Understanding what the season was by looking at what we thought it would be
by Rich Branch
As Curt Phillips’ pass was intercepted in the final minutes of the Rose Bowl, the last glimmers of preseason expectations were crushed under the realities of a disappointing campaign. 2012 did not end the way it was predicted in August. This Badger team was supposed to be a top-level team with enough talent sprinkled throughout the roster to absorb the loss of Russell Wilson, and blast through the B1G en route to Rose Bowl redemption.
Even the surprising departure of a competent if not universally embraced head coach was shrugged off with the much-ballyhooed return of Barry Alvarez to the sidelines. The Old Skipper had arrived in the 11th hour to save the day. The ship would be righted and the season, despite many bumps along the way, would end as it was supposed to from the start.
That never happened.
Much ink has been spilled trying to decipher the 2012 Badgers. It’s unclear what to make of it or how to give it meaning. Were they a good team with bad luck in a series of close losses, or simply a mediocre 7-5 team that never performed to the level expected?
Perhaps the way to find the answer is by looking at what we thought the season was going to be like as compared to what actually happened on the field. Contrasting our own expectations on this site – my Breakout Players (parts one and two) and Season Preview – to what actually happened over the season is almost comical. But of greater value is to look at the assumptions that went into those predictions as they help elucidate what this team really was.
This season’s most enigmatic problem was the play of the offensive line and the abrupt termination of Mike Markuson. The Wisconsin line was never what many assumed it would be. I, like others, simply looked for more of the same:
"Despite losing 3 solid to exceptional starters from the line last year the Badgers will do what they always do: reload and march out to battle. Ricky Wagner and Rob Havenstein will anchor the tackle position while the line imposes their will on their opponents. Offensive production will not lack as a result of the line’s effectiveness. 2012 might be the strongest combination of offensive line and running backs since the Alvarez/Bielema era."
The group described in the last paragraph never materialized. Very few “wills” were imposed on anyone. Even after the promotion of Bart Miller the team still struggled to move the ball with any regularity against better defenses. The Indianas and Purdues of the world were simply run over, but against Michigan State and Ohio State (far from an elite defense this year) the team struggled to score points as the offensive line failed to generate a consistent push.
If not for the Markuson debacle, the surprisingly short Danny O’Brien Era in Madison would have been the biggest narrative of the year. Leading into fall camp, we all thought we’d seen this story before. The ACC transfer quarterback arrives as the campus savior, taking control of the offense, keeping the gears of the scoring machine well greased. It was simply too perfect. The assumptions made about his productivity were based off this fallacy:
"In short Danny O’Brien is a more physically gifted Scott Tolzien. Given the jump in production Wilson made from NC State to Wisconsin it’s reasonable to expect O’Brien to put up 2,600 yards with 22TDs and 8INTs. He won’t have the “sex appeal” of a Wilson but will thrive against defenses keyed to stopping the run. Maybe not the answer Badger fans want to hear but Tolzien’s teams put up a LOT of points in his time as a starter (36.4 ppg between 2009-10) which O’Brien and his teammates should be able to replicate without issue."
What I thought was a reasoned, reeled-in prediction now looks ridiculous. O’Brien never seemed comfortable with the offense and after losing his starting job fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Even after the injury to Stave he was again passed over in favor of the physically inferior if less mistake-prone Curt Phillips.
By season’s end, the Badgers quarterbacks did come close to the passing yards predicted (Stave, O’Brien, and Phillips combined for 2,167 yards) but only managed 14TDs against 6INTs. The limited passing attack doomed this offense to mediocrity.
There is more blame to spread around. Outside of Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin’s receivers were simply not up to the task this season regardless of who was under center. With the departure of Nick Toon, Jeff Duckworth looked primed to step in to the starting role using his near-legendary catch in the 2011 B1G championship game as a springboard for bigger and better things in 2012.
My initial expectations for Duckworth: he will have "35-40 catches and 500-600 yards…[and] keeps defenses off-balance in the pass game and the Badger offense humming." That clearly did not pan out. Duckworth had 7 catches against Oregon State and then didn’t touch the ball again until November. No one, let alone Duckworth, ever emerged as the 2nd threat in the passing game. Excluding Abbrederis, the entire receiving corps only had 47 catches on the season. A mix of Jordan Frederick, Kenzel Doe, and Chase Hammond all had opportunities for playing time but never did enough to earn consistent playing time.
Jacob Pedersen also came up short of lofty, if more well founded, expectations this year. A surprising pick as First Team All B1G, Pedersen saw his statistics actually go down year over year, as he seemed to disappear for stretches of games. Pedersen looked ready to become a feature of the Badger offense, taking the mantle of Wisconsin tight end as his own. Even worse, the tight ends as a whole were a shell of their former selves in the ground game. Their missed assignments were the frequent cause of blown run plays.
A lack of cohesion and a loss of offensive identity destroyed Wisconsin’s chances for a great season. Danny O’Brien arrived in the hopes of seamlessly slotting into the offense the way Russell Wilson did it in 2011. It’s not clear that situation is reserved for the very special players. Not every quarterback is plug and play. But O’Brien’s struggles were only a sidenote, a distraction, from the bigger issue the team faced throughout the season.
Whether it was the termination of Markuson, the supposed Bielema-Canada power struggle or simply a coaching staff with a large influx of new people learning to work together, Bielema’s team never found its core. It’s actually something I identified in my season preview (nice to get something sort of right!) but never thought would be as severe as it was:
"Arguably the most critical part of preventing a…backslide will be managing new coaching transitions. Coach Bielema has more first year coaches on his staff than returning ones. This disturbing lack of continuity – especially on offense – will be hard to overcome. Preventing a decline from the offensive juggernaut that was the Paul Chryst-led offense of recent seasons will be Bielema’s greatest challenge for 2012."
If his public statements are to be believed, the stresses of constant coaching transition played a major part in what drove Bret Bielema out of Madison. In his mind, a very good season defensively was wasted due to the wholesale exodus of his offensive staff that he could not retain or replace with people of comparable talent. It wasn’t something he wanted to have to go through again.
It’s easy for fans to look at 2012 as a wasted season too. This was not a fun few months. This team never played like it was supposed to. In the end there is reason for optimism. There is hope that this was just a transitional year, and not simply one where the team fell flat.
This team stands in sharp contrast to the last Badger team that significantly underperformed. The 2008 squad was a seven game winner in the regular season as well but they ended their season in getting blown out of a Citrus Bowl they looked completely disinterested in.
This Badger team - despite a string of heartbreaking losses – never stopped fighting. Even with the off-field distractions between the B1G championship game and the Rose Bowl, the Badgers came to play in Pasadena. If any team had an excuse to lay down in a bowl game this Badger team had one. They never did. This group had been through a season full of change and turmoil but it never sapped their will to compete. Ironically, the Rose Bowl turned out to be the most competitive BCS game.
No doubt returning players face more transition as they adjust to life under Gary Andersen and a new batch of coaches. Andersen has made efforts to build a coaching staff made up of people he has worked with and with one another in the past. That should limit the transition to coach-to-player and not coach-to-coach.
With a bevy of returning seniors, early indications are that 2013 could well be a bounce back season. For these players, bouncing back has been what they’ve done all year even when the payoff hasn’t been there. Let’s hope they can do it again next year.
I wouldn’t bet against it.