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.
Depending on how you look at it, 2015 was either a solid campaign for the Wisconsin Badgers as they knocked off the University of Southern California 23-21 in the National Funding Holiday Bowl and managed to win 10 games or a disappointment as they still fell short of advancing to the Big Ten Championship, even with a soft schedule. As a Badger myself, I’m happy we did as well especially given the way the offensive line and running game underachieved but felt the team wasted a golden opportunity and it stings knowing how close we were, losing to Iowa and Northwestern by a combined 10 points. Now, the Badgers face a Herculean schedule with a different signal caller under center and a new defensive coordinator. Here is an early preview of the upcoming season.
Next to Ohio State, the Badgers are the only team that plays its three non-conference games versus teams that made bowl game appearances last year. Right off the bat, like the past two seasons, Wisconsin opens its schedule with its toughest opponent of the year with an SEC powerhouse as they take on LSU at the hallowed grounds of Lambeau Field. To add to the drama, former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will be roaming the sidelines for the Tigers. After this epic battle, Wisconsin takes on an Akron team that won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and a Georgia State team that played in the AutoNation Cure Bowl.
Then, the real fun comes in with one of the most brutal first half conference schedules ever assembled in recent memory. For the first time since 2012, the Badgers will play rival Michigan State in the Big Ten opener at East Lansing then take a road trip to the Big House versus Michigan, host Ohio State, venture into Iowa and play against Nebraska in Madison, all in six weeks. Wisconsin will be lucky to get through this part with a .500 record and if they can get past rivals Northwestern and Minnesota in the second half, it would make for a very respectable 8-4 record.
Last season was a transition year for the offensive line as they had a number of growing pains and struggled at times but now with a year of experience, the team hopes the line can regain its dominant form. The only big loss was left tackle Tyler Marz with center Dan Voltz returning and Michael Deiter likely starting at left guard. UW-Stevens Point transfer Ryan Ramczyk looks like the favorite to replace Marz with Beau Benzschawel at right guard and Jacob Maxwell at right tackle. Micah Kapoi also played at left guard a lot last year as well Walker Williams at
right and you can’t forget about redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen either.
At quarterback, despite his inconsistency, Joel Stave was still able to win a school-record 31 games and with him now gone, the Badgers have a big void to fill. Fortunately, they have a player in fifth-year senior Bart Houston, who has shown he has the ability to win games as evidenced in a 24-13 win over Illinois. He played the last three quarters after Stave suffered a head injury and completed 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Some of the Badger faithful even felt he should have replaced Stave.
At the same time, the pressure is on Houston to deliver because there aren’t very many other options to choose from. Those slim options include southpaw redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook, who was committed to Pittsburgh before coach Paul Chryst took the Wisconsin job, true freshman Kare’ Lyles and walk-on redshirt senior Thad Armstrong. Hornibrook received great reviews last spring and could push Houston for the starting job but experience favors the latter as Hornibrook has yet to see college game action.
But no matter who starts, the question remains, can the passing attack replicate or surpass the production of Stave to compliment its rushing game? If anyone can help, it’s Chryst, who was the offensive coordinator from 2005-2011, overseeing some of the most prolific offenses in program history. If Wisconsin wants to slay the Goliaths on its schedule, it’s imperative the passing game is reliable.
In addition to a new quarterback, the Wisconsin Badgers have questions at wide receiver. Last season, Alex Erickson was named to first-team All-Big Ten as he hauled in 77 passes for 978 yards. He is no longer there and next in line is Rob Wheelwright, who showed flashes of potential as he caught 32 balls for 416 yards during the same span, while Jazz Peavy finished with 20 receptions for 268 yards. Can these two receivers turn into a potent 1-2 punch and can the reserves (Reggie Love, George Rushing, and Krenwick Sanders) be a trustworthy commodity as they should get increased opportunities?
Last, the Badgers failed to produce an 1,000 yard running back for the first time since 2005 and Corey Clement, who was once seen as a premier college football back, now has to prove he can stay healthy for a season.
While the offense deals with a new quarterback, the defense will have to get used to a new face calling the shots with Justin Wilcox taking over the defensive coordinator position after Aranda left for LSU. In Aranda’s last season at Wisconsin, the defense led the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.7 points per game) and total defense (268.5 yards per game) so Wilcox definitely has a tall order to fill. It will be interesting to see how the defense, which will remain a 3-4 alignment, responds to Wilcox’s tutelage because he had success as the defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee and Washington. At the same time, some his defenses in the past have been just subpar like last season at USC (65th overall) even with some five-star recruits.
Next, the defensive line is essentially the same as last year with just the loss of end Jake Keefer. Sophomore Olive Sagapolu will likely be the nose with junior Chikwe Obasih and senior Arthur Goldberg joining him at defensive end while key bench contributers will be tackle Conor Sheehy along with Alec James and Zander Neuville, both of whom can rush the passer.
When most teams lose the Big Ten linebacker of the year, it is almost inevitable that hardships will ensue, but the linebacking corps for the Badgers remains the strength of the defense. Joe Schobert has now departed following an incredible senior season in which he led the team in tackles for loss (19.5) and sacks (9.5) but there is a ton of depth and a wealth of talent leftover that can make this group just as good if not better than last year’s. The primary weapon will be senior Vince Biegel, who ranked second on the team in tackles for loss (14) and sacks (eight) and third in tackles (66). Joining him on the outside will probably be junior Jack Cichy, who can also play inside and showed how good he can be when he had three sacks in one drive against USC in the Holiday Bowl, though we shouldn’t forget about T.J. Watt, who received more reps in the second part of last season. On the inside, sophomores Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards, who led the team in tackles (84) and was named to the to the Football Writers Association of America freshmen All-America team, should be much improved after impressive freshmen campaigns.
However, the tail-end of the defense could be its Achilles heel as three out of four starting defensive backs have moved on including the versatile Tanner McEvoy, who led the team with six interceptions, Darious Hillary and leader Michael Caputo at safety. To add to the dilemma, the remaining trio of safeties (D’Cota Dixon, Leo Musso and Arrington Farrar) combined for just 28 tackles. The only good news is they return starting cornerback Sojourn Shelton and a host of other players who gained some experience last season, including corners Derrick Tindal and Natrell Jamerson and added six defensive backs in its 2016 recruiting class.
Even with a favorable schedule, the Badgers still dropped two conference games last season, proving the Big Ten is a tough conference to play. Now, with an exponentially harder schedule to go along with new coaches and player personnel on each side of the ball, it could be a long, weary road to travel this year. To be honest, I only see the Badgers winning seven or eight games and will be extremely lucky if they earn nine wins.
