Holiday Bowl Preview

Longtime Buckaround contributor Rex Sheild gives his Holiday Bowl thoughts and a prediction - will the Badgers win this thing?

The 2015 Wisconsin football season has been an odd one, to say the least. Yes, the Badgers won nine games, are in their 14th-consecutive bowl game, and are on the verge of a 10-win season - an accomplishment that should never be taken for granted. Mind you, the team spent the better portion of the season without their star running back, the offensive line played one helluva game of musical chairs, and the quarterback play was, well, a bit inconsistent. Wisconsin did not beat a team with a record over .500, which is shorthand for “its schedule was a complete joke” (the notable exception be No. 2 Alabama, a loss). The Badgers’ two toughest conference games – Iowa and Northwestern – which were also at home, were both losses. So just what was the team’s best win, strictly based on how it played? Rutgers? Illinois? Purdue? Minnesota? I’m hard-pressed to find a game where UW turned in a solid performance from start to finish.

However, if Corey Clement plays against Iowa (insert this statement for, practically, every game that Clement did not play) and the Big Ten officials do not botch the Jazz Peavy touchdown against Northwestern, then head coach Paul Chryst is 11-1 in his first regular season at the helm, with his only loss against mighty Alabama in the season opener. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Southern California, at #25 in the final College Football Playoff standings, seems finally past the NCAA sanctions that crippled the program over the last several years. Yet, the head coaching hires and decisions made by athletic director Pat Haden still, in my eyes, holds the program back in its quest to legitimately get back into the national title conversation. Will this bowl game against the Badgers tell one way or another whether newly named head coach Clay Helton can bring the Trojans back to the promised land? Maybe, but it surely won't yield a high amount of confidence if USC loses to UW and closes out a season that began with it ranked in the top 10 by losing three out of four games.  Not to mention, similar to what happened with Auburn last year just prior to the Outback Bowl, USC will be without its regular season defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox (who was among several defensive assistants Helton canned when the regular season ended).

At any rate, the Trojans were a pretty good football team in 2015, so let’s take a look at how senior quarterback Cody Kessler and his teammates match up against the Badgers and who has the edge at some key positions.  

USC QB: Cody Kessler

    USC QB Cody Kessler could have a big day against UW

 

USC QB Cody Kessler could have a big day against UW

The senior gunslinger may not leave USC as one of the most polished NFL-ready quarterbacks in program history, but Kessler still deserves plenty of attention. During this past season, Kessler threw for 3,315 yards, as well as 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Over 13 games, his 273.5 passing yards per game was good for 31st in the country, which is in stark contrast to his 33.1 pass attempts that ranks 57th.  He also completed 67.6 percent of his passes this season and, as it stands today, will finish 2nd and 17th on the Pac-12 and NCAA career pass completion percentage list, respectively. Impressive, eh? Of course, but there was that game  against Washington – 16/29 for 156 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 9.4 QBR.

While Kessler sprained his thumb against Stanford in the conference championship game, head coach Helton made you feel like the dumbest person alive for thinking, even for a second, that Kessler wouldn’t play against UW.  "You could probably cut his right wrist off and he would still play," Helton said, via the Los Angeles Times.

Wisconsin QB: Joel Stave

I’m not a Joel Stave believer anymore.  Yes, he started out the year in a way that had many, including me, excited after seeing the Wisconsin native, for years, throw ball at wide receivers’ feet. Through the first three games, Stave completed 67% of his passes and threw for 666 yards, to go along with six touchdowns and two interceptions. This stood as a dramatic improvement to his first three games of the 2014 season: 50% pass completion, 342 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He then promptly crapped the bed against Iowa in UW's Big Ten opener - and when I say he crapped the bed, I mean that he recorded a 9.7 QBR, threw two interceptions, and fumbled two more times, including on Iowa’s two-yard line in the fourth quarter.

    Our man Joel Stave

 

Our man Joel Stave

Altogether this season so far, Stave ended up with more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). To give him some credit, he stood out against Purdue with a 76.9% (30/39) completion rate, his highest of the season, and slightly edging out his performance against Troy (13/17, 76.5). Moreover, while I do not have the greatest confidence in Stave, Chryst certainly does - Stave threw the ball an average of 32.5 times per game (61st nationally). Stave also seems to respond to the coach's play calls as his 229.2 yards/game average is good for 55th in the country. That is, he is probably better than people give him credit for.

