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.
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.
In July 2013, Wisconsin landed one of its biggest quarterback recruits, D.J. Gillins, a 4-star dual-threat quarterback from Jacksonville, Florida. Unfortunately, the signing occurred during the tenure of former coach Gary Andersen. Now, Gillins is in a sort of quarterback purgatory as he doesn’t quite fit into the current system, but has undeniable talent that could allow him to contribute in a different role.
Following the lead of former scrambling quarterback turned do-it-all player, Tanner McEvoy, the Badgers have moved the redshirt freshman to wide receiver and might use him on special teams. While this isn’t the worst use of a talented and athletic player, hopefully the move isn’t permanent. The Badgers have the rare opportunity to develop a mobile quarterback and truly expand their offense to heights that haven’t been since Russell Wilson.
This season, the Badgers have arguably “too much” experience at quarterback with Joel Stave and Bart Houston being a redshirt senior and a redshirt junior, respectively. It makes sense to see the Badgers try to put Gillins at receiver, a position where he can contribute. However, entering the 2016 season, it is conceivable that Gillins can win the job over Houston and dramatically change the way that the Wisconsin offense operates.
With the exception of the Wilson season, the defensive game plan against Wisconsin has always been, stop the run and make the quarterback and his generally average receivers beat you. When Wilson was around, the mantra was the same, however, Wilson’s added ability to escape the pocket and make plays was a game changer. His ability to run and pass left defenses dumbfounded. In many respects, college football is about broken plays and one player using dominant physical attributes to rise above the rest. Joel Stave and Bart Houston, while talented quarterbacks, don’t provide much in the way of game breaking ability and serve more of the game manager role. They might escape the pocket and scramble effectively for a first down occasionally, but they are never truly a threat to make a few people miss and run 70 yards off a read option keeper.
The comparisons between Gillins and Wilson are somewhat uncanny. Both are former baseball players, both have athletic ability that could be utilized at almost any position on the field, and both are playing in a Paul Chryst offense. The main variable in this situation is the ability of Chryst to adapt his system to fit the needs of a developing quarterback. He has proven that he can take almost any quarterback and turn him into an efficent game manager, but his ability to effectively develop a mobile quarterback is still debatable. When he was at Wisconsin, Wilson was, essentially, a finished product. Chryst was able to use Wilson to elevate the Badger offense to new heights, however, it isn’t a stretch to think that most coaches could use a talent like Wilson to create a potent offensive attack.
Quarterback is, and will continue to be, the most important position on the field. Hopefully, Chryst doesn’t continue the trend of moving athletic quarterbacks to other positions and at least gives Gillins the opportunity to compete for the job next year. The return of a Wisconsin offense featuring a mobile quarterback would be welcome by all.
Last week I briefly talked about how this college football season could be the craziest in almost a decade. I figured over the next couple months we’d see some unexpected endings and as a result, some unexpected teams ranked pretty high. It took 3 days. This past Saturday saw four Top 10 teams go down and two others look unimpressive against subpar competition. But we’ll start today with a team that was impressive in a game that was the most entertaining of the day. The Baylor Bears knocked off Texas Tech in a game that saw 70 points scored in the first half alone. I don’t care who you’re playing, scoring 49 points in a half against any Power 5 team is impressive. Baylor has rushed for over 300 yards in every game this season. Even though Baylor is Top 4 in each poll, I still feel like people aren’t taking them as seriously as they should.
If there’s a game that has a chance of topping Baylor/Texas Tech’s 70 point half, it’s later this year when the Bears square off against TCU. Both offenses are running on all cylinders and the Big 12 championship may come down to that game again. The Horned Frogs beat Texas soundly this weekend, 50-7. They didn’t even give the Longhorns a chance to embarrass themselves at the end of a close game this week. Quick side note: which fan base is more miserable/outraged/depressed at this point- Texas, Tennessee, or Miami’s? Just when Miami got a little momentum a few weeks into the season, they lose to Cincinnati. I was on the side that Miami should see how the season played out to determine what to do with Al Golden but after Thursday night’s debacle, he needs to go. I think his only chance of salvaging anything with the fan base is to get a win against Florida State this week. Let’s just say I’m not optimistic.
