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.
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.
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.