The engineering major wins football games and there’s no denying that, but he’s a game manager and nothing more, folks. In this match-up, he easily takes a back seat to Kessler.

Edge: USC

Wisconsin RBs: Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, Taiwan Deal

What in the heck happened to the Wisconsin running game this season? My goodness. To put the brutal year into perspective, the Badgers’ 148.1 ypg rushing, which ranked 90th (!!) in the country, was the worst average since the 2003 season by a large margin; the next lowest was 164 ypg in 2004-05, which still ranked 46th nationally. Obviously it did not help that Clement was far from a consistent fixture, and that you could never figure out who was going to be playing along the offensive line, but count me as one who was surprised all year.

With Clement presumably back in the backfield against USC, Wisconsin does finally have some solid depth at the position. I’m not quite as big of a Dare fan as Rich is, but he is an excellent change-of-pace back and is quite good in pass protection. The Milwaukee native leads the team in rushing attempts (181), yards (769) and touchdowns (7), is second in receptions (34) and third in receiving yards (278), which is impressive considering he started last season at cornerback. Deal’s physical presence is intimidating by itself, and it certainly showed against the Gophers in the regular season finale. Again, assuming that Clement is the starting running back against the Trojans, I’d imagine seeing a heavy dose of the three-headed backfield, which will be put to the test against the Trojans’ run defense.

USC RBs: Ronald Jones II, Justin Davis

 According to USCFootball.com reporter Keely Eure, senior Tre Madden will not suit up against the Badgers, and will undergo knee surgery. This may not be a massive loss for USC, but Madden was still tied for second on the team with five rushing touchdowns, and also added 17 receptions for 133 yards and one touchdown. Alternatively, junior Davis led the team in carries (157) and also added five touchdowns on the ground. Finally, freshman Jones led the team in rushing yards (940), rushing average (6.5 yards/carry) and touchdowns (8). As a collective unit, the USC tailbacks are not the most spectacular in the country, but there’s no denying their element of speed. As to who may replace Madden, your guess is as good as mine – Dominic Davis only had 14 total carries in 2015, Aca’Cedric Ware only had 12 total carries, and Adoree’ Jackson only had six total carries. However, I would expect Jackson, a hybrid athlete who also plays on defense and special teams, to be a bigger part of the offensive game plan for the Trojans. 

Edge: USC

Wisconsin WRs/TEs:

Alex Erickson, Rob Wheelwright, Jazz Peavy, Tanner McEvoy

Troy Fumagalli, Austin Traylor

Erickson has turned into a pretty good, maybe great, wide receiver for the Wisconsin Badgers. The former walk-on registered 72 receptions for 924 yards with three touchdowns this season. To put Erickson's value to this offense into perspective, the next best WR in terms of yards is Wheelwright with 369. Speaking of Wheelwright, it’ll be nice to have him back, as he leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four. This game could also serve as a nice springboard for Mr. Peavy, as his role and needed contributions will only continue to escalate next season. I’ve been waiting for McEvoy to actually assert himself offensively, or to at least see the play callers to utilize the former quarterback more effectively. Will Wednesday, his last day on the field as a Badger, finally be the day? I sure hope so, because the senior has way too much athleticism to only register 10 receptions for 109 yards over 13 games.

It is disappointing that Traylor (three touchdowns) broke his arm earlier in the year because this unit could have been substantially better than what the numbers show. Still, Fumagalli filled in nicely as the starting tight end, which should be valuable experience going forward for the sophomore. Nonetheless, I’m still waiting for a tight end screen to be utilized, preferably in the middle of the field on third down. Oddly specific, I know.

USC WRs/TEs:

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Steven Mitchell Jr., Darreus Rogers

Tyler Petite, Taylor McNamara

    USC stud wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster

 

USC stud wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster

It’s pretty much the JuJu Show for the USC receiving corps because the young man can ball, as the kids like to say. The sophomore wideout registered a whopping 85 receptions for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. Mitchell is second on the team with 35 receptions, and Jackson is second on the team with 382 yards. Point being, there’s a wide gap between Smith-Schuster and the rest of his teammates. However, the Long Beach, CA, native has not registered a touchdown since November 13 against Colorado (3 receptions/66 yards/1 TD) and has not put up over 100 yards since November 7 against Arizona (8/138/1). Through his first nine games, Smith-Schuster averaged right around 122 yards/game. Through his last four? Right around 74 yards/game. Thus, Smith-Schuster will either continue his downward trend or revert back to the way he was playing to start the season.

