by Andrew Schaaf
August and September were interesting months for Badger fans. After the high drama during and after the LSU game, we were left with 3 teams the Badgers had to blow out, and if they didn’t blow them out people would start calling for a new coach. Making judgments on the team after these 4 games is difficult. I love looking at stats and analyzing numbers, but that’s pointless right now: it’s really all subjective judgments from people like me who probably aren’t qualified to subjectively judge.
That doesn’t stop me of course. The week before the Big Ten opener is a good time to take an inventory of where the team is at and see who which position groups have looked better, worse or just about how we thought.
Linebackers - Most expected at least some drop-off here with the departure of Chris Borland and a bunch of other upperclassmen, and so far it hasn’t happened. Derek Landisch has taken the leap and started the year really strong. Vince Biegel seems like an upgrade from last year’s version, and Joe Schobert and Marcus Trotter have both brought strong, if not spectacular contributions.
It’s hard to place too much value in stats with just a small sample against mostly bad competition, but opponents are averaging 2.76 per carry on the ground this year. With a so-so defensive line, a lot of credit has to go to this group. It certainly is a good sign going into Big Ten play.
Tight Ends - This was a big unknown coming into the year. They certainly had bodies but were short on experience. After the non-conference slate, I think you can call the position a strength. Sam Arneson has gotten himself in Tanner McEvoy’s inner circle and looks great. Troy Fumagalli and Austin Traylor have also looked good for the most part when they’ve gotten chances in the passing game and both have brought solid run blocking.
Special Teams - Rafael Gaglianone had a lot of hype coming into the year, and while he has missed an extra point and a FG, he's looked pretty solid overall. Heck, nailing a 50 yarder against LSU is enough to put him in the "exceeded expectations" category. Both coverage units have been solid and Andrew Endicott has been better than last year on kickoffs.
The only question mark is Drew Meyer, who hasn't gotten off to a great start, but overall the Special Teams units have occasionally been a strength and rarely a source of stress, and I'll take that every single year.
Running Back - Expectations were sky high, so we’re at the point where the RB position has over 1,000 yards in 4 games and simply has just met expectations. Gordon has been incredible, even with some rough patches and Corey Clement has been solid. Plus, while we thought we’d be seeing a freshman RB, converted defensive back and walk-on RS sophomore Dare Ogunbowale has filled the (critical) garbage time back role with some success. We’re truly spoiled.
Defensive Line - Despite the loss of their best player in Warren Herring, they’ve been able to help effectively shut down opponents’ run games. There are still struggles in the pass rush, but we sort of expected that coming in. Chikwe Obasih and Alec James look to have very bright futures at Wisconsin, Konrad Zagzebewski is a rock against the run, and James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg, and Jake Keefer look like they belong (some with more potential than others) even if they’re “just guys” right now. Without Herring, it remains a low ceiling/high floor group production-wise.
Secondary - I’ll just put them here because I have zero idea how good this group is. The passing ability of the QBs the Badgers have faced has been . . . well, underwhelming to put it nicely. True freshman Lubern Figaro has really struggled at times, but shows potential for improvement. Michael Caputo is the guy we thought he was. I’m keeping an eye on Shelton in upcoming games: Bowling Green and South Florida seemed to seek him out on occasion and he’s gotten beat more times than I’m sure he’s OK with. He’s also playing further and further off the line pre-snap, so the confidence issue may be worth watching. Darius Hillary and Devin Gaulden haven’t really been challenged at this point, but also haven’t stuck out with bad plays.
Offensive Line - You can excuse the first half of the Western Illinois games as being caught off-guard by a team stacking the box (I did), but the repeat performance for much of the South Florida game raised a lot of red flags. The blown assignments and penalties were difficult to watch, and I’m struggling to come up with a worse stretch of offensive line play by a Badger team in a while. Losing Ryan Groy didn’t seem like that big a deal, and Dan Voltz had played well in limited time last season, but perhaps we underestimated these points. Voltz has struggled, and the line has suffered when executing plays calling for pulling linemen, something at which Groy was the best of his group.
Though they’ve struggled more than we thought, there’s still plenty of room for optimism. The parts are there, it seems more like a matter of execution. If the linemen were able to blow open big running lanes against LSU, which they did, there’s no reason they can’t do the same against weaker Big Ten defenses. Potential is there, but we’re also at the point where we can’t, oddly for Wisconsin, take good offensive line play for granted.
Wide Receivers - There’s really not a whole lot to write because there is so little involvement from WRs. Erickson has been a solid performer - in my preview I was excited for him because he seemed like a guy who could get open on the 10-15 yard route and catch the ball to move the chains, and that’s exactly what he’s been. The problem is that he is literally the only producing WR. Some (maybe a lot?) is obviously on McEvoy but there just hasn’t been much to get excited about.
It seems like the freshman WRs we heard so much about during fall camp have had the predictable issues with learning the playbook and have struggled making the enormous jump from playing WR in high school to playing WR in college. Reggie Love and Rob Wheelwright have had issues with both injuries and execution, and both have seen their involvement diminish as the year has progressed.
With the younger WRs being non-factors, there are simply no guys who can get themselves open and zero deep threats in the current group.
Quarterback - I’ll say good things first - McEvoy has looked great in the running game and has been able to stretch the field horizontally. Teams can no longer focus on following the running back and send 3 LBs and a safety at him on running downs. McEvoy has also made smart decisions on the option and the play looks like a good change of pace in the running game.
The passing, well, not so much. When he was named starter expectations on the passing game were definitely lowered, but it’s been a bigger struggle than at least I thought it would be. It’s painful to even type out all his struggles - the deep ball, the short ball, the medium ball, focusing on one or two receivers in the route, pocket awareness...you get the idea. The lack of development from the WRs has made things very hard on a guy new to the position, but the passing game needs to be better going forward.
It's easy to say it needs to be better, but pulling it off with this personnel is going to be a challenge. The Badgers have likely already played the 3 weakest pass defenses they’ll see this year. There needs to be more of an adjustment in play calling. I would guess it was a plan not to rush too many times with McEvoy in the last three games, both to save his body and work on a passing game, but with Big Ten games coming up they need to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and that’s more QB runs and one read screen or short passing plays.
THE TEAM OVERALL
So where does this put overall team performance? That’s harder to answer. Before the season I assumed Stave would start and McEvoy would get some package plays, and that hasn’t happened. The overall struggles in the passing game are so huge and while teams can get past that, it puts a ceiling on how good the team can ultimately be. While this team is still going to be very fun to watch and will be among the handful of top Big Ten teams, unless something changes personnel or scheme-wise in the passing game, I’m going to temper expectations just a little going forward.