We finally made it to the point in the bowl season where the match ups get a bit more interesting and that is exactly what we have in the Holiday Bowl with USC and Wisconsin. Both of these teams have been a bit more up-and-down than some people thought and will be looking to provide a springboard into 2016 with a win at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
Haters are going to hate, right? Well, if you’re USC, you have plenty of them and for the most part the Trojans have provided plenty of fuel to the fire for those people who don’t like USC. Between the coaching issues with Steve Sarkisian, the decision making by AD Pat Haden, and even the hiring of Clay Helton, the 2015 season has been one of ups and downs for the storied Pac-12 program. What do they need to do against Wisconsin to win?
The one thing they do have is talent. It’s young talent, but it’s talent that most football programs would die to have.
The aerial attack that USC can throw at opposing teams can cause defensive coordinators to have sleepless nights. It all starts with Cody Kessler who had a solid year, not the Heisman year that some people imagined, but nothing to be ashamed of. When Kessler looks to score quick he looks to JuJu Smith-Schuster who grabbed 85 receptions, 1,389 yards, and scored 10 touchdowns. He has speed that makes other players seem like they are playing with cement tied around their ankles. Not to be outdone is two-way player Adoree’ Jackson who may be the only player to make JuJu look slow. Jackson had 35 receptions for 308 yards while also playing defensive back for USC.
These two give the Trojans so much speed on the outside, it’ll be interesting to see how Wisconsin responds to it. USC also has Steven Mitchell Jr and Darreus Rodgers who combined for 61 receptions, 572 yards, and four touchdowns. Clearly the Trojans pose a problem for the Badgers with this kind of passing attack and since the Badgers have only faced two top-50 passing teams this season in Nebraska and Illinois it will be of utmost importance for the Badgers to limit their success.
When I think of Wisconsin, one of the things that comes to mind is a tough defense with big, stout farm kids from the dairy land. They absolutely have that this year, especially against the run. The Badgers rank fourth nationally against the run. As a complete defense they are first nationally in allowing just 13.1 points a game. The Badgers might want to play to their strengths and stop the run to make Cody Kessler put the entire offense on his shoulders. Every defensive coordinator wants to make the opposing offense one-dimensional, so if they can shut down the Trojan running attack which is good, then they can bring more defensive backs into the game to help limit the USC passing attack. This will be one of things that I will be looking for in this game.
This is that classic Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup that most people see in the Rose Bowl, but with this game there are other aspects that are on the line for both teams. Wisconsin is going for its fifth 10-win season since 2009. In that time period only Ohio State and Michigan State have more wins. Clay Helton is going for his first win as USC’s official head coach. A win for Helton’s Trojans in this game will quiet many of negative thoughts that some have had since the Trojans removed the interim tag from Helton.
In the end, this is a hard game to figure out. Can a good offense overcome a great defense or does the defense shut the offense down? Most coaches will say defense wins championships, but if you can’t score then the defense is rendered moot. I’m going to Fight On with the Trojans and their offense. USC wins 30-17.
Coming into the 2015 season, the Wisconsin Badgers were expected by numerous pundits to win the Big Ten West division and earn another trip to the Big Ten Championship to exact revenge for their 59-0 defeat in last season’s title game against Ohio State.
Instead, the Badgers plans went awry due to untimely injuries, most notably a sports hernia injury to lead back Cory Clement and were thwarted with heartbreaking losses in the waning seconds to Iowa and Northwestern. Furthermore, after leading the Big Ten in rushing in 2014, they fell to tenth overall in the conference and failed to produce a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time in 11 years. Yes, they were mathematically in contention all season for the division but were never the frontrunners as expected as they finished third in the West with a 9-3 record. For most programs, accumulating nine victories would be a formidable accomplishment, especially for a first-year coach, but the season left something to be desired.
Now, Wisconsin heads to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl against University of Southern California with an opportunity to end the season on a high note and reach ten wins. Quarterback Joel Stave would definitely want to nab one more victory, making him the Badgers’ record-holder for career wins.
On paper, nothing significant stands out for this offensively challenged, imbalanced team. The Badgers ranked 58th in passing, 97th in rushing and 84th in total offense. Stave was the model of inconsistency as he threw 11 interceptions to 10 touchdowns, including two picks returned for touchdowns. At the same time, the Badgers severely lacked a home-run hitting, dynamic playmaker in the backfield and Wisconsin’s offensive line couldn’t stay healthy, using seven different starting combinations in 12 games and losing three starters including center Dan Voltz for the year to a knee injury. Also, there were injuries to tight end Austin Traylor and wide receiver Rob Wheelwright, so over half of the original starting offensive lineup didn’t play for long periods during this season. Even so, Wisconsin still has yet to beat a winning team this season (the team’s nine wins have come against schools with a combined 33-75 record). The lone bright spot it seemed was first-team all-Big Ten receiver Alex Erickson, who hauled in 72 catches, more than double what anybody else has on the team, catching five or more passes in eight games. His 924 receiving yards ranked third in the league.
Though the offense sputtered and failed to live up to expectations, the defense was consistently reliable and kept the team in games. The defense ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense and No. 3 in total defense, and was especially strong against the run, holding opponents to a conference best 98 yards per game. One of the nation’s most impressive defensive units, this group proved to be a very talented corps with explosive playmaking abilities. Senior Joe Schobert led the defense with 76 tackles on the season, 18.5 for a loss, and 9.5 sacks, in addition to accumulating an interception and five forced fumbles, tying a school record for most fumbles forced this season. Schobert, alongside leading tackler T.J. Edwards (80 tackles) and Vince Biegel (64 tackles) formed a strong, underrated group of linebackers. Dave Aranda’s last three defenses at Wisconsin have ranked in top 7 nationally in total defense and scoring defense and he has never had more than seven returning starters on his defenses. In fact, since Aranda arrived three years ago, the Badgers have given up an average of 17 points per game, second best in the nation.
Special Teams: D+
With the exception of Rafeal Gaglianone’s game-winning field goal against Nebraska and a punt return for a touchdown versus Northwestern that was controversially called back, special teams were a liability for Wisconsin all year long. Its kickoff and punt coverage, kickoff return and field goal numbers (62.5%, 12th in Big Ten, 107th overall) all fall near the bottom of Big Ten schools. Punter Drew Meyer was 12th in the conference for yards per punt at 39.6.
Even after 12 games, it still is relatively unknown where this Badgers team stands because there are two ways to look at it. Wisconsin could very well have finished 11-1 and be headed to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, which many fans expected to happen but Wisconsin’s losses to Iowa and Northwestern came after the Badgers did not score from the goal line late in each contest. Yet, it’s a players game and you can’t blame Paul Chryst and his staff for being unable to pull out victories in close games and with all the injuries and inconsistent offense the Badgers had, 9-3 isn’t so bad. The other way to look at it is that Chryst achieved very little despite going 9-3 this past regular season as Wisconsin did not play any of the East Division powerhouses this season, just barely beat Nebraska with a field goal and struggled mightily with a Maryland team that won one league game all season. Needless to say, it’s not overly impressive and the team could very well be 6-win program, which is unacceptable by Wisconsin standards, first year or not. With all these things in mind, the Badgers still managed to make a decent bowl against a storied USC program and for that, they deserve a solid grade.