As for the tight end position, well, there’s not much to see, here. Petite leads the unit in receptions (13) and receiving yards (119). However, and oddly enough, McNamara leads the unit in touchdowns with four, but only has 10 receptions for 62 yards. Ah, red zone targets will always do the trick: he had one catch for two yards and a touchdown against Arkansas State, one catch for four yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame, one catch for two yards and a touchdown against Colorado, and two catches (!) for 14 yards (!!) and a touchdown against UCLA.

Edge: USC

Wisconsin Defense:

Let us never forget the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers defense. Let us never forget defensive coordinator Dave Aranda! The End. In all seriousness though, this unit was a lot of fun to watch on each and every snap. Across the board, you could make a strong argument that this unit is the best one in the country – 1st in points/game (13.1), 1st in yards/game (267.1), 3rd in rushing yards/game (98.2), and 5th in passing yards/game (168.9). One of the lone knocks is that they do not get after the passer very often, as they only sack the quarterback 2.2 times/game, good for 57th. However, USC allows 2.7 sacks/game, which stands as 100th in the country (i.e., not good), so something has to give at Qualcomm Stadium.

I also really like the emergence of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who's been a force off the edge throughout the last few weeks. With Joe Schobert, the conference linebacker of the year and All-American honoree, and Vince Biegel, an all-around animal, I would think that the front seven could provide some disruption and force Kessler to make some ill-advised throws. Schobert and Biegel have combined for 17.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss. Although UW hasn't not played a quarterback of Kessler's caliber the entire season, if the Badgers can force the Trojans into obvious passing downs and call up some creative blitzes, Wisconsin may have some success. USC’s third down conversion percentage (39.43%) is 65th in the country - there is hope.

    Cornerback Sojourn Shelton will be on the spot

 

Cornerback Sojourn Shelton will be on the spot

Cornerback Sojourn Shelton has played much better than he did a season ago (six pass breakups, one interception in 2015), but he is going to have a difficult time against Smith-Schuster. I would expect Aranda to throw several different looks at the star wide receiver, most likely bump-and-run coverage and consistently shading a safety over to help - straight single coverage will be rare because Smith-Schuster's just too good. I also wonder how much time Darius Hillary (six pass breakups) or Derrick Tindal (five pass breakups) will spend on containing the star WR. Still, Tanner McEvoy’s play-making ability at safety (six interceptions & six pass breakups) and Michael Caputo’s toughness and solid tackling should be strong enough to keep Kessler from looking like Carson Palmer 2.0.

USC Defense

The Trojans’ defense has featured many highs and lows over the course of the 2015 season. As to the latter, the unit allowed 25.9 points/game (51st), 400.9 yards/game (67th), and 253.8 passing yards/game (94th). As to the former, the unit sacked the quarterback roughly three times/game (13th) and held running backs to 147 rush yards/game (36th), as well as 4.0 yards/rush attempt (40th).

To no one's surprise, USC has plenty of athletes on the defensive side of the ball and enough to potentially make for a long afternoon for offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. Among the front seven, senior defensive tackle Delvon Simmons and junior linebacker Su’a Cravens, who recently announced his intentions to enter into the NFL Draft, were both 1st-team All-Pac 12 selections. Simmons was second on the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (8.5), while Cravens tied for first in tackles (78), and first in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (5.5). Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was another 1st-team All-Pac 12 selection, who registered six pass breakups and one interception.

While USC’s defensive unit is not lights-out by any means, it very well could be for years to come, thanks to the play of two freshmen this season. Linebacker Cameron Smith is tied for first in interceptions (3), while also accounting for the highest percentage of team tackles (8.4%), according to SB Nation. Freshman Iman Marshall leads the team in pass breakups (7) and is tied for first in interceptions (3).

All in all, USC’s defense is not better than Dave Aranda’s bunch (not many are), but it should be able to impose its will against a pretty mediocre Wisconsin offense for long stretches.

