by Richard Branch
Editor's Note: Technical issues delayed the release of this article prior to the Indiana game. Though posted after the Badger's 62-14 victory is was ready for publication prior to the game and has been posted in it's original form.
If you follow us on Twitter (if you don’t already, please do!) you already know of the drama and disruption caused in my life by hurricane Sandy. Trees were down all over the place. I had no power for a week. Toilets were flushed using buckets of water we stored up before the storm. It was like playing a real life version of Oregon Trail with slightly less cholera and dysentery. Nothing like late 80's computer game humor to make your Saturday complete, right? Sadly I wasn’t a bear hunting carpenter or I’d have fixed my wagon and made tracks for the Dalles ASAP.
In short, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time. Not because the temperature dropped below 50 in my house or that the place started to smell like a sewer, but because the Badgers’ were potentially facing as much upheaval on the field as I was in my living room.
This team has been through a lot since limping through their season opener against Northern Iowa. We’ve seen a rare in-season dismissal of a position coach whose pedigree had been gleefully promoted as one of the great hires coming into the season. We’ve seen a highly touted transfer quarterback benched for ineffectiveness having been hyped as the great signal caller who would maintain the elite pedigree the Badgers had cultivated over recent seasons. For whatever reason – poor offensive line play, a one dimensional offense, or another reason yet to be determined, Montee Ball has not been the 1900+ yard, 39 TD machine fans saw power through defenses last season.
Despite all this the 2012 Badgers shaped a team – albiet an imperfect one – with the resources on hand. The coaching staff looked to be molding it into something reasonable if unspectacular.
The defense, the area of major concern in preseason, is performing beyond all expectations; the team has been in every game they’ve played even as the offense has sputtered. Despite big play issues early in the year, the defense is ranked an impressive 16th in the nation in both points allowed and total defense. Chris Borland and Mike Taylor continue to stifle offenses from the linebacker position while Devin Smith continues to show that he is the dominating defensive player his coach talked about in the off season.
Saviors have emerged – though to a lesser degree - on the offensive side of the ball as well. Bart Miller took over an offensive line that two games into the season looked overmatched against both opponents – one from the FBS level - it faced. Whether he returned the line to the “ways of Bostad” or not the unit’s on-field performance has improved every week. While the group is nowhere near the level of the 2010 or 2011 units they no longer look lost on the field as they had early in the year.
Improved offensive output cannot be discussed without touching on the biggest story out of Camp Randall this year: the emergence of Joel Stave. After Danny O’Brien lost the starting job before conference play even started, Joel Stave stepped in and filled the role of starting Wisconsin quarterback quite well. He’s proven to be a sound signal caller who’s kept his team in every game he played thus far. His ability to sell and execute the play action pass has been the only real way defenses have been stretched by the Badger offense all year.
This year’s team was not an elite one by any means but it looked like it has patched together enough of an identity – they put together enough that was “good enough” – to slog through a down B1G conference schedule in respectable fashion.
The formula was simple: the Badgers relied on a grinding ground game to wear down opponents and surprise defenses with big-chunk play action passes against defenses locked in one-on-one coverages keyed to stop the run. Coupled with a stout defense it was a gameplan that allowed Wisconsin to over power weaker opponents and give them a prayer of hanging with an Ohio State, Penn State, or Nebraska.
Though short yardage conversions linger as an issue seemingly without a solution it was enough of an offense to get them through the season in a respectable fashion. In three, four, maybe five years we’d forget how bad the conference was this year and a 9-3 season would look pretty good. We’d fail to recall the glaring weakness in the offense or the chaos that was the kicking game but think back on them as a team that wasn’t all that bad.
William Gholston changed all that.
What little identity the Badgers had forged through an up and down season was destroyed with the snap of Joel Stave’s clavicle. His injury was crushing to the team in a myriad of ways. Stave looked to be on his way to the best game of the season and the lone bright spot for an offense that looked overmatched by the Michigan State defense. The Danny O’Brien-led offense the rest of the way looked anemic and rudderless, reminiscent of what Badger fans saw the first few weeks of the year. The progress made in recent weeks was erased in one play.
The last three games of the regular season will be the most critical stretch of the season. Bret Bielema referred to November as the time when championships are won. Win in Bloomington today and the Badgers are in the B1G championship game. Ohio State and Penn State are the best teams in the division. Convincing wins over both would send a strong message about how this team has improved over the year; backing into Indianapolis with losses to teams ineligible for post season play would be an embarrassment to the Badgers and the conference as a whole.
Wisconsin will have to navigate the deciding weeks of the season with a new quarterback at the helm just learning what it is to be a starter. Curt Phillips has been named the starter this week, the 3rd starting quarterback this season. In what has already been a trying season for coach Bielema and his Badgers are now faced with their toughest challenge.
If Phillips struggles it will be near impossible for the offense to score and even more challenging for the team to win games. This season has already fallen short of expectations but a 6-6 or 7-5 regular season would be a step back for a program looking to jump to the level of the elites.
There is always a reason for optimism of course. Curt Phillips was a highly touted recruit and in competition for the starting job as early as his redshirt freshman season before his well-documented injury problems derailed his career up until now. If there is enough mobility left in his legs and enough experience built up as uber-efficient Scott Tolzien and uber-everything Russell Wilson’s understudy, maybe Phillips can deliver on some of the promise that came with him to Madison all those years ago.
This last stretch of the Badger season is shaping up like a Shakespearean play in a lot of ways. Phillips is the old, hobbled warrior suiting up in his battered armor, grabbing his rusted sword for one last attempt at the on the field glory he thought would be his when he left Tennessee for Wisconsin. All that’s left to be seen is if this play is a tragedy, a comedy of errors, or a heroic epic. Who knows, maybe if we’re lucky - and Phillips get’s his sixth year of eligibility - there’s quarterback competition in 2013.