Whoever is the Wisconsin Badgers’ starting running back will be the featured offensive player. The program is known for producing very productive runners at the college level who typically don’t do much in the NFL. Corey Clement is no exception (although his NFL future is unknown). He started the season as the go-to-guy for the Badgers and has been derailed by a sports hernia. Although there are varying degrees of hernias, the injury is not exceedingly rare or severe. When most think of severe football injuries to the lower half of the body, images of knees bending the wrong way (think Willis McGahee) often come to mind. With that said, the way that Wisconsin is handling the injury could provide a very troublesome, annoying, and even devastating precedent.
Corey Clement is being sent to Germany for his hernia surgery to receive a procedure from specialist Ulrike Muschaweck, a man known for creating a “minimal repair technique” for hernia surgeries that allows an athletes to resume training within a few days of the surgery. In a vacuum, this procedure sounds great. Clement gets sent to Germany, has supposedly the best type of surgery for an athlete, one that allows him to resume training as quickly as possible, and then returns to the field where he hopefully returns as an unstoppable force. The way that this issue is being handled, however, seems troublesome.
Bylaw 16.4 of the NCAA Division I Manual states that “an institution, conference, or the NCAA may provide medical and related expenses and services to a student-athlete.” In this case Wisconsin would be the one providing services. The bylaw allows the University of Wisconsin to pay for the costs that are not covered by Clement’s insurance policy. While there is a chance that Clement has an insurance policy that has a network that extends out of the country, and that his policy include Ulrike Muschaweck as an approved healthcare provider, it is unlikely. As a result, there is a strong likelihood that the University of Wisconsin will be paying for Clement’s trip to and from Germany, his lodging, and the entire cost of his medical procedure. So basically, everything. I say, good job Corey Clement. He found a way to get a benefit from the school that gave him a scholarship that seems to go far beyond anything other athletes receive. While other athletes rehab their injuries while working with prospective kinesiology and physical therapy students, Clement gets go to Germany to see one of the best hernia surgeons.
The real issue of Corey Clement’s treatment arises when the next Wisconsin Badger gets hurt. What happens when a fifth year senior backup defensive lineman has a shoulder injury and wants to see a shoulder specialist in Japan? Does Wisconsin pay for his trip and treatment? And what happens when that player’s request is declined and the player and/or his family get upset with Wisconsin and decide to take legal action against the school, citing Clement’s case as a precedent?
As a fan, I can’t argue with Wisconsin’s decision to help Clement return to the field as quickly as possible. I want to see him running for 150 yards and 3 touchdowns against Big Ten opponents as much as anyone else. However, as a fan, I also want to see the Wisconsin football program remain financially viable and not become the subject of programs like Outside the Lines or 30 for 30 based on the way that they treat the medical needs of some players but not others. Football as a whole is already under fire with many highly publicized arrests, lawsuits about concussions and likeness issues, on-field deaths, targeting of referees, and former players committing suicide in a way that leaves their brains intact for scientific research. The sport doesn’t need to provide critics and detractors with further ammunition. Unfortunately, it seems like Wisconsin has decided to enter the fray by allowing Corey Clement to travel to Germany for a sports hernia surgery.
It only took five days, but our first weekend of College Football is in the books. We had a lot of chalk and some disappointment, but it was the “Wow!” moments that really jumped off the page. The bar was really set high for the individuals that the consensus expects to be in the running for that big heavy trophy, and for the schools interested in playing in that little tournament, well, they just had to win.
From the home of the Belk Bowl to the campus of the last program to slay the dragon that Urban Meyer built in Central Ohio, it was an extended weekend of debuts, vengeance, and perhaps an introduction to some new contenders. We’ll start in Blacksburg, where the first unanimous Preseason AP #1 team in the country took on Frank Beamer and the Virginia Tech Hokies, seeking their pound of flesh for what took place in Columbus a year ago.
Ohio State 42 Virginia Tech 24
The story has been told, time and time again. Cardale Jones has never started a game in his own stadium for Ohio State, and on Monday night, he earned his first regular season victory, so it’s long past the time we stop referring to him as the Buckeye’s 3rd-string quarterback. In case you felt his previous three performances were some type of sorcery on the part of Meyer last December and January, the junior from Cleveland showed the magic is still there on Ohio State’s first possession, hitting Curtis Samuel on the money with a throw off of his back foot, good for a 24-yard touchdown. The next time the Buckeyes snapped the ball, Ezekiel Elliott went 80 yards to make it 14-0 in favor of the defending champs, perhaps making fans in Tuscaloosa feel better about things, but likely not.
It appeared the Buckeyes were going to roll, but misfortune, the type that goes beyond taking the field at Lane Stadium without Joey Bosa or Jalin Marshall on the field, struck, and the Hokies ripped off 17 unanswered, taking a 17-14 lead into the break. A missed Ohio State field goal gave the home team some momentum towards the end of the first quarter, but all of the credit in the world goes to Virginia Tech for designing a wheel route to full back Sam Rogers, who was all by himself on the left sideline. The big man had to hustle, but Eli Apple stood between him and the goal line and he shook the Buckeyes’ the third-year corner out of his shoes to cut the early advantage in half. Without the services of Marshall, Meyer had Elliott back returning punts, and call it inexperience or whatever, but the All-World running back struggled to field AJ Hughes second punt of the night, and four plays later, another nicely designed throwback to Ryan Malleck on third down gave the Hokies the lead.
Anyone remember Braxton Miller, the forgotten head on the three-headed monster of Ohio State’s open competition for the starting role last spring? They gave him a new number and a new position, and it only took him about a half of football to get his sea-legs beneath him. He did have a couple of rushing attempts and a nice diving 24-yard catch in the first half, which I think showed us he’s still a legitimate player, even when not behind center. On the third play of the second half, he took a pass from Jones and tip-toed by the Hokie defender, down the right sideline for 54 yards and the score. On the Bucks next offensive play from scrimmage, he gave the Scarlet and Gray their first Wow Moment of the season with a spin move that you can, yeah, only do on video games. From there, the rout was on.
Give Beamer and company some credit; they nearly made Mark May look smart. While the final score really was indicative of the game we watched, they did some really good things to take the straight-up running game away from Ohio State, despite big plays from Elliott and Miller, and they found enough vulnerabilities in the defense to put some points on the board and make this prime time affair interesting into the late night hours of Labor Day. The game really didn’t get out of hand until Brenden Motley had to spell starting quarterback Michael Brewer.