Though the optimism is minimal, if there was a year for Miami to get off the snide against FSU it would be this year. The Seminoles have yet to play a quality opponent but have been rather unimpressive each week. Barely winning at Boston College and Wake Forest is not the way to show your program isn’t missing a beat after the departure of Jameis Winston. Luckily for the Seminoles, most of the ACC is trash and the conference will likely come down to them and Clemson again. FSU travels to Clemson on November 7th. The questions for Clemson this year mostly centered on replacing key members of a defense that was the best in the country a year ago. They were extremely impressive for 45 minutes, holding Notre Dame to just a field goal as the Tigers entered the 4th with a 21-3 lead. After letting the Irish storm back, the Tigers survived by stopping Notre Dame’s tying two-point attempt. I’m starting to wonder how Notre Dame is feeling about this ACC agreement now that they’ve lost in the last minute in back to back years to the conference’s two best teams.
Notre Dame wasn’t the only Top 10 team to see their playoff chances shrink after Saturday. Ole Miss and Georgia each laid complete eggs, each game basically being over by halftime. I’m not sure which loss was worse. Ole Miss was playing a weaker opponent in Florida (or at least we think so at this point) but Georgia was playing at home. The good thing for Georgia is that they’re in the SEC East so this loss doesn’t mean a ton to them. If the Bulldogs can avoid giving up 8,000 rushing yards this year to the Gators and they’re able to knock off Florida, they’re all but guaranteed a spot in the SEC title game. Alabama on the other hand needed the victory much more since Ole Miss already has the tie-breaker over them. That breathing room that the Rebels gave themselves with their win in Tuscaloosa disappeared with their no-show in Gainesville. Sure Florida’s defense may have been a bad matchup for the Rebels’ offense, but who would have thought the Gators passing attack would have that much success against the Ole Miss defense? Rebels fans have to be going to sleep praying these next couple months aren’t going to end the same way 2014 did.
Ole Miss and Georgia weren’t the only top teams torturing their respective fan base this past weekend. Ohio State and Michigan State continue to look like the shakiest Top 2 teams ever. Ok maybe not ever, but how do these two squads continue to be ranked at the top when they’re barely beating mediocre teams in a mediocre conference week after week? I’m not sure if I’d have either in the Top 4. Speaking of mediocre teams, I’d ask if you saw the Iowa-Wisconsin barnburner on Saturday, but secretly I’d be hoping for your own sake that you didn’t. These two teams made “3 yards and a cloud of dust” look like the Baylor Bears’ offense. Iowa is undefeated, but average at best. As far as the Badgers? Let’s just say Joel Stave’s last game in Madison won’t be a sad day. The Big 10 champ, whoever it ends up being, is well on their way to being this year’s Florida State.
One team that surprised on offense as well was Stanford, albeit at the other end of the spectrum. The Cardinal put up 55 points against Arizona. Don’t ask me how. I had to check to see if they changed touchdowns to 10 points but apparently not. Stanford scoring that much after what they showed the first couple weeks is one of the more surprising results of the year. Another somewhat surprising result was elsewhere in the Pac-12, where Arizona State knocked off 7th ranked UCLA. I can’t say I’m completely shocked by it though. As much as USC gets slammed for losing games they aren’t supposed to, the Bruins seem to do it just as often. Which is why after the Trojans loss to Stanford I in no way thought they were out of the playoff race. To keep those playoff hopes alive however, USC will have to beat Utah. The Utes moved into the Top 7 of each poll without even playing and are in many experts’ current Top 4. They’ll get another chance to impress on Saturday night when the face undefeated California and Heisman contending QB Jared Goff. College Gameday will be making the trip out west for the California-Utah contest. Yes that Cal, and that Utah.
There aren’t a ton of marquee games this weekend, but it’s crazy to think that on a Saturday with Oklahoma-Texas and Miami-Florida State, College Gameday is heading to Pac-12 country for a game that doesn’t include USC, UCLA, or Oregon. Just another reason to expect the unexpected every Saturday the rest of the year.
