New Look Badgers? Maybe

By Andy Schaaf

Coming into 2015 it was easy to look at the schedule and focus on a few key dates: Alabama in Week 1, Iowa and Nebraska to start the Big Ten season. Like most people, I focused on these few dates as barometers as to what to expect for 2015. These three games were to tell us everything we needed to know about this year’s team.

 Corey Clement's return gives Wisconsin a true game-breaker.

 Corey Clement's return gives Wisconsin a true game-breaker.

The Alabama loss showed pretty early that the Badgers weren’t going to be national players this year, but most suspected that going in. The Iowa and Nebraska games both showed this team would struggle to be much more than a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team. The Badgers went 1-1 in those games, but the results mattered less than the visual on the field.

The Badgers simply couldn’t run the ball and were depending on a quarterback and wide receiver corps that were never supposed to carry the team. The defense was and continues to be fantastic, but they still have been susceptible at times to big plays, and don’t have the dynamic playmakers that you'd associate with a great college defense; everyone is simply solid. The offensive line has varied from trainwreck to just bad - it has been a pretty big departure from what we've been used to from the Badgers.

The rest of the non-conference didn’t help perception either: 28 points vs. Troy, 28 points vs. Hawaii - the product wasn’t necessarily bad, but nothing that elicited any strong positive emotions.

After sleepwalking through a 24-7 win against Purdue, fan apathy started to set in. I know I sent numerous emails and texts to friends complaining about how boring the team and schedule were. You got the feeling there would be a lot of low scoring games where you hope Stave doesn’t throw a big pick - that's no way to live life. Even though the weather was miserable against Rutgers, it was probably the worst attended game at Camp Randall since the weird November 2008 game against Cal Poly (yes, seven years later I am still bitter for having attended that game).

A couple things changed since Purdue, however. Corey Clement came back, and, stay with me here - Bart Houston lit it up against Illinois.

The Badgers started becoming interesting and worth watching.

The first of those things is obvious. Even I was a bit surprised just how BIG the difference between Clement and the other RBs is - quickly hitting the hole, dodging the first guy, running away from the second guy, gliding into the end zone like he did. Clement was clearly hobbled but it was just so refreshing to see him go to work, even against a terrible Rutgers defense.

The second one less obvious, and I want to make it clear here before Jeff Potrykus reads this and fires off a 2,000 word rebuttal on JS Online - I think Stave should start the rest of the year, but that Houston performance was notable if nothing else.

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If anything, I do think what Houston did was to get some more fan interest for this season - I got more “are you seeing what Houston is doing!!” texts during the Illinois game than Badger related text messages during the entire non-Alabama non-conference combined. It dragged out the apathetic Badger fans who trailed off after the Iowa game back talking about the team.

Yes, I know a lot of these hot takes from people bordered on (or were well into) the absurd, but I’m embracing it. People were talking about the Badgers the week before the Rutgers game. Rutgers! Maybe people were watching Saturday to cheer Stave’s failures, but they were watching.

This is getting into weird columnist narrative, but I also think Houston showing something in the 2nd half against Illinois lit a bit of a fire under Stave and the rest of the team - it had to have. Houston seemed to take more chances than Stave, and yes, even though a couple of those chances were picked off in the end zone, some of them resulted in a slick Wheelwright touchdown and a couple smooth Erickson grabs. It was fun to watch.

On Saturday, Stave was for the first time taking more chances downfield than before. The ball he put on Peavy’s hands in the end zone was perhaps his best throw this year. A couple nice deep throws to Erickson and Frederick opened things up a bit on offense as well. 

Of course, he had the most Stave-est interception of all Stave interceptions on the pick-6. It wouldn’t be a Stave game without something like that happening.

The other interception on the pass to Erickson was a bit easier to deal with; he gave Erickson a chance, but it just didn't work out. The most frustrating thing about most of Stave’s interceptions are they are often just dumb passes right to the defender, you can live it if he's taking good chances on deeper balls every once in awhile. Even with the two interceptions though, Stave played as well as he has all year, more than the 13-25 passing, 1 TD, 2 INT line would indicate.

Thanks to magnificent scheduling, the Badgers get to play Maryland and then have a week off. Perhaps my perceived interest in the Badgers fades away. Perhaps Stave goes back to being Stave and Clement isn’t quite as ready to come back as he thinks he is. Perhaps this is just the classic overreaction to a game against a terrible opponent. All of that and more may be true, but at least for one Saturday, I felt a little different about this team.


Lessons from 1997

BuckAround contributor Andy Schaaf (@akschaaf) compares the 2015 Badgers, especially along their reconstituted (reloading?) offensive line, to the Badgers of 1997 - the precursor squad to the Rose Bowl champs of 1998 and 1999.

It's been a rough month for your Wisconsin Badger offensive line. The departures of Kyle Costigan, Rob Havenstein, and Dallas Lewallen officially signaled the end of the Wisconsin O-Line dynasty that sprung up in 2009 and 2010. August of 2015 has been spent learning new names and hoping those new names can do enough to simply keep Joel Stave from getting killed in Dallas. The glory days of having future NFL’er Travis Frederick redshirt simply because there is no room for him on the depth chart these are not.