Unfortunately for Brewer, we live in a world where what you say with a certain expectation of privacy is subject to “going viral”. He was caught on camera, and yes, it’s likely he knew it was in his face, spouting off some one-liner about how it’s going to take a lot more than a fairly brutal hit he took on the Hokies last drive of the half to knock him out of the game. You can’t blame the kid; he was talking to his teammates in the locker room, more so than the national television audience through the lens of ESPN’s camera, but people are going to talk about karma. To that, I say “whatever”.
It’s widely believed that this is Ohio State’s last real test before Michigan State visits Columbus in November, and it’s hard to disagree. Up next, the Buckeyes get Hawaii, Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan at home, and then a relatively simple conference slate, though I’m not ready to overlook Minnesota’s visit to the ‘Shoe on November 7th. For the Hokies, don’t expect the season to instantly go down the toilet after this acceptable performance. Last year, East Carolina beat Virginia Tech on their home field a week after they stunned Ohio State. Don’t expect Furman to follow suit; in fact, I’d say you can expect the Hokies to get their own pound of flesh from ECU on the road in a couple of weeks, and for them to be competitive in the ACC.
Marshall 41 Purdue 31
It was tough sledding for Darrell Hazell and Purdue in the only game on the slate for this pre-NFL Sunday. If Hazell and his signal-caller Austin Appleby never see Tiquan Lang again, it will be too soon for the both of them. Though, I’m very open to the possibility that Appleby never saw Lang at all, yeilding two pick-sixes to the Thundering Herd’s junior safety, which were good for the first and last scores of the game.
On the game’s very first play from scrimmage, Lang stepped in front of the intended receiver, and went 30 yards untouched to give Marshall the early lead, but there was still a good 59 minutes and change of football to be played. Purdue was able to recover on a DJ Knox touchdown run, on his way too a 100-yard day on the ground, but the game went back and forth all afternoon. The visiting Boilermakers led for most of the first half, until Devon Johnson put Marshall back up 34-31 with a 6-yard score, but Appleby had one more chance. After timeouts by both teams, it appeared the Purdue junior had too much time to think about it once again. And once again, an ill-fated pass attempt fell into the hands of Lang, who had to work harder on his second return, cutting across the field for a 55-yard score to put it to bed.
You've had nine months to come up with a first play.
Given their early success in making the jump from Division I to Division I-AA with Chad Pennington and Randy Moss nearly twenty years ago, it’s difficult to believe Sunday’s win, in front of a home crowd of nearly 39,000 in Huntington, was the school’s first win over a Big Ten program, but the Boilermakers seem to be giving a few mid-Majors that milestone in recent years.
Alabama 35 Wisconsin 17
Hey Badger fans, I think Derrick Henry just scored again! Okay, maybe not, but the Alabama junior running back averaged 11.3 yards per carry, en route to three touchdowns on the ground at “The House That Jerry Built” in North Texas on Saturday. It probably would have been more, but the end zone kept stopping him. If there’s honestly a debate about the quarterback position at Alabama, and I don’t think there is, we gained no clarity about it on Saturday night. My gut tells me Nick Saban will let Jake Coker assume the role, unless his poor play forces his hand or Cooper Bateman takes things to a new level in the time he’s getting.
So, I know Gene Chizik was 5-19 at Iowa State before being awarded the Auburn job, where he landed the services of Cam Newton and won a title in his second season, so maybe I don’t read too much into Paul Chryst’s 19-19 mark at Pittsburgh. Seriously though, in Chryst’s debut with the Badgers, he wasn’t just behind the curve with the X’s and O’s, that Big Ten size and strength, which is supposed to be their finest asset in Madison, it’s not there. I’ve long thought that Barry Alvarez was the reason Gary Andersen chose a new gig in Corvalis over what he’s built in Madison, but he might have just seen the writing on the wall with what he wasn’t able to recruit. Sorry, but 16 yards on 8 carries for Corey Clement just isn’t getting it done; Melvin Gordon III isn’t walking back through that door and head coaches will dare Joel Stave to beat them all season.
Texas A&M 38 Arizona State 17
Is it possible to lose a game by more than just the numbers on the scoreboard? In being picked apart by Scottsdale, Arizona’s Kyle Allen and Christian Kirk, the very successful head coach of the Sun Devils, Todd Graham, was exposed for losses to the state of Texas in the recruiting game. Allen, the sophomore quarterback fighting off highly touted freshman Kyler Murray, threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, but Kirk was the star of the show. You get sick of hearing about video games when you’re discussing actual human athletes, but between his 79-yard punt return that put the Aggies up 14-0 early and his 66-yard touchdown catch and run, that status quo had cheat codes on their mind. I’d reference the Game Genie here, but it would be lost on everyone not born between 1975 and 1985.
After A&M’s season went downhill after their big win in the opener against South Carolina a year ago, Aggie fans can only be cautiously optimistic about Kevin Sumlin’s squad’s chances in the SEC. On the other hand, after watching how hapless the ASU offense was in Houston, there has to be some concern about senior quarterback Mike Berovici, a guy that wasn’t spectacular in his understudy role in 2014, despite the team’s success in games he started.
This neutral site game was the only game of any sort on the 2015 schedule that paired a Pac-12 school against a team from the Southeastern Conference. If you’re an SEC honk, you want the Sun Devils to dominate their conference. If you support a Pac-12 contender that isn’t Arizona State, you’re probably hoping your program isn’t basically a coin flip for that fourth playoff spot with a member of the SEC in December.
Northwestern 16 Stanford 6
We should probably acknowledge this battle of Academia that took place in Evanston, the most watchable matinee of the day on Saturday. Was this more about Kevin Hogan and Stanford being inept on offense, or does Pat Fitzgerald have a great defense at Northwestern? I fear David Shaw may be on the decline, the more we see time separate this program from the days of Jim Harbaugh.
One thing I’m hearing and I don’t agree with is that Stanford is suddenly too slow. Sure Hogan isn’t a runner on the level that Andrew Luck was, and Ty Montgomery is gone from the offense and special teams, but Michael Rector isn’t slow and we should see more of Christian McCaffrey in both the running and passing games. My guess is the offense works it out, but I don’t know if the glass is less than half-full when I look at that defense. The departing talent hasn’t been replaced, or the newbies haven’t been developed, but Northwestern owned the line of scrimmage when they had the ball. That’s going to be a problem for the Cardinal all year.
The victory in the trenches translated to a good game for running back Justin Jackson, who ran for 134 yards. However, it was quarterback Clayton Thorson’s 42 yard run, on what looked like a designed draw play, that represented the only touchdown of the day. The Wildcats will host an FCS team next week, and visit Duke in a few weeks, but expect them to finish non-conference play 4-0, setting up a big match up with Minnesota, on October 2nd at Ryan Field.
Ole Miss 76 Tennessee-Martin 3
Yuck, just yuck. Hugh Freeze, you’re in the SEC, and I know you want the home game at whatever price, but playing FCS foes is totally beneath you. Indiana got lucky doing this, but Wyoming, Washington State, and Kansas were not. Shame on everyone who partakes in this practice, even you Arizona State, where I’ll watch you rebound against cal-Poly, but still, Yuck!
