One of the things sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon hears constantly from University of Wisconsin running backs coach Thomas Hammock is not to look for the big run on every play.
But then senior James White opens the game like he did on Saturday, ripping off a 47-yard run on the Badgers’ second offensive play in their 45-0 victory over UMass.
What’s Gordon supposed to do? He’s got to keep up with his buddy, White, right?
“My coach tells me not to think about the big play every time,” Gordon said after the game. “But after you see James break one … you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got to do something now.’ ”
Gordon didn’t wait long for his response, exploding for a 70-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, one of four touchdowns of 50-plus yards in the game for the Badgers.
For comparison, it took UW seven games last season to register four scoring plays of 50-plus yards.
“Big plays are huge,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “You can take them in the run game or you can get them in the throw (game). Obviously, that’s a big part of the offense.
“Our goal is to have a certain number of big plays every game. … Obviously, we got that done.”
The Badgers had eight “explosive” plays of 20-plus yards, including a fifth scoring play — a 23-yard run by freshman tailback Corey Clement. Five of the big plays were runs and three were passes.
Overall, the Badgers finished with 598 yards of total offense and an impressive 9.6 average per play.
The only game last season they topped that average per play was the Big Ten Conference championship game, when they averaged 10.1 in the 70-31 win over Nebraska.
Of course, the opponent on Saturday was overmatched, starting only its second season at the FBS level.
Whether or not UW’s offense can keep up the big plays once the competition stiffens is still to be determined.
“We’ve got some big-play ability,” sophomore fullback Derek Watt said. “If everyone does their jobs the right way, we’ve got some special guys out on the field, no matter what personnel (grouping) we’re in. We’ve got guys that can do special things. You saw what our identity is (Saturday).”
UW sophomore quarterback Joel Stave had a chance at a couple more big plays in the first half, only to miss on throws.
Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Fredrick was open for what should have been on a touchdown from the UMass 30-yard line on the second series, but Stave badly underthrew him and was intercepted.
Senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis got open deep in the second quarter for what could have been a 65-yard touchdown pass, but Stave put too much air under the throw, giving cornerback Randall Jette enough time to come back and break it up.
But the Badgers stuck with the deep play-action pass in the second half because it’s a vital part of their offense given the strong running game.
“When we run play-action, the safeties come down hard and it opens up the big post for ‘Abby’ or whoever is going to run it,” White said. “The same (with the passing game), it’s going to open it up for the run and keep those safeties back. If we can get through the hole, (we can) make those safeties miss and go for touchdowns.”
Just as impressively, UW will likely be able to grind out long drives when necessary. It had a 14-play, 57-yard drive that ate up 7 minutes, 30 seconds and ended in a 21-yard field goal.
Kicker Kyle French also missed a 40-yard attempt, so the Badgers must improve on finishing drives.
“Grinding, long drives are kind of an identity of who we really want to be at times, kind of wear people down, have statement drives, if you will,” Andersen said.
“That allows you to be able to run time off the clock and do all of those things you want to do, but big plays are big for us.”
If the Badgers can manage both as the competition gets better, it should make for a dangerous combination.
“That’s been Wisconsin all along, just because we run the ball so well,” Abbrederis said. “When you get the safeties and DBs kind of biting on the run, obviously play-action will open it up. That’s the nature of our offense.”