Badgers Offense Needs To Make Statement Against Illinois


Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

As you all know by now, the Wisconsin Badgers are reeling after an embarrassing 20-14 road loss against Northwestern last Saturday. Dismal quarterback play, lackluster defense, turnovers and a plethora of penalties doomed the Badgers offense, even though Melvin Gordon ran for a career-high 259 yards.

Now, dealing with a full-blown quarterback controversy, in which neither option inspires much confidence, and facing a myriad of questions, Wisconsin will return home to Madison looking to rebound. Luckily for them, they’ll welcome in an Illinois team to Camp Randall Stadium that is arguably the worst in the Big Ten and is missing its best player.

The Fighting Illini are coming off a dreadful home loss to Purdue, who entered the game having lost its last nine conference contests. To make matters worse, Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt suffered a broken leg in the loss and will miss four to six weeks. Thanks to a couple of bye weeks coming up for the Illini, the Big Ten passing leader may only miss two or three games, but will obviously be missing from this Saturday’s game.

Given Illinois’ current struggles and Lunt’s injury, the Badgers have been presented with a golden opportunity to rebound from the Northwestern loss and make a statement this Saturday at Camp Randall, where they’ve gone 64-7 in their last 71 home games and have won nine of 10 under head coach Gary Andersen.

Wisconsin has had success against the Illini in recent years, winning eight of their last nine meetings, and haven’t lost to them at home since 2002. While none of that is really relevant to these two teams and holds no real predictive power, it’s still safe to say that it would take a massive upset for Illinois to beat the Badgers given their success at home and the current state of Tim Beckman’s team. Besides, highlighting Wisconsin’s success against the Illini makes everyone feel a little better.

Of course, the Badgers aren’t going to cruise to an easy victory against Illinois or anybody else if they don’t start finding solutions to some of their biggest problems.

The issue that’s first and foremost in everyone’s mind is the situation at quarterback, where Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave are both battling for the starting job. Stave, returning from a case of the “yips”, saw action against the Wildcats, taking over for a struggling McEvoy in the second half. Stave didn’t fare much better, throwing one touchdown and three interceptions, including one in the end zone that ended a potential scoring drive.

While Wisconsin isn’t blessed with tons of talent and wide receiver, the play at quarterback has still be unquestionably lackluster. There’s no doubt that McEvoy’s running capabilities adds a different dynamic to the offense, but that can only carry him so far if he’s not at all a passing threat. Meanwhile, Stave was inconsistent against Northwestern, a problem that has plagued him throughout his career. Some of this can be chalked up to the fact that it was his first time seeing game action this season, but these struggles are nothing new.

Andersen has noted that Wisconsin will go with a two-quarterback system against Illinois, so fans will have to wait until Saturday to see just what kind of impact this has on how the offense operates.

Finally, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig needs to shoulder some of the blame for the loss to the Wildcats. It’s certainly not his fault that the Badgers are lacking in quarterback talent, but some of his play-calling has been highly questionable.

Attempting to establish the passing game early in the game makes perfect sense, but there have been multiple instances this year where Ludwig has decided to go through the air late in the game, even when his quarterbacks were struggling. The most obvious recent example of this was Stave’s end zone interception in the fourth quarter.

That pick came on first and goal from the Northwestern three-yard line with Wisconsin trailing 20-7. Rather than give the ball to Melvin Gordon, who was in the midst of one of the best performances of his career, he had the struggling Stave air it out. That decision was perplexing at best and downright idiotic at worst.

This Saturday against the Illini, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Ludwig to figure out what to do: run the ball.

Illinois has the seventh-worst run defense in the entire FBS, allowing 249.5 yards per game. Gordon and Corey Clement should be seeing plenty of carries this weekend, and Ludwig shouldn’t be calling too many pass plays unless the Illini prove that they can stop the run.

If Illinois heavily stacks the box and successfully stifles the running attack, or the Badgers jump out to a comfortable lead, then Ludwig should start seeing what the offense can do through the air.

The loss to Northwestern was disappointing and highlighted some of Wisconsin’s biggest problems, but the Badgers’ season and their hopes of a Big Ten West title didn’t come to an end on that rainy afternoon in Evanston. Wisconsin still can turn things around and get on track, but the offense needs to establish its identity and make a statement, starting this Saturday against Illinois.