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.
What the hell’s goin on out here? Famous quote by legendary coach Vince Lombardi, and a fair question to ask after a college football Week 1 that saw some thought-to-be contenders struggle and other Power 5 teams fall flat on their face. So what actually went on out there? The overreactions to opening games are expected and you can see the wave of them coming as soon as each game ends. I’m here to bring some enlightenment on what we saw, knock some fan bases off their high horse, and likely mystify you with my post-weekend Top 4. Welcome to the Week 1 Rundown.
Week 1 kicked off with an ugly game between North and South Carolina, but that was really just a prelude to the meaningful start of college football, TCU facing off with Minnesota. If it’s possible to have momentum when your team hasn’t played in 8 months, TCU had all of it. Coach Gary Patterson is probably glad that his Horned Frogs will have to build new momentum after struggling against the Golden Gophers on Thursday night. But as Damien Bowman points out here, TCU should get credit for playing an opening week road game against a quality opponent. This game says more about the Golden Gophers who, with the defense they played in the opener, should contend in the Big Ten West considering this is by far the best offense they’ll have to play outside of a November 7th trip to Columbus.
Elsewhere in the land of not-so-elegant Big Ten play, Northwestern knocked off preseason sleeper Stanford in a game where the Cardinal never woke up. A slow start could have been expected in a game that was a 9:00 a.m. local kickoff for the Cardinal players, but they came nowhere near matching the intensity of the Wildcats throughout the whole game. Northwestern and Minnesota’s performances muddle up a Big Ten West division picture that was already cloudy to begin with. On the other side, Penn State did the opposite of look like a contender, losing 27-10 to a Temple program who hadn’t beaten them since 1941. That entire conference was mostly part of ugly games, so if numbers are what you’re looking for the Big 12 is a good place to start. Baylor QB Seth Russell’s numbers stood out on Friday night both for what they were and also for what they weren’t. Even against an SMU squad that likely won’t sniff a bowl game, Russell put up 300+ yards on just 15-30 passing. Those astronomical yards per attempt and yards per completion numbers are to be expected from a quarterback who many thought would take more chances downfield than departed signal caller Bryce Petty, but who is also less accurate. It’s nice to be able to bomb the ball downfield with arguably the best WR corps in the country, but it makes me wonder if Russell will be accurate enough to make key throws in tight spots later in the season when a game is on the line.
Nashville was another place where the scoreboard operator was busy, as the Tennessee Volunteer hype train rolled into town only to get hit with an aerial assault they might not have seen coming. The Volunteer defense allowed a boatload of yards to the Bowling Green Falcons, including 424 yards passing from quarterback Matt Johnson. Fortunately for Vols fans, the offense was dynamic in rolling up 600 yards of offense of its own, and Bowling Green may be the best offense they play all year. If you thought the 59-30 game between Tennessee and Bowling Green was a doozy, Oregon does what Oregon does and one-upped that by delivering a 61-42 win in a defensive struggle. As in the defenses struggled. A lot. Vernon Adams was successful in his Ducks debut and appears to have avoided serious injury after a scary late hit. The Ducks’ offense looked like it has the last few years, but the defense will obviously have to improve immensely if they want to be a playoff contender. If they gave up 42 points (including a 15-246-3 line to ONE Eastern Washington receiver) to an FCS team, what’s going to happen in Pac-12 play?
Fortunately for Oregon, the rest of the Pac-12 was hit or miss as well. The previously discussed Stanford Cardinal has seen most of their bandwagon emptied after a shocking loss against Northwestern and the offense looks like it could be their undoing again in 2015. In the other division, USC did what they should have against a lackluster opponent, and Utah survived a scare in Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan debut. Arizona State got ambushed by a Texas A&M defense that looks light years ahead of where they have been previously during Kevin Sumlin’s tenure. Arizona State was thought of as a Pac-12 South contender and possible playoff sleeper. They looked anything but on Saturday night. The offensive line was abysmal, and I think the Sun Devils are going to miss Jaelen Strong more than many realize. DJ Foster is a playmaker, but he’s only about 6’ 200 lbs so I’m not sure Arizona State will have that player who can “go get it” when the game is on the line. It would help if quarterback Mike Bercovici wasn’t on his back looking at the sky half the game.
