MADISON, Wis. — The smiles returned to the faces of the Wisconsin Badgers this week, back on the practice field getting ready for a New Year’s Day game far away from the arctic cold gripping the Midwest.
They’ve moved on from the regular season-ending loss to heavy underdog Penn State — but they haven’t forgotten about how they lost.
So a big focus for 19th-ranked Wisconsin over the next few weeks of practices is improving the passing game to make opponents pay for stacking the box to stop 1,300-yard rushers Melvin Gordon and James White.
“Defenses are ganging up on us more so than they have all year long,” coach Gary Andersen said this week. “To get rid of that is to complete some balls down the field and cause some issues.”
Working on footwork and gaining consistency is a focus for quarterback Joel Stave as Wisconsin prepares for No. 8 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla. This might be a crucial few weeks for Stave to get a head start on a potential quarterback competition in 2014.
The Badgers (9-3) are built to succeed on offense by running the ball. At their best, they’re then able to go downfield on play-action passes to top receiver Jared Abbrederis, and soften the middle with tight end Jacob Pedersen.
The 31-24 loss to the Nittany Lions stopped that strategy cold. Penn State stacked the box and limited Gordon and White from hitting signature big plays. A high ankle sprain that hampered sophomore left tackle Tyler Marz didn’t help.
Junior Dallas Lewallen has missed time at center with a leg injury, and the Badgers started redshirt freshman Dan Voltz in his place the final four games of the regular season.
Stave threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns, but also had three interceptions. The sophomore has had a choppy year in his first full season as the starter.
Stave has shown an ability to hit Abbrederis deep and then miss open receivers on short to intermediate routes on the next series. Pocket awareness and poise were also on the to-do list for Stave from offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who called his starting quarterback a “conscientious worker” who has shown improvement through the year.
“He still has a lot of untapped potential, a lot of development ahead of him,” Ludwig said.
Andersen notes that other members of the offense need to step up, too. He’s looking for improved pass protection, and he’d like younger wideouts to emerge, given that Abbrederis will be playing his last game as a senior.
“We want to do some different things, and we need to do some things differently in this bowl game,” Andersen said.
At least the Badgers will get the crucial extra practices to work on flaws. It’s not the Rose Bowl — Wisconsin’s postseason destination the previous three seasons — but the contest against the Gamecocks is about as difficult an assignment that can be drawn in a non-Bowl Championship Series affair.
Even if Wisconsin beat Penn State, the Badgers likely would have ended up in the Capital One Bowl anyway since Michigan State upset Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, ensuring the Spartans would join the Buckeyes as the two conference teams in the BCS.
“As it all ended up, this is where we would have been. I’m fired up to be at his bowl,” Andersen said. “But no, it doesn’t lessen the sting of the loss. We’ve moved past it. We’ve just got to get better.”
Notes: Andersen said that he’s spoken to Gordon, a redshirt sophomore, about getting an evaluation about his NFL draft prospects. Andersen said he’s told Gordon he thinks he needs more development and wants him to return for a chance to compete for awards next year. But he’s encouraged Gordon to get his evaluation. ... Dezmen Southward had what he called a minor procedure performed on his wrist after the Penn State game. Andersen expects his starting safety to be able to participate fully in practice the week before the bowl game.
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