Edge: Wisconsin

Prediction:

In terms of national recognition, a bowl victory for Wisconsin against one of the few traditionally elite programs would be a huge step in the right direction. Not to mention, it would give the fan base some confidence that Paul Chryst can win big games. However, that huge step is going to have to wait.

I believe that the offensive line will not be able to handle USC's speed upfront and, honestly, who knows how healthy Corey Clement actually is. Plus, Stave could very well have another clunker of a game, and that simply will not cut it against the Trojans. USC wins the Holiday Bowl for the second-straight year, 24-16.

P.S. Next year is going to be brutal; the schedule features LSU (at Lambeau Field), Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Michigan, and at Iowa, so start looking ahead to 2017?

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.

B1Ss80nCEAA2NwA.jpg

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.


Joel Stave Might Suck, but so do all College Quarterbacks

by Andy Schaaf

Everyone has an opinion on Joel Stave. It’s a prerequisite to being a Badger fan. It can run from the rational - see DC Dan’s statistical breakdown of the season so far, to the crazy - see JS Comments (self-promo!) or the guy screaming two rows behind you at Camp Randall who just won’t shut up oh God please shut up.

It’s not unique to Wisconsin. Almost every college football fan has, or has had issues with their quarterbacks because as a general rule all college quarterbacks suck. NFL fans who can’t stand to see people enjoying football on Saturdays routinely gripe about it, and they mostly have a point. Unlike the QB driven NFL, college football is very dependent on people running the ball, not passing.

It’s especially an issue in the Big Ten where QBs suck at a whole other level. NFL teams are so desperate for a QB they do things like take Blake Bortles with the 1st pick and draft 13 different QBs most years, yet since 2010 there have been a grand total of 4 Big Ten QBs even drafted - Kafka, Stanzi, Cousins and Wilson. That’s your Mt. Rushmore right there.

The Big Ten is so bad with QBs that Iowa willingly let/begged Jake Ruddock transfer to another Big Ten team just so they could play somebody else, and now Ruddock and Michigan are among the favorites in the conference. It makes no sense. There have been 132 QBs drafted in the past decade and Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Penn State haven’t had one of them.

If you’re reading this you know Wisconsin fans for the most part have never REALLY been satisfied with the QB play the way they have been for other positions. Samuel, Bollinger vs Sorgi (and Sorgi vs Bollinger), Stocco, the varying success of the post-Stocco to pre-Senior Year Scott Tolzien years. You’re hard pressed to find a QB that had a smooth career at Wisconsin outside of Russell Wilson, who we are now learning is some sort of weird cyborg sent from the future to antagonize Twitter and win football games.

That’s not to say it wasn’t all deserved, it just showcases what a high profile position it is. This year’s defensive line isn’t particularly strong, and the reaction is mostly “well I hope they improve and Aranda schemes around it.” The QB struggles and you have multiple 10 page message board threads about it.

Joel Stave is no exception to this, but also unique because he has been with the program for what feels like forever. He’s been a QB for 3 different coaching staffs. He’s gone from walk-on to mainstay, scapegoat to savior. It’s been a totally unique ride.

The perception and narrative of Stave has changed every year :

  • 2012: Would have won the Rose Bowl had Alvarez played him.
  • 2013: Can’t beat good teams with him.
  • 2014: Would have made the Playoffs if Andersen hadn’t named McEvoy starter. Or something, I’m always slightly confused on this one.
  • 2015 Post- Alabama: The QB Whisperer Chryst will have him on NFL draft boards by the end of the year.
  • 2015 Post-Iowa: The Badgers may never score a TD again.

That’s not even mentioning the off-field issues and stories associated with him. Stave has packed so many different storylines and invited so many different opinions in a 4 year period it is no wonder you can check Twitter on any Saturday and see tweets from non-Badger fans asking how he is STILL in school; it feels like forever.

His career has been fascinating to follow and I don’t think there’s been anything like it.

Stave has always been the best QB option for the Badgers in his four years here. He’s beaten out 6 different scholarship QBs at one point or another: Danny O’Brien, Curt Phillips, Bart Houston, Tanner McEvoy, DJ Gillins and Alex Hornibrook. You’ll always have people calling for that backup but by most rational analysis, Stave has always been the best option.

Despite Stave being the Badgers quarterback seemingly forever, he doesn’t have that “moment” where he was the linchpin in a Badger victory. You can argue almost every win from 2012 to today came pretty easy for the Badgers and it is hard to look at a game and think “Stave was great that day.” At best he’s always been pretty good and let Ball, White, Clement and/or Gordon do their thing, and the Badgers won pretty easily.

