Photo/AP Morry Gash
Badgers 45, Minutemen 0: Good start
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - It was the beginning of a new era for the University of Wisconsin football team on Saturday as Gary Andersen made his coaching debut. And yet, things looked very much like they have over the past 20 years in the Badgers 45-0 rout of Massachusetts at Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin used a powerful running game and play-action passes to overwhelm the Minutemen in the season opener for both teams.
“Their running game has been honed over two decades,” UMass coach Charley Monar said. “Recruiting a certain profile, offensive lineman, running back, tight ends, you could’ve been watching the 1992 Badgers with Coach (Barry) Alvarez with the same plays, just different guys doing the same things.”
Three Wisconsin running backs went over the 100-yard mark (Melvin Gordon 13 carries, 144 yards, James White 11 carries, 143 yards and Corey Clement 16 carries, 101 yards) and the team finished with 393 rushing yards total. That was 34 yards more than they ran for in the first three games of last season combined.
“We just wanted to start fast and I think we got that accomplished,” White said with a straight face after the game.
White was the guy early – accounting for 64 of the 70 yards in a five play drive to start the game, which quarterback Joel Stave finished off with a 4-yard touchdown run – the first of his career.
A fumble by UMass running back Stacy Bedell, which was forced by senior Brendan Kelly and recovered by another senior, Ethan Armstrong, set the Badgers up with great field position at the Minutemen 35-yard line. But Stave gave the ball back on the very next play, getting picked off by safety Devin Brown near the endzone.
After forcing a punt the Wisconsin offense moved the ball but couldn’t get it in the endzone. A 14-play, 57-yard drive culminated in a 21-yard Kyle French field goal. They had another 11-play, 54-yard drive end on a missed field goal by French from 40 yards out.
It was their next two drives that turned a close game into a blowout.
Following a missed field goal by UMass kicker Blake Lucas – Gordon burst off the right side of the offensive line – following blocks by tight end Jacob Pedersen and a pulling Ryan Groy – and left the defense behind him for a 70-yard touchdown.
“We had opportunities and we didn’t convert,” Andersen said of early offensive struggles. “Playing good on (defense), but we needed to make that play to get us going and headed in the right direction. He hit that, and it was blocked out well.”
The Badgers defense forced a punt at the start of the second half and Wisconsin wasted no time getting in the endzone again – this time with Stave finding wide receiver Jared Abbrederis deep on a play-action pass for a 65-yard touchdown to make it 24-0.
“We didn’t play as well as we would have liked to in the first half,” Stave said about his 4-of-11 performance to start the game – including underthrowing Abbrederis on what should have been a touchdown in the second quarter. “To start off (the second half) like that, it was great for us.”
The offense followed it up with three more touchdown drives in a row – White scored on a run from 51-yards out before Abbrederis hauled in another bomb from Stave for a 57-yard touchdown.
“As an offense we came out stronger, more physical,” Stave said. “We moved the ball in the first half we just couldn’t get in the endzone. When we get in the redzone we need to come away with points and that’s what we did in the second half.”
The Badgers sophomore quarterback, making his first start since breaking his collarbone against Michigan State in late October last season, finished 9-of-17 for 197 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
“The inconsistency in the throw game in the first half was not just Joel,” Andersen said. “It wasn’t just the receivers. It wasn’t just the tight ends. It was the combined effort…we kind of amped that up in the second half, a players make plays. Players win games. No magic to it.”
While the passing game’s resurgence in the second half was a highlight, the real story was the running game. After struggling to start the season a year ago, the offensive line got push from the opening whistle, getting three running backs over the century mark for the third time in school history and the first time ever in a season opener.
“I think it was a lot of the game plan,” Groy said. “We came in with a great game plan. We knew we had certain plays here and there that would really gash them and we executed them pretty well.”
Clement, a true freshman, had just four carries before the fourth quarter but still finished with more than 100 yards.
“I don’t want to be under the radar at all,” said Clement, who scored his first touchdown on a 23-yard run in the fourth quarter. “That’s not why I came here. To make a statement, with me, Melvin and James, I believe we have a great running back core. We can be the best in the country. It’s all about having confidence. No one is better than you.”
The win moved the Badgers season opening win streak to 16 years – but it was the first shutout in that streak. Wisconsin’s new 3-4 defense caused four false start penalties and limited the Minutemen to 212 yards of total offense – the fewest allowed by UW since a 42-13 win over Minnesota in 2011, when the Gophers managed just 156 yards.
“It was a lot of fun,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “I think we could kind of sense the confusion on the other team’s side, and any time an offense is confused, they’ll be playing on their heels a little bit. It was good for us that we were able to be aggressive but still not show a lot.”
The defense also forced a pair of turnovers – a number they didn’t reach last season until the Big Ten opener against Nebraska.
“It’s a solid start,” Borland said. “It’s something you can improve on but it’s a good place to start off. The goal for any defense is to not to let up points. Today, we passed the test.”
Getting the shutout was important to the players and the coaches – especially for Andersen who’s background is on the defensive side of the ball.
“I’ve been in those spots, and it’s hard when the head coach flips over and says, ‘Okay, let’s unload the bench.’ when there’s a zero on the scoreboard there,” Andersen said. “But if you had seen (defensive coordinator Dave) Aranda on the last stop when they got the second, third down conversion, he was pretty fired up. He wanted that zero.
"Dave is the same way as I am. He wants to get that zero for the kids. That’s something that’s a statement to hold a team to no points. I’m sure they’re proud of it as a defensive group of kids, and they should be.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin