I’ve been fighting the temptation for weeks. The Badger faithful has loudly – and rightly so – proclaimed their dissatisfaction with the quality of play so far this season. The majority put the blame squarely on the coaching staff. I pushed back against this in the past. I counseled patience while the coaching staff adjusted to working together and pressed forward re-establishing the offense’s identity.
The team is now five games into the season and looks little improved from the team that limped past Northern Iowa on Labor Day weekend. It’s time. The coaching staff has to be held accountable for the team’s performance and lack of improvement to date. What for the first few weeks appeared to be team working through coaching transition can only be described as a group lacking a coherent vision or a mutual understanding of who they are as a football team.
The offense thus far has been a shadow of what it was hoped to be. Viewed as the team’s strength before the season began, the Badgers are 99th in scoring offense (tied with this week’s opponent Illinois…umm…hooray?) and a jarring 98th in rushing offense.
It has been discussed here and elsewhere aplenty but the offensive line has yet to put forth a consistent performance for an entire game. Since the firing of Mike Markuson there have been flashes here and there but we’ve yet to see a good performance for 60 minutes
The issues extend beyond offensive line play, however. Inconsistent play calling is a major contributor to the offense’s woes. In the season opener against Northern Iowa, Montee Ball carried the ball 32 times. The following week against Oregon State he was down to 15. Against Utah State he yo-yoed back up to 37 rushes. Last week against Nebraska he again shouldered the load with 32 carries. It’s clear Canada wants Ball as an integral piece of his offense but can’t settle on that “just right” number of carries. 15 carries is certainly too few but 30+ plus carries puts a lot of stress on the body over the course of a season. Ball has carried the ball at least 30 times three times already this season; that equals the number of times he did that in all of 2011. He will wear down long before the season ends if the Badgers continue to rely on him so heavily.
The use of Melvin Gordon and James White is just as clouded. It was promised during the preseason that White and Gordon would play a large part in the offense and shoulder some of the load. Gordon didn’t get his first carry until the 3rd game of the season. After a breakout performance against UTEP, Gordon had only two carries against Nebraska. White is much the same story. After 9 carries in the season opener he’s been used only sparingly and in no consistent manner. Against Nebraska he had just one carry on a busted play. Bret Bielema said this week they need to get all three running backs on schedule to properly distribute carries and ensure consistent use. It seems a little late to be coming to this realization now.
Playcalling issues aren’t limited to the ground game. In the first half the offense had great success against Nebraska using the play action pass. For reasons unknown it was largely deserted in the disastrous second half - despite success on the plays when it was employed. Instead, Montee Ball was repeatedly run into the middle of the Nebraska defense to little effect. This all points to an offense that is uncertain of who they are or what they need to do to succeed.
This uncertainty extends beyond playcalling. Changes in personnel have been an unavoidable part of this team so far. The most attention getting change has been at quarterback. Danny O’Brien (we can drop the moniker “heralded transfer” now right?) was benched halfway through the Utah State game in favor of former walk-on and redshirt freshman Joel Stave. Stave has made mistakes that can be chalked up to inexperience but has performed admirably overall and has been more secure with the ball than Danny O’Brien. Most impressively, he did not look at all rattled by the setting in Lincoln during his first road start as Badger signal caller. He was named offensive MVP for the Nebraska game due to his steady performance.
All of this makes the decision to utilize Danny O’Brien on the last drive against Nebraska that much more confusing. A change at quarterback disrupts the rhythm of the offense. Taking a quarterback who normally works with the no. 2 offense and parachuting him into a critical situation with a hostile road crowd opens the door for miscommunication. The fumble on 4th and 1 (O’Brien thought he was handing off, Ball correctly anticipated a bootleg) proves the point and lost the game.
The changes at kicker tell much the same story. The Badger’s initial depth chart in fall camp had Kyle French handling kickoffs with Jack Russell handling field goals and extra points. By the season opener French had won both jobs. 3 games into the season French was benched in favor of Russell. After costing the Badgers 4 points in their 3-point loss to Nebraska (and a badly shanked field goal attempt against UTEP the week before) Russell is now limited to kickoffs with French again kicking for points. Over the course of 5 games the two kickers have reversed roles from what was anticipated in fall camp.
If the Badgers were performing well and playing winning football this could all be explained away as a coaching staff tweaking personnel in order to give their team the best opportunity for a victory. In this case however, none of these changes have improved the quality of play on the field. This offense doesn’t look much better than the one that started the season. Turnovers have been addressed to some degree but points are still hard to come by. Some regression from last season was reasonable to expect but sinking to the levels they are at now was unthinkable.
Combining inconsistent, erratic playcalling and what feels like a constant shuffle of players in and out of starting roles – I’ve kept this short, I didn’t even mention Robbie Burge to tight end this week (seriously?!) – has the Badgers looking like a team in chaos. Optimists point to past seasons where the Badgers started slow but righted the ship and finished with successful seasons. There is a difference with this team compared to those in the past. They had an identity and knew who they were. This year’s Badger squad is still unsure of what they want to do with the ball, how they want to do it, or who they will do it with.
If this season continues without improvement, this will be a significant black mark on Bret Bielema’s tenure at Wisconsin. While the bitterness and disappointment of a team grossly underperforming expectations has thrust some fans off the deep end, there is room for reasonable criticism of what the coaches are doing. The coaches seem to be grasping for anything, any small tweak or adjustment, to turn this group back into the conference bully they’ve been the past few seasons.
This group isn’t going to do that. The best approach at this point is to try and foster growth and improvement through greater stability. Call Melvin Gordon the most physically gifted running back you’ve ever had? Give him the ball more than twice in your conference opener after a breakout rushing performance. Pull the trigger and make Joel Stave your starting quarterback? Then don’t yank him on a final drive of the game for a “2-minute specialist”.
Early in the season offensive woes were blamed on inept offensive line play. We saw how that worked out for Mike Markuson. The mess that is the Wisconsin offense now has one man in its crosshairs. Matt Canada has to be on a pretty short leash. Bret Bielema climbed the coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball but his best teams in Madison were known for their offensive pedigree. Bielema needs his offense to return to form if he is to be viewed as a good – dare I say great – head coach rather than a lucky one who benefited from a gifted offensive staff that has since left for greener pastures. If Canada cannot right the ship by season’s end his stay in Madison may be very short.
Let’s be clear on one thing: the Badger head coach is in no way shape or form on the hot seat nor will he be by season’s end. It’s ridiculous to even suggest given what he’s accomplished with the team. We have a long way to go before reasonable observers can even broach that subject.
What has been shown thus far is a team and a coaching staff that hasn’t learned from their missteps. This is where coach Bielema has made mistakes. He needs to stop with constant tweaking and steady this team. All of this flailing around is what I imagine a giant squid looks like when it’s hauled onto a fishing boat. As fans we have a right to criticize how this looks and the leadership provided. We have a right to be disappointed. This is not the team it was supposed to be.
All we can do however is let the season play out and see where it goes. If things are corrected the hubbub will die down and football will return to normal. If not, who knows. Anybody know if Bob Bostad would be up for a coordinator job? Just sayin’…