In his 4 years here I have one “wow” moment -- the first half of the game at Ohio State in 2013 where Stave was throwing bombs to Abbrederis, a game that ended in a loss.

Stave has been the Badgers starting QB in 24 wins. Of those wins only 2 were of less than 10 points, and we can mostly credit Melvin Gordon (Iowa, Auburn) and the running game for those. It is amazing a QB with as many games as Stave has lacks a signature moment.

We remember the games where he didn’t do enough to get over the hump - losing by 3 points at Nebraska in 2012, falling just short against Arizona St (I know, I know…), Ohio State and South Carolina in 2013, 2014 vs Northwestern, last week vs Iowa.

Fair or not, when the Badgers have been a play or two away from getting a good win, Stave hasn’t provided that play.

That’s the challenge for Stave in the upcoming weeks. If we’re being kind, we’ll simply call the talent around him underdeveloped. There aren’t likely to be many more 38-10 wins where Stave has to show up, hand the ball off and run a few play action passes. There will be more 17-13 games where a key pass, or non-turnover, wins it. At this point Stave likely is what he is as a QB, but there is a chance for him to change his perception. The Iowa game was a high profile failure in this department, but he has 2 more months to add yet another storyline to his long, long Badger career.


Can Joel Stave's Arm Save Wisconsin's Offense?

by DC Dan

Prior to the Iowa game, I had hoped to publish an article this week seeking an answer to the question of whether or not Joel Stave was actually showing signs of improvement in his senior season. After the Iowa game, however, I sincerely doubt any Badger fans are still of the opinion that spending last offseason with “quarterback guru” Paul Chryst has suddenly transformed Joel Stave into the second coming of Russell Wilson.

You turn the ball over four times, you've had a bad day. But a deeper look at this past Saturday shows just how ugly it was and points towards some troubling signs for the Badgers’ primary pass-thrower.

Stave’s line, on the surface, doesn’t look too abysmal (21/38 for 234 yards, no TDs, but 2 interceptions). That’s good for a 55% completion percentage and 6.2 yards-per-attempt (Y/A) – not great, but better than most non-Melvin Gordon-fueled rushing attacks, and probably good enough to win in a low-scoring game. It’s actually even better than Stave did against Alabama in week one, where he tallied only 5.8 Y/A.

Unfortunately, those numbers do not account for scoring plays, turnovers, or sacks, which are all crucial components of quarterbacking. Adjusted-net-yards-per-attempt (where the “adjusted” provides a +20 yard bonus to touchdown passes and a -45 yard penalty for interceptions, and “net” accounts for yards lost due to sacks) gives a much better overall picture of the average number of yards gained per pass play. Stave’s ANY/A (adjusted-net-yards-per-attempt for the uninitiated) on Saturday:  a meager 3.3 yards per pass.

That’s bad, but it gets worse, because it doesn’t account for Stave’s costly fumbles, one of which took place on a designed pass play. Stave technically ran the ball twice: a three-yard scramble and a four-yard loss after being stepped on by his own offensive lineman (which led to one of the fumbles) while attempting a handoff. Accounting for the scramble and the fumble lost on one of his two sacks, Stave ends up with 234 passing yards, 3 rushing yards, two picks, two sacks, and one fumble on 41 passing plays. Fumbles are actually given an even bigger penalty than interceptions in adjusted yardage (-50 yards instead of -45) because they typically happen closer to the line of scrimmage, resulting in better field position for the opposing team. Against Iowa, each time Coach Chryst dialed up a pass, Stave and the Badgers offense effectively moved the ball, on average, merely 2.0 (adjusted) yards. 

Going forward, it’s extremely doubtful Stave will have this poor of a game again. Thankfully for the Badgers’ offense, a four-turnover game doesn’t occur very often (and a fair number of football analytics studies have shown that turnovers are largely a factor of luck, anyway). As bad as they are, the bigger sign of trouble for Stave isn’t actually in his yards-per-attempt numbers (he has a serviceable 6.2 ANY/A on the season) but instead is found in his success rate.

