By SARAH BARSHOP
Special to ESPNWisconsin.com
MADISON - After only averaging 16.3 points-per-game in their first three contests, the Wisconsin Badgers were looking forward to having their leading receiver, Jared Abbrederis, back in Saturday’s game against the UTEP Miners.
The redshirt junior was on the sidelines in Wisconsin’s win over Utah State due to the concussion and chest injury he suffered in week two at Oregon State. Before his injury, Abbrederis led the team through two games with seven catches for 110 yards, and two touchdowns.
With Abbrederis back, the offense had planned on utilizing the wide receiver as more of a deep threat, to compliment its running game.
What the Badgers weren’t counting on is losing another integral piece of their offense.
Last years’ Heisman trophy finalist, senior Montee Ball, only carried the ball nine times before leaving the game for good with a head injury in the second quarter. The running back still managed to score his third touchdown of the season, and is now alone in eighth place in the NCAA record books, surpassing Tim Tebow and Marshall Faulk with his 64th career touchdown.
Despite losing their leader on offense, the Badgers put up their highest point total on the young season.
Head coach Bret Bielema, and the rest of the team, knew they could lean on their depth at running back even during Ball’s absence.
“(There were) a lot of new guys getting opportunities out there today,” Bielema said. “I was happy to see Melvin (Gordon) and James (White) respond as positively as they did. Really, there wasn’t anybody looking around. Our team knew those two guys could handle the work load.”
Freshman quarterback Joel Stave, making his first collegiate start, was elated he received as much help from his comrades in the backfield.
“That’s great to see,” he said. “Montee’s obviously a really great player and you never want someone like that to go down, but Melvin and James did a great job stepping up. Everyone knows they’re really good players too, so it’s great for them to get a shot and they made the most of it.”
Abbrederis, having missed last week with a concussion, said it was important for the backups to be prepared in case a similar situation were to occur, essentially echoing the sentiment of his new quarterback.
“The guys (do) a really great job trading off in practices, just in case something like that would happen,” Abbrederis said. “Same when I went down, the receivers had to step up.
“I thought Melvin did a great job, and obviously James did a great job too, but that’s just kind of the way we practice, and you’ve got to be prepared. If you’re No. 2, you’ve got to be prepared to step up if something happens.”
While losing their leading rusher may have led last years’ Badgers team to lean heavily on the passing game, Stave was making his first career start so that wasn’t necessarily the most logical plan of attack for offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
Still, Stave impressed Bielema, finishing the game 12-of-17 for 210 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
“He’s going to be a good quarterback,” Bielema said. “He’s tall, athletic, (and) he’s smart at the line of scrimmage.
“To respond the way he did, and throw those balls deep in the first half, I thought he did a good job.”
Stave said that while he would like to take the interception back, overall he felt comfortable in the starting role, especially since he had all week to prepare.
“I got a lot of reps this week in practice,” Stave said. “Just seeing things throughout the whole week, and just playing the game throughout the whole week really helps when you get to Saturday.”
Stave also said that knowing the Badgers still had weapons on the ground helped, and that Gordon and White are “really good players” and “dangerous with the ball in their hands.”
Bielema chose to stick with his original game plan, even when the Miners pulled within four with 7:59 to go in the game. The head coach said the team had been planning on getting Gordon and James more touches this week.
“I think we got cleaner on offense as far as what we wanted to do,” Bielema said. “During the course of the week (we) came up with numbers that we would want to get Montee and Melvin and James all involved.
“They’re very, very good football players and (they) spread the wealth, get it around a little bit. It will help Montee in the long run to know those guys can come off the bench and do good things.”
Now, after playing what Bielema agreed was possibly the toughest non-conference schedule since he had been at Wisconsin, the Badgers will travel to Nebraska to take on the Huskers next Saturday night. Abbrederis knows the offense has to continue to work if they want to do well in Big Ten play.
“We have to clean up some things,” Abbrederis said. “We had two turnovers today, we’ve got to clean that up, and we’ve got to be a lot better on third downs. We’ve got to keep our defense off the field and keep on getting better.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Badgers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.