by Maxwell Brusky
Alright folks, the 2013 season is finally here! You can watch some games on Thursday night, even some Big Ten games (Indiana and Minnesota), but this blog is all about Wisconsin, who opens against second-season MAC team UMass at 11:00 local time at Camp Randall this Saturday. Good thing, too – having seen Northern Illinois destroy UMass in DeKalb last year eight games into the season, the Badgers are fortunate that they take the field with so many changes to work through against one FBS’s weakest teams.
So, about those changes. When last we saw the Badgers play, it was in a tough Rose Bowl loss against a very good Stanford team. This came after a rollercoaster 8-5 regular season that began with Montee Ball getting trucked and concussed by a group of street punks on the eve of fall camp and ended with consecutive overtime losses to the two defaulting teams ahead of them in the Leaders Division. The Badgers made it to Pasadena by rolling over Nebraska in the title game, but got there without their seven-year head coach Bret Bielema, who bolted two days after the title game to Arkansas and the SEC.
With new coach Gary Andersen watching from the sidelines and program patriarch coaching the team one last time, the Badgers gave no. 6 and red hot Stanford all it could handle but came up short for the third time in three years.
With all that behind them and with the fresh energy of a new coach and a new season, the Badgers enter 2013 with expectations that the team will continue to achieve at the level they have for about the last decade, despite a new coach and new staff. UW has positional questions, but many believe if those can be overcome and the new coaching transition is seamless enough, the only thing standing between the team and fourth consecutive title shot is the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Big Ten’s sole national title contender whose coach hasn’t lost a game with them yet.
With a manageable schedule featuring three real tough games – at Arizona State, at Ohio State, and vs. Northwestern – and a couple moderately tough games – at Iowa, home against BYU (a team Andersen knows a thing or two about) in November – I wouldn’t say the mainstream expectations are unreasonable. A few national commentators have even pegged the Badgers as a “sleeper” or “underrated” team – it's also reasonable to think that if they can take out Ohio State in Columbus, the door will almost certainly be wide open to another run for the Roses.
So, what does this year’s Wisconsin team look like? Here’s some of my thoughts.
While UW loses several important players from last season – Montee Ball, Travis Frederick, Rick Wagner, Mike Taylor, Shelton Johnson, Marcus Cromartie and Devin Smith – it returns the highest number of seniors in conference, including those at the core of the 2013 team: Chris Borland, Beau Allen, Brendan Kelly, Ethan Hemer, Ethan Armstrong, Tyler Dippel and Dezmen Southward return on defense, and James White, Jared Abbrederis, Jacob Pedersen and Ryan Groy return on offense. Borland, Abbrederis and Pedersen are pre-season All-Americans to many, if not most. Southward, especially if his beastly Rose Bowl performance is any indication, may contend for All-American honors as well.
Outside of the seniors, there’s several juniors and underclassmen that will contribute in major roles, especially Melvin Gordon, Derek Watt and punter Drew Meyer. Less well-known to fans are Derek Landisch, Rob Havenstein, Kyle Costigan, Sam Arneson, and Darius Hillary. Landisch won a primary starting inside linebacker spot out of fall camp and Arneson can be considered the number two tight end; their profiles will increase this year. Havenstein and Costigan, when he returns from injury, are two of the offensive line’s three returning starters. Hillary will be the starting nickel back, but may well see snaps as a starting cornerback at some point.
This is the first year in several where UW hasn’t featured a pre-season All-American in its offensive line and it may show. Against good defenses last year, the line wasn’t as effective in year’s past, and even with three returning starters, there is no real “star.” Depth may be a concern, too, although some of that was developed with a finally healthy Dallas Lewallen filling in at center while projected starter redshirt freshman Dan Voltz has been out for an extended period during camp. The same goes for Zac Matthias, who remains locked in a battle for starting time at right guard with the injured Costigan, who’s been out for all of fall camp, and for Tyler Marz, the erstwhile Barge-man who’s now listed as the starting left tackle in place of Groy, who moved back to left guard when Lewallen moved to center. There’s talent there, but if any of the experienced linemen are lost, the offense is likely to be slowed.
A much-discussed bag of concerns is the wide receivers group beyond Abbrederis. Other than redshirt freshman walk-on Alex Erickson – and potentially Tanner McEvoy – the cast of characters remains largely the same. Jordan Fredrick is again the other starter and Kenzel Doe hasn’t been shy about wanting more than just the slot role. Beyond them, A.J. Jordan, Reggie Love and Chase Hammond are still on the roster (Hammond and Love missed most of fall camp with injuries and Jordan was invisible), and true freshman Rob Wheelwright, highly touted from Columbus, Ohio, doesn’t appear slated for a redshirt. Erickson look intriguing (especially in light of fellow walk-on stories Abbrederis and Luke Swan from times past) and we may see him frequently in these first two games. One would think Fredrick and Doe have improved, but UW will need another deep threat to complement Abbrederis if we’re to see a return to the balanced attack of 2009-2011.
Then there’s the replacement of three of four starting defensive backs, where Southward is the only one returning. Newly minted starters Michael Caputo (free safety) and Peniel Jean (cornerback) were on the field plenty in 2012, as was Hillary (mostly as the nickel), but they’re the starters now – along with a true freshman, Sojourn Shelton, who’s looked pretty good in both spring and fall camp, but is obviously unproven. We’ll likely have good handle on the new secondary only after Game 3, when UW plays pass-happy and talented Arizona State in Tempe. The secondary’s performance will be critical with the change of defensive scheme.
