MADISON, Wis. (AP) — With its running game stuffed, Wisconsin needed another way to get the offense rolling.
Quarterback Tanner McEvoy took over using his arms and legs.
McEvoy overcame a slow start to throw for three touchdowns and run for another, and the 18th-ranked Badgers pulled away from second-tier Western Illinois in the second half to win its home opener 37-3 Saturday.
Melvin Gordon ran for just 38 yards on 17 carries with the Fighting Leathernecks (1-1) consistently stacking the box against one of the country’s best rushers. McEvoy shook off a couple bad throws early to finish 23 of 28 for 283 yards with one interception.
“If people are going to lower it up plus-1 or even more than plus-1, you have to be able to throw the football,” said coach Gary Andersen, referring to foes using extra defenders to stop to the run.
Gordon expected the extra attention. He was still a little frustrated.
“It seemed like everybody and their mama was in that box,” the junior said.
Leading just 9-3 at halftime, the Badgers (1-1) opened things by throwing on first down, using more play-action and going to screens.
McEvoy hit fullback Austin Ramesh on fourth-and-2 for a 3-yard touchdown pass with 9:18 left in the third quarter before connecting with Gordon on an 8-yard scoring pass three minutes later for a 20-point lead.
Western Illinois could only muster a 29-yard field goal by Nathan Knuffman in the first half.
“Coming into halftime we were in the football game,” Western coach Bob Nielson said. “But in the second half they found a way to control the football and we sputtered offensively trying to get anything going.”
It wasn’t the best of starts either for the Fighting Leathernecks after Kyle Hammonds mishandled the opening kickoff at the goal line, allowing the ball out of the end zone before he knelt inside it.
The play was ruled a safety after a review, and Wisconsin had a 2-0 lead with just 1 second off the clock.
It was a grind from there for nearly the rest of the first half.
Some fans booed McEvoy after his early errant passes, including an overthrow of open tight end Sam Arnesen on a rollout left. The Wisconsin faithful worried it might be seeing a repeat of last week’s 28-24 loss to LSU, when McEvoy was of 8 of 24 for 50 yards with two interceptions.
But Wisconsin’s offense finally got going with a three-play, 54-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard keeper by McEvoy for a 9-0 lead at 2:16 of the second quarter. McEvoy set up his first career major college touchdown with a 37-yard pass up the seam to Arneson, followed by a 10-yard run.
The quarterback faked a handoff to Gordon each play that series. McEvoy displayed exactly the kind of diverse look that Andersen sought to spice up the offense when he chose him over last year’s starter, Joel Stave, in a preseason competition.
The offense kept the momentum to start the second half with a 10-play, 75-yard drive that ended with McEvoy’s short scoring pass to Ramesh.
Making just his second career start for Wisconsin at quarterback, McEvoy got into a rhythm and had 17 straight completions at one point into the second half.
“There was nothing said. There was no magic fairy dust sprinkled on him,” Andersen said. “He just started to execute.”
The junior college transfer also had 55 yards on nine carries, and led the team in rushing until midway through the fourth quarter. It’s quite the feat given the Badgers’ lethal backfield combination of Gordon and Corey Clement.
“We wanted to run downhill. We wanted to make sure (Gordon) wasn’t getting any creases in there and we definitely accomplished that,” Leathernecks linebacker J.J. Raffelson said.
And against an experienced and stocky Big Ten offensive line, too.
As for Gordon, Andersen said he practiced all week after being limited by a hip flexor injury in the second half of last week’s 28-24 loss to LSU.
Gordon is just fine.
“I’m good, I’m good. I’m healthy. Thank God for that,” Gordon said. “A little shaky start, but a win’s a win.”
Western Illinois’ Trenton Norvell was 13 of 21 for 108 yards with an interception, while J.C. Baker ran for 60 yards on 22 carries.
Clement led Wisconsin rushers with 57 yards on nine carries. Receiver Alex Erickson finished with a touchdown and career highs of 122 yards on 10 catches.
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