Michigan State 37 Western Michigan 24
Kudos to the AD’s in East Lansing and Kalamazoo for making this happen, with the mid-major hosting the high major. PJ Fleck, your Western Michigan program isn’t quite there yet, but they didn’t look out of their element with a big boy from the Big Ten in town.
Michigan State might want to work on kick coverage this week, while the Broncos shouldn’t change a thing. Row your boat, fellas.
Charlotte 23 Georgia State 20
This game kicked off at 12:30 PM, during my work day on Friday. I caught the end on the ESPN app in my office. It was fourth College Football game I’d watched with some interest in a 24-hour span; yeah, I need help.
For the 49ers, it was their first game as an FBS program, and obviously also their first victory, but the Panthers of Georgia State made it interesting in the end.
TCU 23 Minnesota 17
I don’t know if I just don’t like the idea of B being a Heisman candidate, or if I have the bar set too high for him and, really, the rest of the Horned Frogs. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think TCU is phenomenal when they have the ball, and that’s where the expectation comes from, but they just didn’t seem to have it, despite a nice victory over an underlooked Minnesota team on Thursday night at TCF Stadium.
He’s got weapons all around him, most notably Josh Doctson, and 246 passing on a day he rushed for 92 is far from underwhelming, but in real-time, I didn’t think he was anything special. That just tells me we haven’t seen anything yet from the offense. Based on what SMU was able to do to Baylor for 30 minutes on Friday, they might make for an interesting opponent for Gary Patterson’s defense, still a question mark for me after Minnesota had many opportunities Thursday.
Jerry Kill has a nice little team in Minnesota. They hung around the entire game, even if TCU did adjust better at the half. Rodney Smith seems like a good find; the freshman had 88 yards on 16 carries, but a lot of it that offensive line. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner needs to be more efficient or throw the ball less, but I don’t know how much less he can throw it, considering he was sacked 20 times a year ago.
That Ref Deserves a Hug
Sometimes, I just can’t get over how the universe can even itself out. Two years ago, going left to right across the Big Red “N” at midfield in Lincoln, a backup quarterback heaves up a prayer. You know the rest, Jordan Westerkamp is on the receiving end for the touchdown and the win against Nebraska. Redemption is spelled R-O-N (Kellog).
Fast forward to Saturday, BYU down 28-27, 1 tick on the clock for Tanner Magnum, on in relief of the injured Taysom Hill. Mitch Matthews hauls it in for the win, but #11 Terenn Houk is the star of this Vine.
…and the rest.
These are all of the items that are too short for a capsule of their own.
Penn State, I’m glad you went to Philly to play Temple, but how did you lose that game?
Michigan, you can’t run the ball and don’t have a real answer at quarterback. Jim Harbaugh isn’t saving you right away.
Between the Cactus Bowl and Friday’s somewhat awkward return to Boise for Chris Petersen, I’ve now bailed on Washington at halftime in consecutive games, only to learn the second half was interesting, the next day. Show up in the first half, Huskies.
Nicely done, Josh Rosen. What a performance for the true freshman; he came with a lot of hype, but lived up to it. UCLA wasn’t playing an FCS school on Saturday, they were hosting a Power 5. It was Virginia, but still.
Northern Illinois, that’s two years in a row that you’ve dominated UNLV, but let them hang around. A MAC rival will take advantage at some point, just watch.
We’re so spoiled with digital options for viewing, that it was aggravating that CBS Sports didn’t have an option and I’m told didn’t regionally switch to the UNLV-NIU game in DeKalb, while overtime was played in Tulsa.
By the way, way to finish your win over Florida Atlantic, Tulsa.
So, Auburn is pretty good. Louisville might be too, but not based on their play Saturday. Either way, good to see Verne and Gary on CBS in Week 1. (They called Ohio State-Navy for CBS Sports Network to open the 2014 season)
Play-by-play announcers and color analysts, it’s okay to punt in College Football. Not every opponent is Oregon, and not every situation near or behind midfield equals four-down territory. Our game is about field position, and you win it by punting when appropriate.
Adults that paint their bodies and dedicate their lives to “me time” on camera for their favorite College Football team don’t deserve the air time.
I’d rather get neutral site games than no game at all, but there’s something about the games being played on campus. Steve Spurrier, that atmosphere sucked with all of the empty seats in Charlotte. Go to Chapel Hill or have Larry Fedora bring his team to Columbia, and stop trying to do too much.
Nice touchdown reception, Robert Nkemdiche. We’ll talk more about the two-way play of the Ole Miss pass-rusher, when they play an FBS foe.
Lastly, I think I underestimated how cool Scott Van Pelt’s midnight Sportscenter would be, because I was mostly upset about losing his radio show on my mid-day drives. I’d planned on getting straight to my writing room when the game ended, but I stuck around. It’s a shame the technical stuff had to be difficult in Virginia, I really would have loved to see him interview Braxton Miller.
Back on Sunday to discuss Week 2…61 hours until Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky kickoff.
In other sports, namely baseball, the concept of wins above replacement (WAR) has become very popular. The concept of WAR seems simple: it is a measure of how much better or worse a player is than the “average” player. To put this in context, players like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Miguel Cabrera have a higher WAR value than much of the league because they have skills and provide contributions that are far beyond average and ultimately cause their teams to have more victories with them than without them.
Going into 2015, the projected Wisconsin Badgers’ starting quarterback is Joel Stave. EVERYTHING HINGES ON HIM (and to a lesser degree, Corey Clement). If Stave performs well, the Badger offense becomes well balanced, possibly lethal. If Stave is average or below average, good teams will load up against the run, force Wisconsin to pass, and the offense will struggle. He is the result of the Wisconsin quarterback development process and possesses a lot of “experience,” but has been generally underwhelming. For me, he is the epitome of average and, in the context of WAR, it isn’t readily apparent that having Stave under center provides the Wisconsin offense with any real advantage. Stave has never been able to truly separate himself from the other quarterbacks on the roster. Since being on campus, he always seems to be in a quarterback competition of some sort. He has battled and, to varying degrees “won” competitions with Curt Phillips, Danny O’Brien, and Tanner McEvoy. In addition to beating out these potential quarterbacks, Stave has survived three head coaches, four quarterback coaches, and has overcome a case of the “yips.”
Adjectives like gritty, embattled, tough, grizzled, and game manager are words that a Stave supporter can use to describe the quarterback. These are also words that are used when a player doesn’t have any elite skills. He is much like former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell who had three different offensive systems in four years at Auburn and in his first seven years in the NFL had five different head coaches. Jason Campbell’s coaching turmoil in the NFL has led him to become a capable backup and a spot starter. However, like Stave, he always finds himself in the mix, but never able to truly thrive and never asked to do more than simply not make mistakes and keep his team in the game. Always being in the mix, but never being able to separate from the pack makes a quarterback, or any other position player for that matter, very average, and, ultimately, very replaceable.
