MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The smiles returned to the faces of the Wisconsin Badgers this week, back on the practice field getting ready for a New Year's Day game far away from the arctic cold gripping the Midwest.
They've moved on from the regular season-ending loss to heavy underdog Penn State — but they haven't forgotten about how they lost.
So a big focus for 19th-ranked Wisconsin over the next few weeks of practices is improving the passing game to make opponents pay for stacking the box to stop 1,300-yard rushers Melvin Gordon and James White.
"Defenses are ganging up on us more so than they have all year long," coach Gary Andersen said this week. "To get rid of that is to complete some balls down the field and cause some issues."
Working on footwork and gaining consistency is a focus for quarterback Joel Stave as Wisconsin prepares for No. 8 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Fla. This might be a crucial few weeks for Stave to get a head start on a potential quarterback competition in 2014.
The Badgers (9-3) are built to succeed on offense by running the ball. At their best, they're then able to go downfield on play-action passes to top receiver Jared Abbrederis, and soften the middle with tight end Jacob Pedersen.
The 31-24 loss to the Nittany Lions stopped that strategy cold. Penn State stacked the box and limited Gordon and White from hitting signature big plays. A high ankle sprain that hampered sophomore left tackle Tyler Marz didn't help.
Junior Dallas Lewallen has missed time at center with a leg injury, and the Badgers started redshirt freshman Dan Voltz in his place the final four games of the regular season.
Stave threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns, but also had three interceptions. The sophomore has had a choppy year in his first full season as the starter.
Stave has shown an ability to hit Abbrederis deep and then miss open receivers on short to intermediate routes on the next series. Pocket awareness and poise were also on the to-do list for Stave from offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who called his starting quarterback a "conscientious worker" who has shown improvement through the year.