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.