Stave will never be a first round pick like Jason Campbell. In fact, Stave will probably go undrafted. Although Campbell was a first round NFL draft pick, he probably would not have been selected so highly had he not been playing with two first round running backs, Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown, and a first round cornerback, Carlos Rogers. For the 2015 season, Stave doesn’t have the same luxuries that Jason Campbell had in his final season at Auburn. Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal are good players, but at this point they do not have Cadillac Williams/Ronnie Brown-type abilities. Wisconsin’s defense has some talent, but it doesn’t have a shutdown corner at the level of Carlos Rogers. Without any true stars to bolster an average quarterback, it is a stretch to think that Stave and Wisconsin will be able to have anything but an average Wisconsin season.
While Stave has not shown that he can be a game-changing quarterback, his possible replacement, Bart Houston, has not shown that he perform at a high level either creating the dreaded “if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none” scenario. Despite being a 4-star recruit out of De La Salle in Concord, California, Houston has not lived up to his recruiting hype, has always been on the outside looking in during offseason quarterback battles, and is on the verge of ending his college career without taking a truly meaningful snap.
Joel Stave embodies my prediction of what this season will hopefully become: an average year with the Badgers ending with a respectable, but not stellar 8-4 or 9-3. Their record will net them a respectable, but not stellar, bowl like the Alamo Bowl or the Outback Bowl and this season, like many others will go into the file of “if only Wisconsin had a truly great quarterback.”
We’ve just entered the dead zone for most sports fans. Save for the Super Bowl this Sunday, football is over at both the college and professional levels and it will be six months before pre-season coverage really starts to kick into high gear. I’d consider myself a fairly big NBA fan, and though it’s enough to get me by until the start of baseball and summer, nothing is the same as football weekends. And if you are like me and live in the Midwest or another northern state, you’re dealing with weather that makes you not want to leave the house for weeks at a time AND no football. Sometimes you wonder if it’s worth getting up in the morning (ok, slight exaggeration). Reading absurdly premature 2015 college football articles helps me get my football fix, and here is a list of players that I can’t wait to watch play this coming fall.
Deshaun Watson – QB Clemson (featured image)
It was unknown if Watson would play much in 2014 with Senior QB Cole Stoudt on the roster, but it didn’t take long to tell who was the far superior player. By the third week Watson was getting the majority of the snaps and provided a three game taste of what the future would be like for the Clemson offense. Unfortunately it was mostly a tease since the quarterback’s season was disrupted and ultimately ended by injuries. Still, Watson completed 68% of his passes to go along with 19 total touchdowns and only 2 interceptions.
Joe Yearby – RB Miami (Fl.)
This is somewhat of a homer pick, but it’s not exactly unwarranted. Yearby did a fine job as a freshman rushing for 500+ yards and 5.9 ypc while backing up Duke Johnson. With Duke Johnson now gone there are plenty of carries available in the Hurricane backfield. With Brad Kaaya keeping defenses honest, I’m excited to see what Yearby can do with 200 carries.
DJ Foster – RB Arizona State
It may be because of a lack of consistency, but Foster’s season seemed like somewhat of a disappointment. Then you look up and realize he had 1,700 yards of offense and 12 touchdowns. His four 100-yard rushing games came in the Sun Devils’ three non-conference games and Colorado (who might as well be a non-conference doormat) but only topped 59 yards two other times. On the flip side he was used quite a bit in the passing game, especially with the emergence of fellow RB Demario Richard. That athleticism and versatility is what makes Foster fun to watch and he will be leaned on just as much with the departure of WR Jaelen Strong.
Artavis Scott – WR Clemson
Scott burst onto the scene as a freshman last year and helped ease the minds of Tigers fans mourning the departure of Sammy Watkins, one of the best players in school history. Scott racked up 965 yards and 8 scores and finished the year strong with 7 for 185 and two scores and 8 for 114 and one score in the Tigers final two games. Scott and DeShaun Watson will be lighting up defenses for at least the next two years.
Adoree Jackson – Everywhere USC
Jackson did it all for the Trojans in his 2014 freshman campaign, playing WR, CB, and returning kicks. His full repertoire was on display in USC’s bowl game as Jackson had a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a 71 yard touchdown catch, and 7 tackles on defense. No matter what position Jackson is playing this fall, he’s the only reason you need to tune into USC games.
Jeremy Johnson – QB Auburn
Though Auburn’s offense was pretty dynamic with Nick Marshall at the helm, many feel it could be even better in 2015 with Jeremy Johnson. Johnson’s size (6’5’’ 230 pounds) will remind you of Cam Newton, but he’s a much better passer than Newton or Marshall and not near the runner as either of them. Johnson has only seen limited action in the last two years, but he’s completed better than 70% of his passes with a 4.5/1 TD/INT ratio and has shown enough to make me think he’s a dark horse Heisman contender for 2015.
Corey Clement – RB Wisconsin
The Badgers have had no shortage of quality running backs in the last decade and a half and the pattern seems to be: RB excels in a backup role, RB puts up ridiculous stats in a full-time role, RB leaves for NFL. Clement will be on the second leg of that cycle after rushing for just under 1,000 yards backing up Melvin Gordon last year. Clement averaged 6.5 ypc and could easily double that as the lead back in 2015.
Dalvin Cook – RB Florida State
Dalvin Cook started the year slow and didn’t really contribute fully until halfway through the season. Once he did, the rest of the country wished Florida State hadn’t taken the reins off him. Cook tore it up, rushing for just over 1,000 yards even though he received more than 15 carries in only three games. Cook saved the Seminoles’ season in multiple games and will be relied upon even more now with Jameis Winston headed to the NFL.
KD Cannon – WR Baylor
Cannon was the 4th highest rated 2014 WR recruit and he didn’t disappoint in his freshman season. He took off from the get-go with star WR Antwan Goodley banged up, before slowing down upon Goodley’s return. He still managed to put up 1,030 yards and 8 touchdowns due to an explosive 17.8 yards per catch. Cannon capped off 2014 with 8 catches for 197 and 2 touchdowns in Baylor’s bowl game and could be one of the nation’s top receivers this fall with Goodley playing on Sundays.
Jamal Adams – S LSU
In the time since the national championship, I’ve read a few articles talking about breakout players for 2015. Every one of them has listed Adams on it, so that’s reason enough for me to get excited about his potential this fall. Adams is 6 feet and over 200 pounds and managed to make a significant impact as a freshman in an LSU secondary already full of NFL talent. Plus I’m a sucker for safeties with size.