While redshirt freshman Michael Deiter spent 2014 impressing coaches and being groomed to be the next man up at right (or perhaps left?) guard, and fifth-year senior Tyler Marz and fourth-year junior Dan Voltz have left tackle and center, respectively, locked down, the other two spots have proven much more challenging. RS frosh Beau Benzschawel and RS sophomore Hayden Biegel were expected to compete for the RT position, but both have been injured for most of the past couple weeks. Many hoped Ray Ball would build on his experience last year and run away with the left guard position, but it has not happened (and he was recently added to the injury report). A week and a half until they meet Alabama's dominant front seven, Wisconsin is practicing with unknown RS freshmen Micah Kapoi at left guard and Jacob Maxwell at right tackle.

So there are some issues.

The issues are mostly the result of youth. There has been well-documented attrition, mostly injury-related, in the position group and it's hard to think of a time Wisconsin was this inexperienced in such a key program area. Of 13 scholarship offensive lineman, 9 are freshmen or sophomores. Of the 4 upper classmen, only Marz and Voltz have established themselves as reliable starters.

As a recent Buckyville poster mentioned, the last time a Wisconsin offensive line was inexperienced was 1997, deep in the heart of the Alvarez Era. It got me thinking about how that season came to be, how it played out, and what it meant going forward.  There are some interesting parallels to 2015.

The 1996 Badgers are known today almost exclusively for Ron Dayne bursting onto the scene, and that is fair, but that team featured a very experienced offensive line that helped get him started. Seniors Jerry Wunsch, Cayentano Castro, Derek Engler, and Jamie Vanderveldt anchored that line, with freshman Chris McIntosh learning on the job at LT.

The 1996 team was better than their 8-5 record, losing three in a row, to #3 Penn State, #2 Ohio State, and #14 Northwestern (JUST KNEE THE BALL!), by a combined 10 points. Dayne averaged 6.5 yards per carry and ran for 2,109 yards total. The senior-led line made things easy for him - and I don’t think we even hated Mike Samuel yet.

After the 1996 seniors left, things felt a little like they do today. The champions of 1993 were all but gone, and although the 1997 team featured some talent at the skill positions (Dayne, primarily), a new era had most certainly begun. Sixty-one of the 85 scholarship players were freshmen or sophomores, and when the 1997 fall training camp began, Alvarez was left in a similar situation to what Paul Chryst is facing this fall.

Chris McIntosh was already establishing himself as a mainstay at LT, and (large) project Aaron Gibson was ready to assume the RT position. Outside of them, there were a lot of unknowns. Casey Rabach, similar to Deiter this year, was the next young guy "ready to go," but Alvarez was forced to start freshmen unknowns Bill Ferrario and Dave Costa at the guard spots.

So, going into the 1997 season, Wisconsin had an established left tackle, a project right tackle and three mostly unknown freshmen on the interior. Sound slightly familiar?

Oh, and did I mention the 1997 team opened the season against a marquee opponent (#17 Syracuse was good at the time, I promise!) in a nationally- televised neutral-site game?

You probably recall that the 1997 opener didn’t go too well. Dayne, who ran wild a year earlier, finished with just 46 yards behind the new offensive line, and the 24th-ranked Badgers got smoked 34-0.  Throughout that year, the team showed the struggles that come with an inexperienced offensive line. After getting blown out in the opener, they eked out a 4-point win against (at the time) a lowly Boise State team at Camp Randall, and would go on to finish 8-5.

Unlike the 1996 team that was probably better than its record, the 1997 team probably wasn’t as good as its record, winning 3 games by a single point and losing 5 games by at least 10 points, including a depantsing in the Outback Bowl by Georgia.

The offense went from 36th nationally in ppg to 68th, with basically the same skill position players. Only Ahmad Merritt graduated after the 1996 season; Dayne, Samuel, Donald Hayes, and Tony Simmons all returned. Dayne saw his per carry average drop a full yard.

So does that mean the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers are doomed? Certainly not. It's foolish to put too much stock in a season 18 years ago when projecting 2015. It does, however, serve as a warning for expectations this year.

The thing about 1997 was that those growing pains all paid off. The freshmen that struggled then got a little better in 1998. The 1998 Big Ten Champs were built more on defense and special teams than on a dominant offensive attack, but still, the lasting memory of that season is the Badger offensive line and Ron Dayne steamrolling UCLA in Pasadena.

By 1999, the now upper classmen-filled offensive line dominated opponents and the Badgers sported one of the best offenses in the country. By 2001, the struggling freshmen of 1997 were all on NFL rosters. Will we be toasting Michah Kapoi’s NFL career in 10 years? One can hope the program and player trajectory follows a similar pattern.  

So even as we go through training camp angst this August, and pre-panic about the offensive line with the Alabama Crimson Tide on the horizon, 1997 serves as both an example of how a great offensive line at Wisconsin isn’t a given, and the potential that can be realized later with some patience and plenty of growing pains.

Who would have thought this would be a popular topic? Check out Jeff Potrykus' interviews with guys from the 1997 team for a first-hand account of the 1997 season.