UW’s defense won’t look like any UW defense in the last twenty or so years. “Bend, but don’t break” is gone as Gary Andersen and his defensive coordinator Dave Aranda have installed a scheme featuring odd-man fronts (though not exclusively) and unpredictable pressure on the line of scrimmage and the quarterback. Passive containment is now replaced by aggression. It should be fun to watch so long as the big plays are kept to a minimum and the secondary can hold up.
Beau Allen will become the nose guard while most of the tackles will move to end. UW appears to be stacked with linebackers made for the scheme with both returning and incoming players. Look for returning, young players Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel to contribute, along with true frosh Alec James and Leon Jacobs, especially, who have impressed. Southward will likely be a good fit for this defense but, of course, it’s difficult to project how the new group of defensive backs will perform.
On offense, the changes don’t look like they’ll be nearly as extensive; what you saw in 2012 is likely to be pretty similar to what you’ll see in 2013 except with perhaps a more effective quarterback running it. White, Gordon and true freshman Corey Clement should keep UW’s running game going at its expected pace and although the wide receiver group is not imposing beyond the no. 1 guy, there’s a whole bunch of quality tight ends. Even with the concerns discussed earlier, UW’s offensive line should be adequate, and maybe even good, if it stays relatively healthy - run blocking should be good, and if the pass protection is improved, UW's offense can go well past last year's production.
Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig look like they will keep most of UW’s offensive staples – power running, heavy use of multiple tight ends, and run/pass balance – in place. Andersen doesn’t quite have the more mobile quarterback he’s favored, but Ludwig comes with a good track record for developing college quarterbacks. With Stave as the starter and Phillips the primary back-up, Andersen probably can’t do as much with the position as he would like, but it’s been well-documented that we’ll see some option plays during the season (no matter who runs them – it could be McEvoy, Phillips or even Stave). Stave has a strong arm, which probably won him the job, and I think he’s more mobile than he’s given credit for, but he’s not like the recruits Andersen’s already hauled in for 2014 (DJ Gillins) and 2015 (Austin Kafentzis).
Obviously, here’s the biggest overall change. Other than running backs coach Thomas Hammock and cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland, every coach on the sideline or in the booth will be new. While in the big picture, UW should continue with Andersen the winning ways of what of truly have been halcyon days under Alvarez and Bielema, the Rose Bowl represents the end of an era. The team was built by Bielema and played his style of football, even if he wasn’t on the sideline.
Large portions of the Wisconsin fanbase was more than happy when Bielema left for Arkansas – and make no mistake, his leaving was abrupt and unexpected; many would say rude or worse – and to many, Andersen is a breath of fresh air. To those fans, Andersen is the adult who’s now behind the wheel. He’s been approachable and generous with his time. He’s even been much more open, with far more public access to practices than there has ever been, certainly in the latter-day world of portable video and social media.
The players have taken to him (he’s also the guy who called every one of his players at Utah State) and his coaching staff appears to be a cohesive and focused group. He’s already done a great deal, successfully, to win the confidence of boosters, community groups and Wisconsin’s high school coaches. So far, he’s conveyed a compelling sense that success is a virtual certainty if his basic tenets of work, dedication, smarts, and good (university) citizenship are closely followed but he’s consistently tempered all that with a good-natured, Wisconsin-y blend of levity, humor and omnipresent and widely varied music.
Andersen re-built Utah State from a perennial mid-major doormat to a conference champ that sported a defense ranked in the top ten nationally in several categories and should have taken down UW at Camp Randall. He doesn’t have to rebuild at UW, he only has to maintain it. He does, however, now have resources that he didn’t have in Logan: sheer largesse, access to better players, and membership in a major conference. His performance, of course, can’t be evaluated until the games are played, but it sure “feels” like Alvarez made an excellent choice. Indeed, UW playing for all the marbles at some point actually doesn’t feel like it’s out of the question.
Bielema’s stewardship of the program will likely continue to be under-appreciated largely because of his personality but also because of his less than stellar record in big games and against teams like Ohio State. Even with the undeniable success, though, is anyone going to miss that feeling that the Badgers were seemingly always on the brink of disaster against good teams? Going to miss that confounded, blank look on his face when things weren’t going his way on the field? Going to miss his usually hasty, sometimes awkward, and generally odd diction in public appearances?
If Andersen doesn’t win as consistently, fans might look back on it as a bargain, as of right now, Andersen is for many and maybe most a welcome change from the guy who up and left good’ ole Wisconsin for Arkansas to play for national championships and because his old school couldn’t or wouldn’t help him retain his assistant coaches. Whatever the final analysis might be, that’s all gone now and a new era has begun.
Again, UW’s schedule isn’t that daunting and by opening with games against UMass and Tennessee Tech, there’s an opportunity to get the systems up and running before playing Arizona State and then Purdue to open conference play. This UW team, even with new coach Andersen at the helm, can get to the post-season with one loss (remember Bielema’s first season?), but a 9-3 regular season seems more likely. Anything like last season would be a shock, but then again, last season itself was a shock. This time around, though, there’s at least an experienced quarterback scheduled and expected to remain through the season – last year’s quarterback issues can’t be underestimated.
Putting on the field what Bielema thought would be his best team, and even with the new head coach and staff, UW should find itself in Florida on New Year’s Day. Anything short of that will be surprising, but I’m guessing there will have been a good reason or the adjustment for a new head coach will be too great - that seems highly unlikely. Anything better than that will be a bonus.
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