MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s offense has the element of surprise on its side. And for better or worse, that’s where it stays.
“Depending on what’s working and what’s not working, we change our offense,” senior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright said, just days before the No. 8 Badgers’ Saturday night showdown with No. 2 Ohio State at Camp Randall. “Either we’re going to be running or passing, and that kind of just goes with practice.”
“But we don’t know what type of team we’re going to be until game day,” he added with a laugh.
Some might say it shows adaptability. Others could call it inconsistency. The Badgers say nothing, and instead point to that 4-1 record.
It’s certainly a statement-making record, but the rest of Wisconsin’s numbers leave most wondering how that success has come to be. Historically a run-first offense, the Badgers seem to have lost their identity this season. Against an Ohio State team that knows exactly who it is — to the tune of 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten — that could prove problematic. On Saturday, the Badgers, 1-1 in conference play, will have to rely on other, maybe less obvious, parts of their offense that have been consistent this year.
If we’re sticking with the statistics theme, that would mean keeping the Buckeyes guessing when it comes to who’s getting the ball. Redshirt junior Jazz Peavy leads the team with 281 yards on 17 receptions. But unlike predecessor Alex Erickson, whose 978 receiving yards were more than 550 better than the next-best Badger, Peavy’s teammates aren’t far behind.
Wheelwright has one more catch (18) and only 7 fewer yards (274) than Peavy. Tight end Troy Fumagalli has hauled in 16 throws for 181 yards.
The quarterback’s main target changes among those three each game — a trend that wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore expects to continue.
“It has been a little bit all over the place, a deal by committee, and I’m OK with that,” Gilmore said. “I tell the guys all the time, ‘I can’t tell you when it’s going to happen, but at some point you’re going to have the chance to make a play and we don’t get do-overs.’ ”
Boy did they learn that the hard way against Michigan two Saturdays ago. The Badgers could have used a mulligan (or 10) in their 14-7 loss to the fourth-ranked Wolverines.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook completed just 9 of 25 passes in his second career start. To the Michigan defense’s credit, some throws were rushed (which led to 3 interceptions) and Hornibrook said he took a big shot to the ribs during the game. But too many incompletions were drops, and at the worst possible times, to boot (such as third downs and the red zone).
Needless to say, Badger Nation would appreciate more catches, but the coaches have even higher expectations. When and how the ball is caught are just as important.
“The explosive (run) plays, a lot of times fall on my guys,” Gilmore said, explaining the Wisconsin passing game must match its ground game in the big-plays area. “They’ve got to make the difference down the field — 5, 10 (yards) or bigger. We need to get better in that area. It goes hand-in-hand (with the run game).”
Corey Clement’s longest run this season came in the second quarter against Akron on Sept. 10 — 27-yard breakout to start a scoring drive. He had three other double-digit carries in the Badgers’ 54-10 win over the Zips, and to Gilmore’s point, they were coupled with big gains by Peavy. It stands as his best receiving game this year — 7 catches, 100 yards, 2 touchdowns.
“We want to get the run game. We want to be able to hang our hat on it,” Gilmore said. “But that being said, if we have to throw it to win, we should be able to do that, too.”
It may come down to just that Saturday against the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s rushing defense is ranked ninth nationally at 97.8 yards allowed per game, and hasn’t surrendered a touchdown on the ground yet this season.
“It’s a really good, sound scheme,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said of Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes. “They’ve got good coaches and I think they’ve got players that understand their role in the defense. They understand their one-eleventh of it, and they’ve got really talented players.”
The Badgers hope to come away with a similar understanding of their own system.
And with a win, of course.
“We’ll see what we can do and what we can’t do just from the first drive, maybe even the first play,” Wheelwright said. “You learn pretty quick, ‘OK, we’re not going to be doing that today.’
“With Ohio State and their defense and us trying to figure out our offense, it’s going to be a great matchup.”