MADISON, Wis. (AP) Although Wisconsin's potent offense eventually has shifted into gear during three consecutive victories, the 17th-ranked Badgers may not be able to wait until the second half to get going when they open their Big Ten schedule at Northwestern.
Wisconsin (3-1) is ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing with 343.3 yards per game, and the Badgers' average of 7.04 yards per carry is the best in the country. Wisconsin, however, has not won at Ryan Field since 1999 and is facing a Northwestern defense that's allowed just 13 points in its last two games, including a 29-6 victory at Penn State last Saturday.
''If we're going to win all the games we want to win, we're going to have to have an all-around performance from everyone from the start of the game to the finish of the game,'' said quarterback Tanner McEvoy, who has struggled at times after unseating incumbent Joel Stave. ''We've got to work on fixing that.''
After a season-opening loss to LSU, the final score of each of the successive games appears to indicate that the Badgers won convincingly. Yet in each of those games, Wisconsin needed a huge second-half effort to pull away.
Wisconsin defeated Western Illinois 37-3, but led only 9-3 at halftime. The Badgers then routed Bowling Green 68-17, rushing for a Big Ten-record 644 yards, but were up just 14-10 after one quarter. Last Saturday, the heavily favored Badgers pulled away from a 3-all halftime tie to defeat South Florida 27-10.
The first half against South Florida was a microcosm of the early offensive inconsistencies that have plagued the Badgers.
On their opening possession, Melvin Gordon's 55-yard run was negated by offsetting penalties. On the next possession, McEvoy completed just two of six passes, including a pair of incompletions after a first down at the Bulls 11-yard line, as Wisconsin settled for a field goal.
''I think every game has one or two plays that you think you could have had. I think there's one or two that I left on the field,'' said McEvoy, who is playing with an inexperienced receiving corps. ''We had some penalties that were hurting us. It comes with the game. We've just got to stay focused and try to fix those problems and get on the board early and get ahead.''
Gordon, mentioned as a preseason Heisman Trophy hopeful, is averaging 159.8 yards per game and 7.8 yards per carry. He has helped jump-start the Badgers' second-half efforts, averaging 38.3 yards on his first carry after halftime.
When Western Illinois stacked the line of scrimmage to stop the run, McEvoy completed 23 of 28 passes for 283 yards and three short touchdown passes. However, he has struggled passing in the other three games.
''There's some opportunities to get Tanner involved in high-percentage throws hopefully early on, and that's something that we'll look at and we'll see,'' Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said.
''And, again, I'm not an offensive guru or a quarterback guru, but our staff is working hard at it and so is Tanner to get early success and sustain drives and don't shoot ourselves in the foot with maybe it's a holding call, maybe it's a procedure, maybe it's a fumbled snap or whatever it may be, to find a way to sustain and maintain early and get ourselves rolling down the field and hopefully get a score.''
After not playing each other in 2011 and 2012, Wisconsin defeated Northwestern 30-6 last season. However, Northwestern has won the last three games at Ryan Field. Two of the Wildcats' last three victories in the series have come against top-20 Wisconsin teams.
In the victory over Penn State, Northwestern (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) held the Nittany Lions to 50 yards rushing on 25 attempts.
''Northwestern is a very good defense,'' Andersen said. ''Longtime defensive coordinator who is very, very sound. Ton of respect the way they line up, the way they play, the techniques that they use in the front end, the techniques that they use in the back end. That's gone on for years.''
McEvoy said the Badgers need to take advantage of whatever opportunities Northwestern presents.
''We've just got to carry over from practice and just be loose in the beginning of the games and just kind of take what the defense gives you and then take it from there,'' McEvoy said. ''That's really all you can do.''