Success rate is like a completion percentage of sorts, where any scoring play or play that increases the chances of sustaining a drive counts as a success, while all other plays count as failures. For the season, Stave has compiled only a 48% success rate, despite a respectable 63% completion percentage. In other words, roughly half the time Stave drops back to pass, he fails to increase Wisconsin’s likelihood of sustaining its current drive. (Stave has, oddly enough, been fairly consistent in this respect, posting success rates between 43%-50% in each of his games this season.)

A low success rate doesn’t necessarily lead to a low-scoring offense. If the offense can pick up yardage in bunches with a boom-or-bust philosophy, it can still be effective by creating big plays (not unlike Melvin Gordon’s 2014 campaign, where he led the universe in runs of 10+ yards).

Stave, though, is only averaging 11.5 yards per completed pass this season, a number typically associated with a “West Coast” style of quarterback that completes a high percentage of short- and medium-routes. This means that Stave’s successes aren’t all that big, or at least not big enough to make the threat of him passing the ball a very dangerous one.

Stave2.jpg

In order for Stave and the Wisconsin offense to improve their performance, Chryst will need to find a way to either increase Stave’s efficiency at throwing high-percentage short and medium passes in order to sustain drives, or otherwise attempt to stretch the field by going for the home run ball more often. Based on what we’ve seen of Stave and his receiving corps thus far, I’d say the former is more suited to existing talent on the roster than the latter, but neither will be easy to accomplish.

Most of us expected to see a dropoff in Wisconsin’s offensive numbers following the departure of Melvin Gordon, but many hoped that the new head coach would be able to rejuvenate Stave’s potential and breathe some life into the lackluster passing game of recent years. To say that Chryst’s offense still has a lot to prove going into the heart of conference play would be a gross understatement.

Wisconsin 2015 Previews - Offense

New BuckAround contributor Neal Olson (@olewr7) offers his thoughts on the upcoming series in the first of a three-part series.  Here, he takes on the 2015 Wisconsin offense under new head coach Paul Chryst and four-year starting QB Joel Stave.

The 2015 season christens (too early for puns?) the new, but old school era of Wisconsin football. Whether your opinion of the Gary Andersen regime ranged from ‘tolerated’ to ‘pint of Spotted Cow through the TV,’ you can’t say it wasn’t interesting. Paul Chryst might be the farthest thing imaginable from the "rah-rah" of Gary Andersen, but that is not at all a bad thing. In fact, some may say Chryst is boring. Boring he may be, but he is also wildly effective, at least on offense.

Paul Chryst will probably never be known for intense pre-game speeches or as a snazzy dresser, but he is as a top-notch quarterback coach. Setting aside the work he did with Scott Tolzien and Russell Wilson when last at Wisconsin, Chryst did wonders with Tino Sunseri and Tom Savage in his first two seasons at Pittsburgh. A quick look at their season averages in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, interceptions and quarterback rating BC (Before Chryst (no pun intended!) and under Chryst’s tutelage:

The numbers are pretty convincing. Two different journeymen players showed significant improvement under Chryst’s coaching and play-calling. Both QBs also improved by leaps and bounds during their last season of college eligibility. Perhaps their improvement was less Chryst and more just simply two upper classmen capitalizing on several years of college football. Maybe Chryst didn’t impact them much at all? Well, you know who else is entering his last season of college eligibility? That’s right, Joel Stave.

Stave has endured pretty much every imaginable hardship a college quarterback can face. Walk-on, season-ending injury, quarterback controversy, the yips, you name it, Stave has endured it. Yet here he is entering his senior season, with a realistic shot to finish the top three of every major passing category including yards, touchdowns and completions for his career at Wisconsin – plus a 21-7 record as a starter.

For the first time in his career at Wisconsin, Stave left spring camp as the unquestioned starter with the full confidence of the coaching staff, including Chryst, who first recruited him to Madison. For someone who has gone through the wringer like he has, the assurance from that feeling will be immeasurable. Factor in the improvement under QB guru Chryst and Stave should have his best season of his career.

Once again however, the passing game is looking for someone, anyone to step up and take pressure off the running game. Alex Erickson had a breakout season last year and will continue to prototypically fill the role of steady possession receiver. However, for the Badger offense to make the jump from ‘very good’ to ‘dangerous’ they will need a consistent downfield receiving threat.

