Heading into this season, numerous pundits including myself predicted the Wisconsin Badgers would take a step backwards despite winning 10 games in 2015 and finish mid-pack in the Big Ten West due to their incredibly tough schedule and new personnel.
Instead, the Badgers defied those preseason predictions by beating three top-10 opponents and winning the Big Ten West division to earn another trip to the Big Ten Championship versus Penn State, another program that shattered preseason expectations. It appeared that the Badgers would cruise to a conference title after seizing a 28-7 first half advantage, but the defense, which had been the strength of this team, squandered the lead and the Nittany Lions used their explosive offense to pull off a 38-31 victory. For most programs, accumulating ten victories would be a formidable accomplishment, but the season left something to be desired.
Now, Wisconsin will take on the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at Arlington, Texas on January 2. It certainly isn’t the prize the Badgers had hoped for but it’s still a New Year’s Six bowl game and they hope to end the season on a high note.
Passing offense: C
The Badgers had more continuity at quarterback last season with Joel Stave under center every game and were 55th overall in total passing yards, but this year, they dropped to 98th in that category, as senior Bart Houston and freshman Alex Hornibrook combined to throw for 2329 yards along with just 13 scores and 10 interceptions.
Houston’s experience and slightly more mobility and accuracy than his teammate offered a nice change of pace and kept defenses on their toes and while the freshmen did show flashes of brilliance and poise in the pocket, he struggled at times to consistently hit open receivers.
As for receiving, the speedy Jazz Peavy (43 catches, 635 yards, five touchdowns) became the Badgers top weapon and tight end Troy Fumagalli (41 catches, 497 yards) proved to be an important security blanket this season.
In a nutshell, the passing offense was the definition of mediocre. It wasn’t dreadful but it certainly wasn’t great and didn’t put the Badgers over the top when they needed an offensive boost.
Rushing offense: A-
Last season, the Badgers stumbled in this department as they ranked 97thwith 1,954 rushing yards, 10th in conference while averaging 150.3 per game. Corey Clement was out most of year due to a sports hernia surgery so the Badgers severely lacked a home-run hitting, dynamic playmaker in the backfield and the offensive line couldn’t stay healthy, losing three starters.
Fortunately, the vintage Wisconsin rushing attack, which was No. 1 in rushing yards in the Big Ten, returned and was the saving grace for the offense. With a reliable, stable O-line anchored by first-team All-American Ryan Ramczyk this season, Clement’s 1,304 rushing yards led the conference and as a result, the offense overall was more balanced and consistent this season.
Freshman Bradrick Shaw also gave Badgers fans reason to feel optimistic about next year in limited action. Shaw averaged a solid 5.2 yards per carry and rushed for 457 yards with five touchdowns.
Passing defense: B-
Similar to last season, the Badgers pass defense was a consistent source of strength though from a numbers standpoint, they fell a little, dropping from 2nd to 7th in yards allowed per game (206.1) in conference and falling from 2nd to 12th in the Big Ten in total yards allowed (2,679). Nonetheless, there was still plenty to like about the way Wisconsin played.
The Badgers were second nationally in takeaways (21) led by senior Leo Musso’s five interceptions and the pass rush was especially ferocious as junior T.J. Watt, who made the switch from tight end to linebacker, had a team-leading 10.5 sacks and was named second-team All-American.
However, even with all the positives in place, Wisconsin was exposed in the title game as Penn State’s taller, more physical receivers took advantage of the Badgers smaller-sized secondary. Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorely passed for 384 yards and four touchdowns. If Wisconsin truly wants to be win the Cotton Bowl, it will have to figure out how to limit big plays in the passing game.
Rushing defense: A
The Badgers rank second nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (96.9) and only Leonard Fournette surpassed the 100-yard mark against this unit. In fact, just six teams have allowed fewer than the eight rushing touchdowns Wisconsin surrendered. The Badgers also rank among the top 10 in yards allowed per carry (3.23).
Led by Olive Sagapolu and ends Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih, along with Alec James, the unheralded defensive line combined for 83 tackles and 7.5 sacks.
Wisconsin’s linebackers were an especially disruptive corps this season and consistently demonstrated explosive playmaking abilities. Leading tackler T.J. Edwards racked up 79 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks and Watt, younger brother of NFL players J. J. and Derek Watt, has 14.5 TFL for the season and an interception return touchdown. Jack Cichy (60 tackles), Ryan Connelly (54), Vince Biegel (39) and Garret Dooley (39) all chipped in at key moments for what is arguably the deepest and most talented set of linebackers in the Big Ten.
Special teams: C
Wisconsin had its share of ups and downs in this area. Starting kicker Rafael Gaglianone was out for the majority of the year with a back injury, forcing backup Andrew Endicott into action. He’s been just subpar, hitting 11-of-16 field goals (68.8 percent) with a long of 46. Anthony Lotti averages 37.7 yards on punts, which is last in conference and the return game lacks any explosiveness.
Wisconsin was in position to close the year on a high note and couldn’t finish against Penn State. Ultimately, the result will sting for a while and take some luster off of Paul Chryst’s second year as head coach.
Still, back-to-back 10-win seasons is pretty respectable and a 10-3 record probably isn’t what many fans expected given the tough schedule. And If Chryst can recruit the right players to fit his own system, the future of Wisconsin football looks bright.