It was a perfect script for Gary Andersen, a former defensive coordinator, making his debut on Saturday as coach of the University of Wisconsin football team.
After nothing but good vibes since Andersen took over last December, the players wanted to make his debut special and they did that with a shutout, 45-0 over UMass, winning a 16th straight season opener in front of a crowd of 76,306 at Camp Randall Stadium.
“You can tell it means a lot,” Andersen said of the defensive players’ reaction after making a stand in UW territory on the Minutemen’s final possession.
“I’ve been in those spots. It’s hard, when the head coach flips over and says, ‘OK, let’s unload the bench,’ when there’s a zero on the scoreboard. … That’s a statement to hold a team to no points. I’m sure they’re proud of it.”
Granted, UMass is only in its second season at the FBS level and had one of the worst offenses in the nation last season. But the thing that was most impressive about the Badgers’ defense was it did it without having to show much, allowing only 212 yards and posting its first shutout since a 35-0 blanking of Oregon State on Sept. 10, 2011.
It was the first game with UW’s new 3-4 scheme, which is supposed to include heavy blitzing and relentless pressure on the quarterback.
When senior linebacker Chris Borland was asked how much of the playbook the defense showed, he smiled and said, “There’s a lot more. We were pretty vanilla today.”
Some of it was dictated by the UMass game plan, as much as the No. 23 Badgers wanting to keep things under wraps with much tougher games down the line against Arizona State and Ohio State.
“Against what they were doing, even if it was the middle of the season, we might have had a similar game plan,” Borland said. “They had a pretty simple philosophy on offense today. We just played what we had to to defend it.”
After realizing early they weren’t going to be able to run the ball against the rugged interior of UW’s defense, the Minutemen attacked the edges with a variety of quick throws, rollouts and edge runs. The Badgers didn’t have a sack and Borland said he couldn’t remember a five-step drop.
As with most opening games, the defense had to make quick adjustments to things it wasn’t expecting.
“We countered and stayed more basic,” strong safety Dez Southward said. “We handled a lot of things they did. You have to be proud of the way we adjusted, because they have a new O-coordinator over there. It was a lot of unknowns as far as what they would come out and do, but I thought we handled it with great ease, there wasn’t any panic.”
The Badgers were always in control, even though they led just 10-0, taking over at their own 30-yard line, with 3 minutes, 52 seconds left in the first half.
That’s when sophomore Melvin Gordon followed great blocks from tight end Jacob Pedersen and left guard Ryan Groy and burst through the line for a 70-yard touchdown run, the first of four scoring plays by UW of 50 yards or more.
“We had opportunities and we didn’t convert,” Andersen said of the first half, which included an interception thrown by sophomore quarterback Joel Stave on a badly underthrown ball when the Badgers went for a big strike after recovering a UMass fumble. “Playing good on D, but we needed to make that play and get us going and headed in the right direction.”
Stave had a miserable first half, completing 4 of 11 passes for 36 yards and the interception. He was badly off-target on most throws.
The way Andersen dealt with it at halftime is indicative of his coaching style. “I didn’t really say anything to Joel,” Andersen said. “I looked at all the quarterbacks and I looked at a couple of the wideouts when we were walking in at halftime and I just said, ‘Let’s just challenge ourselves to be able to throw the ball and catch it, because we can.’ ”
That’s what they did in the second half. The first four plays produced 130 yards and two scores, a 65-yard bomb from Stave to Jared Abbrederis off play-action and a beautiful 51-yard run by senior James White, who made a subtle, yet effective, cut into the hole.
Gordon finished with 13 carries for 144 yards, an 11.1-yard average. White had 11 carries for 143, a 13.0 average. Freshman Corey Clement came in late in the third quarter and finished with 101 on 16 carries. All three had a touchdown.
Thanks to the big second half, Stave finished with 197 passing yards and two touchdowns, also connecting on yet another play-action TD late in the third quarter, this one a 57-yarder to Abbrederis.
UW ran for 393 yards and threw for 205. Just as important as that balance, it converted 8 of 11 (72.7 percent) third downs, a problem area last season.
The only drama that remained was whether the defense would get its shutout. Andersen admitted he was emotional running out of the tunnel at the end of the line as promised before the game.
He brought a new level of excitement to the game, according to the players, taking part in a spirited “Jump Around,” on the field after the third quarter.
“I think the biggest difference was seeing your head coach do the ‘Jump Around,’ just getting into it, pushing you,” senior outside linebacker Brendan Kelly said. “You’re like, ‘Whoa, Coach, all right, let’s go.’ It brought a lot of energy to the team.”
So did the shutout, preserved by the second defense, when UMass backup quarterback A.J. Doyle threw incomplete on fourth-and-8 from the UW 33.
“Things got a little dicey and the number twos had to step up and hold up the goose egg, but they did,” Kelly said. “We were happy about that.”