Leonard Fournette – RB LSU
Another LSU Tiger, but this one’s just a little bit more known nationally. Fournette came into last season with about as much hype as possible, but started the year slow before taking off in the middle of the year. Fournette’s stat line looks impressive, but he needs to be more consistent going forward, especially in conference play. He did finish the year with back to back 140 yard games, giving Tiger fans reason to believe he will live up to the hype.
Jabrill Peppers – DB Michigan
Peppers was another highly touted recruit coming into the season but unlike Fournette, injuries robbed him of the ability to show off that potential. On the bright side, Peppers was able to get a medical redshirt, saving all of his eligibility while getting a few games of experience at the college level which will help this year. Whether Peppers plays corner or safety, he’s a ball hawk who you’ll want to keep your eye on.
Kenyan Drake – RB Alabama
Even in a crowded backfield Drake was supposed to have a breakout season last year after averaging 7.5 ypc in 2013. He was having that type of season until a gruesome injury ended his season in the Tide’s fifth game. Most of the focus will be on fellow running back Derrick Henry, but a healthy Kenyan Drake could throw his name into the list of best SEC running backs in a league stacked with good ones.
Wayne Gallman – RB Clemson
You should probably just watch any time Clemson is on offense because they have a handful of players who can turn heads. Gallman didn’t receive consistent carries until the Tigers’ 7th game but once he did he took off. The freshman rushed for over 500 yards on just under 5.5 ypc in the team’s last five games and should shoulder a similar load over the whole season in 2015.
Jalen Ramsey – DB Florida State
I’m not totally sure what to say about Ramsey other than he’s just fun to watch and you won’t regret it. Ramsey has the size to play up close and the athleticism to cover guys in the open field. One of those prototypical guys who always seems to be around the ball.
Joshua Dobbs – QB Tennessee
Dobbs was thrown into a tough situation as a sophomore on a young Vols team but performed admirably. He threw only 9 touchdowns to 6 interceptions in the half year he played but added 469 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground. His versatility should make Tennessee’s offense interesting to watch in a backfield that already has stud RB Jalen Hurd.
George Campbell – ATH Florida State
Campbell is one of the top recruits in the country and could line up at WR for the Seminoles. It might be a little crazy to put someone on this list who has yet to suit up for his school but if Campbell gets playing time it could be warranted. Campbell has rare size and speed being listed at 6’4’’, 190 pounds, with a 4.35 forty yard dash and 38” vertical to boot. On a team that just lost its top two receiving threats, Campbell could make an immediate impact.
If there was such a thing as a reset button, the Wisconsin Badgers would have surely pounded it by now. Despite having a 4-2 record and a Heisman trophy candidate in Melvin Gordon, the Badgers first half did not go according to plan.Leading LSU 24-7 in the third quarter, the Badgers were on the cusp of thrusting themselves into a potential top ten ranking and stamping themselves as legitimate contenders in the Big Ten only to collapse as they abandoned the run game for a porous passing game that produced 50 yards and two costly interceptions. Then, after winning three games in a row, the Badgers once again inexplicably stopped running the ball in crucial situations and relied on their passing game, which produced three turnovers in a 28-14 loss at Northwestern. The second loss eliminated the Badgers from any chance of making the playoffs. Wisconsin did get back on track with a victory over Illinois this past Saturday but the damage had already been done. Now, Wisconsin still has an outside shot of winning the West division and maybe even the Big Ten title but given their quarterback problem, where neither Joel Stave nor Tanner McEvoy have performed adequately, it remains to be seen if Wisconsin can compete and win tough games. Their quest continues next weekend against Maryland so here is a good time to look back and bring up the midseason report card.
When i first heard that Wisconsin was going to start Tanner McEvoy, i was excited. Instead of having a dropback pocket passer in Joel Stave, we would have a dynamic quarterback who would be able to extend plays and threaten the defense with his legs as well as his arm. Smart, logical thinking right? Wrong. McEvoy has been everything but dynamic and effective in his starts. From a passing standpoint, he has had only moderate success and has gone 58-of-100 for 653 yards with 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. But the biggest thing holding McEvoy back is his football competency as going through his progressions and making the right reads seems difficult. Joel Stave is much more competent in that department but alas, even when he was brought into the game against Northwestern, he showed he was not ready for the challenge as he was dreadfully inaccurate and threw three interceptions. In fact, hes completed just 45.5 of his passes for 187 yards. No unit needs more fine-tuning over the bye week than quarterback.
Running Backs, A
Despite all the limitations and ineptness of the passing game, the running game, as expected, has blossomed at a frenetic pace as both Melvin Gordon and backup Corey Clement are averaging over six yards per carry. It was no secret that the run game would be the strength and focal point of this team and so far, it has not disappointed. Gordon may have stumbled out of the gate especially by his standards with a second-half no show against LSU and gaining only yards against Western Illinois but since then he has been absolutely unstoppable, no matter how many defenders load the box and stack the line of scrimmage. The truly great backs are the ones who can produce even when everyone else knows they are getting the ball and Melvin Gordon already has over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns at the midpoint of this season.
Wide Receivers, D
This group has been disappointing and underwhelming to say the least. The freshman (Reggie Love, Rob Wheelwright) who were expected to step up haven’t, and veterans like Kenzel Doe and Jordan Frederick have not produced on a consistent basis. There is no question this group has talent and potential to grow but have proved to be unreliable. In fact, junior Alex Erickson is the only receiver to average more than a single pass in a game and his 27 receptions for 319 yards and a touchdown represents nearly 80% of the wideouts production. It remains to be seen if this unit can step up but it’s almost nearly impossible to foresee a solution anytime soon. The hope is that McEvoy and his other targets can figure it out.
Offensive Line, B-
It is undeniable that without the solid blocking of the offensive line the Badgers would not rank No. 1 in rushing yards per game at 343 yards and Melvin Gordon isnt a Heisman Trophy candidate. Wisconsin has started the same offensive line every game and that continuity helps make the run game work. With that said, there’s also been a severe lack of steady play and pass protection especially in their losses to LSU and Northwestern. Against Northwestern, pressure was the cause of at least three of the four UW turnovers, and in the LSU game, pressure caused quarterback Tanner McEvoy to run all over the field. Wisconsin’s offensive line needs to be more consistent like we’ve seen against Illinois in pass protection if this group wants a shot at a West division title.
Defensive Line, C
The Badgers front seven was going to be a work in progress coming into the season as they lost eight contributors in the front seven to graduation, and losing senior Warren Herring in Week 1 really hurt as his replacements have been only subpar. At times, the Badgers defensive line has been solid with great leadership from the likes of Konrad Zagzebski and a plethora of potential with strong performances from redshirt freshmen Alec James and Chikwe Obasih. But at other times, they’ve been pushed around, not being able generate a consistent pass rush with a four-man front this season.
