A long, long time ago – historians refer to it as August – there were whispers in college football circles of a dark horse run for the National Championship by the 2012 Wisconsin Badgers. Even more tempered predictions put the Badgers back in Pasadena for a 3rd straight season. This was a team riding the momentum of two straight Rose Bowl appearances looking to sustain their success.
Then the season started. It began with the Badgers limping past FCS foe Northern Iowa. Optimists dismissed this as opening week rust, but the weight of overly optimistic expectations crashed through the ceiling after the debacle in Corvallis in week 2. Looking for a convincing win to rebound, Wisconsin limped past Utah State by virtue of a shanked last second field goal. They finished the non-conference slate against a UTEP team showing some signs of life but still let an overmatched opponent keep the contest close for too long.
This is not the team it was hyped to be before the season started. Billed as a group needing to work out a few kinks and plug in a few new bodies before smashing through a favorable schedule, the Badgers enter conference play with more questions than answers and an uncertain future.
Long the bedrock of Wisconsin’s program, the offensive line is a shadow of its former self. So poor was their performance it cost Mike Markuson his job 2 games into the season. Bart Miller, formerly a graduate assistant, now coaches the offensive line with the goal of returning to schemes and techniques promoted by his predecessor, Bob Bostad. As decisive a move as any by Bret Bielema in his tenure as head coach, incremental improvement in the UTEP game is a hopeful sign that better things are to come. They have to be if the Badgers are to stay in games against the better programs yet to be played.
Issues of underperformance were not limited to the offensive line. Heralded transfer Danny O’Brien lost his starting job after two and a half games with inconsistent play and ball security issues. The Badgers committed 10 turnovers in 14 games last season; they have 5 already this year (not counting another interception negated by an opponents personal foul).
Joel Stave has looked reasonable in limited playing time selling the play action pass and throwing on the move better than the man he replaced. Still, he is not without questions of his own. A telegraphed interception – plus a second that was dropped by the defender – and a fumble are reminders that Stave is just a redshirt freshman.
He has little time to adjust to his new role; he will be put to the test on Saturday in Lincoln with his first road start in the biggest game of the season to date…and of his life. The quarterback change was the second most decisive move – after the dismissal of Mike Markuson - by Bret Bielema this season. For it to not looked panicked and avoid fingers pointing at the head coach Stave needs to mature into his starting role immediately. Stave will need to be a steady presence if the offense is to improve on its anemic showing thus far.
If the quarterback issue is settled at least in the near term, the Badgers are still searching for answers at wide receiver. While Jared Abbrederis has performed at an high level and looks to be amongst the best wide receivers in the conference, the rest of the unit lacks production.
Creative formations and play calling have been employed to work around this. Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada frequently employs a personnel group of 1 wide receiver (Abbrederis), 2 tight ends/H-Backs (Pedersen and Wozniak), and 2 tailbacks (Ball in the backfield and White or Gordon split out wide). As Fredrick and the rest of the group seem unable to keep defenses from jamming the line against the run White and Gordon are active on the jet sweep to at least stretch oponents sideline-to-sideline.
This worked well against UTEP but it remains to be seen if this can be sustained against a tougher defense in conference. Without a second threat in the receiving corps there may not be enough weapons to open holes for this offense.
The offense has born the brunt of public criticism so far this season, but the defense isn’t without questions of it’s own despite an impressive stat line thus far. The defensive line was the biggest question mark coming into the season and has not been a force to date. Chris Borland’s 3 sacks equal the total for the entire defensive line. The lack of impactful players up front has been addressed for the future but this year’s until looks slow and not particularly athletic.
As a whole, the defense looks eerily similar to last year’s. Without consistent pressure on the quarterback the secondary has to play flawless football. Given the number of big plays surrendered on blown coverages so far that doesn’t seem reasonable to expect. As with 2011, this defense looks vulnerable to better offenses. Unlike last year the Badgers don’t have the ability to go punch for punch with an elite offense of their own.
The Badgers have a lot of questions. They have an offense still looking to forge its identity with a mix of new players and coaches – some thrust into their roles unexpectedly – that have to view their unit as work in progress despite being a third of the way into the season. The defense looks all too familiar in behavior and performance to last year’s. All this and they still haven’t faced the toughest opponents on their schedule.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. While not an elite team, the Badgers could still find their way into the B1G championship game. With Penn State and Ohio State ineligible for the post season and how weak the conference looks overall it’s very reasonable for the Badgers to emerge atop the division (I ‘m not even sure of the name, can we change these yet?) with a 5-3 or even 4-4 record if they beat the right teams. If Wisconsin beats Illinois, Indiana, Penn State, and Purdue (the toughest game most likely) and one victory against Minnesota, Ohio State, or Michigan Sate it’s highly likely they sneak into Indianapolis.
This is a flawed team but if the Badgers sort out some issues, this season could end up far more entertaining than it feels now. Let’s enjoy the ride and hope we see continued improvement throughout the season.