The way Gary Andersen sees it, the pilot wasn’t entirely responsible for the severe turbulence the University of Wisconsin football team encountered in the air Saturday night at NRG Stadium in Houston.
While the UW coach acknowledged during his weekly news conference Monday that junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy didn’t play well during the No. 14 Badgers’ 28-24 loss to No. 13 LSU, Andersen also made it clear there was plenty of blame to go around for a putrid performance in the passing game.
McEvoy completed 8 of 24 passes for 50 yards with two interceptions in his first start at quarterback since arriving at UW last season as a junior-college transfer.
Those 50 passing yards were the lowest for UW in a defeat since Jay Macias and Jay Simala combined to go 7 of 20 for 46 yards during a 10-6 home loss to Iowa on Oct. 12, 1991.
Andersen said the “whole offense” played a role in the lack of success through the air and confirmed McEvoy will remain the starter on Saturday when UW (0-1) plays its home opener against Western Illinois (1-0) at Camp Randall Stadium.
That means junior quarterback Joel Stave, who entered the season with 19 career starts but came up on the short end of a competition with McEvoy in training camp, will remain in the backup role. Stave didn’t play against LSU despite McEvoy’s struggles.
“I still think there’s opportunities for both guys to play,” Andersen said. “As we go through time, and as we went through last week’s practice, it was obvious that it was a situation that Tanner needed to be involved. Joel’s going to be involved, it’s just the right time and the right situation and making sure everything is where it needs to be for him to be able to be part of the offense and be involved in the offense.
“We need two quarterbacks. Sooner or later, you’re going to have them both. Tanner’s the starter today, but Joel’s going to fight like crazy to get some reps and if there’s an opportunity that presents itself for Joel to be able to come in and play, then so be it.”
McEvoy’s longest completion — 14 yards to sophomore wide receiver Alex Erickson — came on a bubble screen. All nine of McEvoy’s pass attempts of 15 yards or longer resulted in incompletions, including the two interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Andersen directed some of the blame at the offensive line. Senior right tackle Rob Havenstein agreed with that assessment both immediately after the game and again Monday.
“Obviously, it wasn’t good enough,” Havenstein said of the pass protection. “We didn’t give Tanner enough time or enough space to feel comfortable in the pocket. That lands squarely on us.”
Shaky route-running and failure to come up with catches on some 50/50 balls also were an issue, according to Andersen.
Although he didn’t mention specific names, it was clear the examples Andersen mentioned came on plays involving sophomore wide receiver Reggie Love and redshirt freshman tight end Troy Fumagalli.
Love broke his route to the corner instead of inside on a deep pass in the first half. The result was a throw by McEvoy that ended up nowhere near Love.
On McEvoy’s first interception, his placement of the pass was shaky but Andersen was clearly disappointed Fumagalli didn’t do a better job of battling LSU safety Jalen Mills for the ball.
“He obviously missed some throws he’d like to have back,” Andersen said of McEvoy, who was 3 of 11 for 17 yards in the second half. “We had a couple balls in the air that are contested balls that we would like to see go our way. The one pick, it’s a contested ball, can we go up and get that? We didn’t, and they did and they picked it off and made a tremendous play.
“Do we need better play (at quarterback)? Absolutely. Nobody’s going to sit there and debate that. We need better play out of the quarterback. We need better play in the throw game, period. There’s some bright spots and we’ll continue to go through that with both of our quarterbacks.”
Andersen didn’t see many opportunities for what he calls “layups” — easy completions — and credited LSU’s secondary for using press coverage to throw off UW’s timing on routes. A young Badgers receiving corps was rarely able to get much separation from the Tigers, leaving McEvoy with limited options.
UW junior tailback Melvin Gordon, like Andersen, said there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“We’ve got to be sound with the play-action, we’ve got to sell the fakes more,” Gordon said. “It’s on us, too. It’s on the running backs, too, not just the receivers. We all play a part in the passing game. Those guys will get separation, those guys will do that. We’ve just got to find our playmakers in our group. We’ve got to make it work, and we will.”
McEvoy didn’t help his cause by failing to execute when his teammates did get open. One of those opportunities came on the Badgers’ final possession when he underthrew a ball to senior tight end Sam Arneson, who was open over the middle on second-and-12 from the UW 8-yard line.
McEvoy never established a rhythm. At times, it appeared he backpedaled before pressure was even an issue. On his second interception, McEvoy threw a ball up for grabs off his back foot.
Andersen was asked if McEvoy reverted to some of the bad habits that plagued him in camp.
“I’m sure there are many things (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig) will go back and critique his own position,” Andersen said. “I’m far from a quarterback guru, but in talking to the offense a little bit, there are some things that I think we can do from a protection standpoint to clean up the pocket even when it’s blocked cleanly.
“And that has to do with the quarterback. What is his depth? … I don’t know the ins and outs of exactly what our offense is. Again, there’s other coaches that that’s their job to get that done and get him in the spots, but we’ll definitely continue to work on it as an offense as a whole and I’m sure Tanner has many things he can work on. We’ll keep on moving forward.”