Without Chris Borland, many worried where the production would come but this group has proved to be a very talented corps with explosive playmaking abilities. The Badgers have been able to generate more pressure on the quarterback this season and have 19 sacks on the season in six games, including a team-high four from Derek Landisch. Outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert have both been disruptive in the backfield as relentless pass rushers while accumulating a respectable number of tackles. Marcus Trotter has emerged as a leader and his presence was missed last week as the Fighting Illini’s Aaron Bailey ran for 75 yards and a score. Wisconsin’s productive set of linebackers that have been responsible for the Badgers being able to hold their own on the defensive side of the ball.
Heading into the season, the secondary was supposed to be a strength and so far, it has lived up to the hype except in covering the deep ball as teams are throwing over the top of the defense. Safety Michael Caputo has been great in run support and making open field tackles with 40 but his coverage skills are limited. Freshman Lubern Figaro, redshirt sophomore Leo Musso, and fifth-year senior Peniel Jean have played we fety spot. At corner, Darius Hillary, a redshirt junior, has done a good job keeping everything in front of him but Sojourn Shelton has struggled mightily, racking up the penalties while also still getting beaten over the top. the Badgers will need Shelton to be better if they are to beat the Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
Even with virtually no passing game, there is no reason for Wisconsin’s offense to sputter as much as it as over the first several games of this season. The three points in the first half against South Florida, the collapse against LSU and the failed comeback at Northwestern are partially the coaches fault for their playcalling and strategy being used in those games. I’m not throwing all the blame on them because the players, particularly at quarterback and receiver, have not been on the same page and the O-line has been suspect as well, but it ultimately comes down to Gary Anderson and his staff. Yet, it’s not all bad either. Defense is the No. 1 unit in the Big Ten under Dave Aranda and no one can complain with that. Overall, I like Coach Anderson and how his no-nonsense approach has seemed to rub off of on his players but there is also so much room for improvment especially from the passing game.
A look at the final stat sheet from Saturday’s 38-28 win over Big Ten foe Illinois at Camp Randall would provide some pretty basic understanding of how the Badgers went about business in acquiring their first league victory. Of 65 plays, Wisconsin ran 47 times and threw 18 times. Those plays resulted in 401 net rushing yards and 97 net passing. Touchdowns were five on the ground and none through the air. This all seems exactly the way it should be for an offense featuring a Heisman Trophy candidate at tailback that leads the nation in yards per game going up against a defense that was 119th in the FBS trying to stop the run. Yet there is more under the surface.
The conundrum facing offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is how to effectively use two completely different quarterbacks without being completely predictable, all while pushing the offense forward in its development? What ultimately played out was a one-sided platoon in which Joel Stave took the snaps in all but one possession. The intriguing part of that decision is that Ludwig didn’t bring Tanner McEvoy in after either of Stave’s non-scoring, three-and-out series, but rather after he had orchestrated a ten-play, 75-yard drive for seven points that included 4-of-5 completed throws. Just when Stave appeared to be finding his groove, it was bench time.
In McEvoy’s brief appearance, he ran a successful read option for 12 yards, completed 3-of-4 attempts, and was lucky not to get intercepted in his one miscue throwing deep into double coverage. Plays like the read option have been missing in the play calling scheme the past few weeks, and is what’s expected of McEvoy in utilizing his ability to make things happen with his legs. The understanding is the pass plays are called to either prevent or take advantage of a defense expecting nothing but a ground game with McEvoy in. Yes, it worked on three occasions, but the way the drive ended is exactly the missteps Ludwig needs to avoid in the future. While it might be predictable, if you want to take a chance downfield on 1st-and-10 at the Illinois 30, you bring in Stave. Rather, he stuck with McEvoy, whose throw off his back foot into double coverage was nearly intercepted. Then, after a short gain by Melvin Gordon, the 3rd-and-nine call in a 14-all game is to throw with McEvoy…again. The completion to Gordon was for no-gain and the drive ended in a missed field goal by freshman Rafael Gaglianone. The confusion is two-fold: why did you give up on the option and why leave the drive’s outcome to throwing decisions made my McEvoy?
If you go back through the annals of football, there are plenty of successful teams who ran the ball when everyone on the field, in the stands, and watching on TV knew it was coming. Wisconsin has long been one of those programs. There are even programs today that can still win running the option on a significant of snaps. Yet, in his ten-play stint Saturday, it was called for on just one successful occasion. It’s likely no secret that Wisconsin fans do not want to see their team become an option team, however, the circumstances are different this year. With the team yet to complete a deep pass and no signs of any receiver able to create separation on a fly route and/or win a 50-50 ball beyond 25 yards, there needs to be more ways to creatively get Gordon’s and Clement’s hands on the ball in as many different ways possible. Just imagine the possibilities of option plays where say Clement could run through the line, McEvoy could keep it himself, or he could pitch to Gordon. It doesn’t need to happen ALL the time, but it certainly needs to be part of the scheme on more than 10% of McEvoy’s snaps at quarterback.
Before wrapping up this topic, there were a few other brief thoughts relating to the offense that passed through my head during Saturday’s ballgame:
McEvoy can certainly be a game-changing member of this offense, but if he’s going to be limited to 15% of the snaps, then maybe a move back to the defensive secondary would be best for him and the program. He was very solid at safety in 2013, and seemed to get better as the season wore on. Not only would it free up Ludwig from trying to determine the appropriate rotation, they could still use him periodically to run or catch the ball, and sure up a defensive secondary that remains in flux. The safety spot opposite Michael Caputo has seen a steady rotation of freshman Lubern Figaro, redshirt sophomore Leo Musso, and fifth-year senior Peniel Jean. Neither of them has the athletic makeup and size of McEvoy. On top of that, looking to the fall of 2015, the quarterback crop gets even more crowded. Aside from returning both starting quarterbacks, the Badgers will have backups Bart Houston and DJ Gillens back in the fold. Houston’s days in the program could be numbered, but Gillens is another dual-threat QB that made tremendous strides during spring and fall camp before redshirting this season. Plus, highly touted incoming freshman Austin Kafentzis of Utah will come to Madison looking to make an impact after a remarkable high school career. Might just be the best time to reconsider what side of the ball No. 5 belongs on.
Wisconsin has never really been known for its receivers. Al Toon, Chris Chambers, Lee Evans, Nick Toon, and Jared Abbrederis are a great collective, but it’s safe to say the group that spans from this year’s senior class through the sophomore have been a major disappointment. There may still be hope for a few of them, but it’s certainly not going to take shape this year. There is still optimism for the freshman group that arrived on campus this year, however, Andersen and his staff certainly needs to recruit that position better than his predecessor did. While the quarterback play has not always been superb, there have been way too many dropped balls and missed opportunities on catchable balls with the current group.
Badger Bites (Weekly nuggets about Wisconsin’s next opponent): The Badgers have a bye this coming Saturday. See you for Homecoming against Maryland.
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