you won’t like him when he’s angry — isn’t that right South Florida?
But the Bulls didn’t lay down. They responded with a 26 yard touchdown by wide receiver Rodney Adams on an end around. With 6:05 left in the third quarter the Badgers held a 17-10 lead.
At this point the game could have gone either way.
Photo by Badger of Honor’s own Jim Oxley
Although the Badgers weren’t shell shocked by the Bulls’ success and marched right back down the field, they were stuffed on third and one at the goal line. They kicked the field goal and extended their lead to 20-10 with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
Then it was time to jump around.
On the first play of the fourth quarter full back Swanson pulled down the longest catch of his career, a 52 yard reception down the sideline. But unfortunately for him, it ended with a fumble that was recovered by the Badgers. It was one of the more insane momentum shifts in the Badgers’ 2014 season. A couple plays later, McEvoy pulled off an impressive first down run on third and the Badgers were rolling.
Wisconsin put together an 18 play, 90 yard drive that spanned nine minutes. McEvoy got more and more comfortable throwing the ball as it went on and finished the drive with a one yard touchdown pass to tight end Sam Arneson.
At that point the game was over.
The first half was a defensive struggle and the Badgers were plagued with holding penalties for the entire game, but Wisconsin overcame these troubles. The Bulls’ defensive speed was evident in the first half, but the Badgers’ strength eventually took control.
Biggest Moment of the Game: The first play of the second half. Gordon ran for 22 yards and had that killer look in his eye. At that moment Wisconsin, and its fans in Camp Randall, knew that everything was going to be ok.
Game Ball: Melvin Gordon. He took over in the second half, when nothing was working and South Florida stacked the box he showed why he’s a Heisman candidate. He was the best player on the field and he deserves the game ball for his 131 second half rushing yards.
Dark Spot: Another slow start. The Badgers will not be able to win games during the Big Ten season if they start as slow as they did today — and have a few times this year. This is something the coaching staff must address and fix in the coming weeks.
Looking Forward: The Badgers are poised to make an exiting run through the Big Ten schedule. If they can play like they did in the second half today heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Conference Championship Game is a legitimate hope, as is a spot in one of the “New Year’s Six” bowl games. Gordon needs to keep running angry and McEvoy needs to throw with the accuracy he did in the fourth quarter today. This defense has been playing great football all year and did in this game. In the second half the Badgers’ offense played pretty great, too. In the Big Ten, they’ll need both clicking.
Coming into the game the Badgers were leading the NCAA in rushing yards per game, and they did enough to likely hold that title for another week as they posted 294 yards on the ground today. Wisconsin didn’t play its best game, but still came out with the victory.
It was a frustrating game, but ended up being a good character building win.