Square Pegs

by Richard Branch 

The arrival of a new head football coach causes a reaction amongst a fan base that doesn’t seem to occur in many other sports.  Usually stepping into a situation that needs fixing, the new hire is treated like a football-Messiah; he can make no mistakes.  Then the team starts playing games and decisions get questioned, personnel criticized, and expectations return to earth. 

This cycle is playing out in Fayetteville as you read this.  Bret Bielema could do no wrong as the Razorbacks jumped out to a 3-0 start to the season, but after three subsequent losses the fan base has moved onto next year, laments the lack of quality in their wide receiving corps (sound familiar?), and finally – the link is necessary just to prove it’s not made up – pining for admission to the Big 12.  The bloom is off the rose.

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For Gary Andersen, despite building nearly universal goodwill with dominating performances to open the season, and adding to it in how he handled the debacle that was the end of the Arizona State game, chinks in the armor started to show after the Ohio State loss.  A loss to Northwestern would put the Badgers at a 3-3 mark – identical to the Razorbacks – halfway through the season. Naysayers will most definitely emerge should the Badgers stumble against the Wildcats. 

Before his departure, Bielema made numerous references to this 2013 team potentially being the best one he ever had as head coach.  So what gives? Even with a win Saturday the Badgers at 4-2 will be an unremarkable 4-2 and looking up at a berth in the B1G Championship game.  Why can’t the coach that many people feel the Badgers “traded up” when he was hired make a bigger splash in his debut season in Madison?

The answer is simple.  It’s a matter of square pegs and round holes.  Andersen is working with an inherited roster with skill sets that don’t always match how he wants his team to play.  What may have worked for Bielema may not work for Gary Andersen and what he wants to do with his team.  As a result, Andersen is forced to work around the limitations of his players as best he can to sometimes less than stellar results.

The squarest peg of them all is the most visible player on the team: the quarterback.  Right from his introductory press conference, Andersen has stated his preference for a mobile quarterback who can threaten a defense with both his arm and his legs.  Joel Stave is not that player. Andersen gets an average passer (or pick your own ‘not great but not awful’ adjective here) who can’t make up for his shortcomings with his feet.  Based on his track record, Andersen will not allow that to continue for long.

The wide receiving corps is similarly limiting to his offense.  Andersen’s offenses in Logan were predicated on stretching defenses by employing multiple receivers who could stretch their opponents vertically, allowing his quarterback and running backs more space to work against less crowded defensive fronts.  Outside of Jared Abbrederis, this team appears to lack receivers who can challenge defenses in any meaningful fashion. 

Andersen’s defense has limitations as well.  Andersen wants his defense pressuring the offense up front while physical defensive backs bottle up receivers in tight man coverage.  While the veteran-laden front seven has shown the ability to get to the quarterback at times.  The secondary has been challenged.

Matching up in single coverage has been a tough adjustment for players recruited for their suitability to keep the play in front of them in zone coverage.  The need was such that Andersen converted Tanner McEvoy – brought in as a quarterback – into a safety to inject needed physicality and playmaking ability into the secondary.

The team’s shortcomings were visible in both losses thus far in the season.  The rushing attack was largely bottled up by Ohio State.  The offense, forced out of its comfort zone committed numerous procedural penalties, costing the team points and a potential victory.  In Tempe, the secondary was no match for Arizona State’s receivers in single coverage, committing multiple pass interference penalties to avoid giving up huge gains.  The passing game and secondary were known issues before the season started, but scheme has pushed this issue to the forefront even more.

Despite these limitations, Badger fans should be heartened by Andersen’s early efforts to reshape his roster.  Andersen brought in a handful of recruits after his hire in December.  Recruited exclusively by the new staff, the aforementioned McEvoy, along with Jakarrie Washington, Leon Jacobs, and T.J. Reynard are making contributions early in their Wisconsin careers after leapfrogging veteran players on the roster. 

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With the 2014 recruiting cycle well under way, the Badgers have the potential to make an even bigger splash.  When considering the long term future of the Badgers, more important than the game against Northwestern is the contest for the hearts and minds of some highly talented teenagers on the Badger sideline Saturday. 

Andersen is bringing in what is arguably the most gifted group of recruits to ever visit Madison in a single weekend.  Hosting a half dozen players rated at the four star level or better – highlighted by one of the nation’s highest rated running backs – the new staff is looking to upgrade the talent on the team to a heights heretofore unseen. 

Enjoy the rest of the 2013 season.  Highlighting the limitations of the current team or focusing on recruits who won’t make an impact on the field for a year or more isn’t meant to take attention away from what remains on this year’s docket.  That’s not the point here.  This team looks very much like a nine win team that cruises into a late December bowl; that should be enjoyed and appreciated in its own right.  The goal is only to point out that what’s being watched on the field isn’t a Gary Andersen finished product. 

All signs are encouraging.  Even with its issues, the on the field product is still of a high quality. Based on the memory of so many recent close defeats, if nothing else Badger fans should be encouraged with Andersen has coached in these critical situations.  He appears to have avoided the problem of burning through his timeouts, something that plagued his predecessor in his time in Madison.  If that problem follows Bielema to the SEC, it will be interesting to see what they write about him on those message boards then.