By Arvind Gopalratnam
Who else had déjà vu watching Saturday’s debacle in Evanston? That feeling of getting sucker punched because Northwestern, who on paper should in no way beat Wisconsin on the gridiron, did it again. That feeling of what on earth is this coaching staff thinking? That feeling of where have I seen this before? That feeling of that’s it, this season is pretty much over.
These are feelings I tend to have after every loss, but rarely is it because of the Northwestern Wildcats. And that’s why it was so easy for me to think back to a time when Northwestern humbled the Badgers in similar fashion. That date: Oct 25, 2003.
That season, UW had the high-powered offense of Jim Sorgi, Anthony Davis and Lee Evans putting up video-game numbers on opponents. In fact, leading up to Northwestern, UW had won 4 in a row, accumulated at least 30 points in three straight games and was coming off the night win over No. 3 Ohio State, arguably one of the best wins in school history. There was good reason to believe that the Badgers were capable of ripping off a string wins and potentially earning another Rose Bowl bid. There was some serious momentum.
Then Northwestern happened.
Sorgi and Davis went down in the game. Matt Schabert again stepped in, but Barry Alvarez had him throw the ball 36 times. UW lost that game 16-7, lost 4 of the next 5, and finished the season 7-6 overall, 4-4 in conference. After that single game, the season just spiraled out of control.
Is that what’s going to happen here? That’s up for debate. The offense had begun to click in sustained spurts, led by Melvin Gordon and the patented UW running attack. After Northwestern, it’s all up in the air.
So what is this team? What is Gary Andersen’s vision? Does he want to be a running team or a passing team? Surely he’ll say both, but as presently constructed, this team can’t be both. The coaching staff has to adjust to its personnel and right now it’s being a little too thickheaded to see that it doesn’t have the talent at the QB position to win a contested game.
At the same time, the staff must use these particular kids to the best of their ability. If Tanner McEvoy gives you a dual threat option, why not use his mobility to confuse a defense? But instead, McEvoy has been asked to sit back in the pocket and toss the ball around like he’s Aaron Rodgers. Joel Stave, asked to do the same in his first availability of 2014, was asked to the same, with only marginally better results.
When UW veers away from its traditional blueprint of being a smash-mouth, running team, bad things can happen – especially with this year’s team.
It was hard to believe in 2003 that one loss to Northwestern could derail an entire season, but that's the way it turned out. Maybe it's just as hard to believe that this loss in 2014 could do the same - but what I remember from that 2003 game is what I will recognize here: UW has an identity crisis. The staff has to, quickly, figure out what kind of team this is, where the talent exists, and then exploit it consistently against the competition.
Going forward, it's either the coaches that need to adjust or fans need to adjust our expectations, at least until Andersen's recruits actually start to play. If all things stay the same, be ready for some more painful conference losses.
That feeling of hope, expectation and anticipation surrounding the remainder of the 2014 season? Gone. The only question remaining is whether the Badgers can string together some wins so that they remain relevant with basketball coming up around the corner.