Upperclassmen Jordan Frederick, Rob Wheelwright, Reggie Love, and Jazz Peavy have all dealt with injuries or inconsistencies that have hampered their development.  Youngsters George Rushing and Krenwrick Sanders definitely have the speed and athleticism to be difference makers but still lack consistency and polish. The X-factor for the receivers might just be Tanner McEvoy.

As Rich and Max noted in the “#QuestforFun” podcast, McEvoy will be the one-man barometer on the area of biggest need for the team. During spring practice McEvoy split time between safety and wide receiver. Thus far this fall he has spent all of his time with the receivers and has emerged as one of the annual camp stories. That should say enough about the state of Badgers receivers.

Even though he will be listed at wide receiver, McEvoy’s skill set might more closely align to how Chryst has used tight ends in the past. Travis Beckum and Lance Kendricks were both tall, athletic players that Chryst always had a handful of designed plays to get them the ball. In particular, Chryst loved the tight end screen, don’t be surprised to see that make a comeback. At 6’5”, McEvoy’s height could also be a major factor in the red zone.

The wide receivers will continue to be a talking point until someone emerges as a consistent threat. Wisconsin’s passing game has been disorganized and underdeveloped frankly since Chryst left. That is not to say we will see a dramatic improvement overnight, but the aforementioned quarterback improvement will trickle down to the receivers. As long as the trend starts – and stays – upward, fans will be happy.

A lot of pressure will be put on Stave to preform and rightfully so as the quarterback. But since a quarterback’s best friend is a dominant offensive line, the Badgers big men up front will be counted on to keep Stave upright. The good news is two lineman return with two plus seasons of starting experience. The bad news is typical offensive lines start five players.

Redshirt freshman Michael Deiter has established himself at right guard, joining the entrenched Tyler Marz at left tackle and Dan Voltz at center as projected starters. The remaining left guard and right tackle spots are still up for grabs. As an added complication, injuries are starting to mount for the competitors for the open spots.

Hayden Biegel (head) and Beau Benzschawel (knee), front runners for right tackle, are both out indefinitely. Those injuries have moved Walker Williams, who was also in competition for left guard, back out to right tackle. Early enrollee freshman Jon Dietzen is battling an ankle injury after making a push for the starting left guard spot.

All the jostling around on the line makes it difficult to establish any sort of rhythm and consistency, whether in pass protection or run blocking; offensive lines operate best when they are in sync.  Chryst’s offense calls for pre-snap shifts and adjustments that require everyone to be on the same page and in the proper blocking scheme. The sooner the offensive line can be established, the better. Opening with Alabama, no easy task for even the most experienced line, only makes this more difficult.

One position that has never been questioned at Wisconsin is running back. Corey Clement spent his first two seasons trying to steal carries from guys like James White and Melvin Gordon. A testament to Clement’s talent was earning playing time as an underclassman at a position with two NFL players. Now, he gets his chance to be the bell cow in the always formidable Wisconsin run game.  His experience should offset somewhat the lack thereof in the line blocking for him.

While Clement is more than worthy in carrying on the succession of Badgers ball carriers, the biggest question for this group will be who emerges as second in line – a necessity in order to spell Clement, especially during the Big Ten schedule. Converted cornerback and former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale has emerged as the likely candidate to back up Clement. However a pair of redshirt freshmen Taiwan Deal and Caleb Kinlaw will push for playing time as well. Deal, a former 4-star prospect out of Maryland powerhouse DeMatha Catholic, in particular is a more bruising runner, and provides a different look than the more elusive Ogunbowale.

Overall, the offensive outlook is nevertheless positive. Clement will be a force running the ball and Stave has shown he is capable of managing a Chryst-designed offense.  In addition, aside from the opener against Alabama, the schedule this year is also quite manageable. The Badgers could very well win the Big Ten West even without a consistent passing attack.

However, we have seen the run-heavy, slight-passing offense fairly consistently the past three seasons. Paul Chryst was dubbed the prodigal son on his return to Madison. If he can usher (back) in the balanced offense he oversaw during his most of his tenure as offensive coordinator, the Badgers will be a very dangerous offensive team.

2014 Preview - Offense

Describing an article as funny and insightful is really lazy and annoying but here's Andy's look at the the Badger's offense for 2014.  It's really funny and insightful.  Honestly

Week 8 - Illinois: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

A Recap of the Badgers 56-32 win over the Illini