Speaking of hits and misses, Ole Miss delivered plenty of blows against Tennessee-Martin and started the SEC on a roll that they would stay on all Saturday. Yes, I know it was a lowly opponent. But this is Ole Miss, Ole Miss doesn’t score 50 points in a game, let alone 76 (!). And it was the way they did it. The defense was its usual stifling self, but the offense is what has to have Rebel fans excited. Chad Kelly looked like he should be a good fit in the new, more up-tempo offense, and this offense has playmakers. Laquon Treadwell looked like his old self, and Jaylen Walton is a dynamic RB that should give Kelly a safe check down option in future games if nothing is working downfield. On the flip side, Ole Miss will need stud LT Laremy Tunsil, who is being held out while an improper benefits investigation takes place, once SEC play arrives.
It was definitely a bad day for SEC haters as the conference went 12-1. Alabama, Texas A&M, and Auburn all had victories over quality opponents from other Power 5 conferences, and the Aggies victory over Arizona State was an early season blow to those on the Pac-12 > SEC bandwagon. As for those Aggies? You already see the playoff contender hype now. Personally, I can’t wait until they vault into the Top 15 only to finish 8-4. That’s right, I think this A&M season will play out similarly to last year’s when the Aggies steamrolled a ranked opponent in the season opener only to be exposed as the season went on. The defense may be better under John Chavis, but it’s not going to have 18 sacks every game (ok it just felt like that many). And color me unimpressed with the offense. It generated just 10 points of offense the first 3 quarters before the wheels fell off the Sun Devils defense in the 4th quarter. The constant shuffling of quarterbacks by Sumlin? That’s not gonna fly once conference play rolls around. Plus it’s not like either guy set the world on fire. Kyle Allen was inconsistent, including an awful interception. Kyler Murray’s idea of offense is running around until the defensive backs are 40 yards downfield and then taking off. He also added an awful interception of his own. It probably sounds like I hate Texas A&M. I really don’t. I just think the hype is going to be out of control after one game and they will get exposed against better teams.
One of those better teams is Alabama, who silenced some doubts there were about the offense. Jacob Coker looked, dare I say, impressive in his first start and the defense didn’t let the Wisconsin offense get anything going. Be prepared, I’m about to go all negative on an SEC team again. I think this looks like the same old Alabama team we’ve seen the last couple years. The one who looks great against similar teams but struggles against dynamic offenses. I thought they still lacked a pass rush (until Wisconsin got down big and Bama knew they had to pass) and the back seven wasn’t challenged much. I’m not predicting doom and gloom for the Tide this season, but I’d be shocked if they don’t finish with a couple losses. Ok I take it back, I am predicting doom and gloom.
On the other side, I think Wisconsin is going to be fine this year. Alabama is just about the worst opponent for them, a team that plays a similar style on offense and defense but with much more talent at almost every position. And though Alabama felt in control most of the game, Wisconsin was a missed chip shot field goal away from being down just 14-10 at half. I have no idea who that was playing quarterback Saturday, but it didn’t look anything like the Joel Stave we saw last year. He looked good, and with their running game, I don’t see any reason they shouldn’t win 9 games this year.
You know who won’t be fine this year? Texas, who got housed by a Notre Dame team that looked every bit the playoff contender some thought. The Longhorns looked light years away from being relevant and the Irish took full advantage in every facet.
With Week one mostly in the books, I’m already looking forward to Week two to see which teams sustain their opening week momentum and which results were a mirage.
Ahh, week one of college football season has finally arrived. We’ve got some big games on our plate this weekend.
Wasting no time, here are the five you must see in week one (chronological order, all times Eastern):
Michigan at Utah, 8:30pm, Thursday on Fox Sports 1
Michigan kicks off the Jim Harbaugh era with a tough road game against an experienced Utah team. After winning nine games last season, the Utes return 16 starters for the 2015 campaign (7 on offense, 9 on defense). The last game Utah played in was an emphatic 45-10 win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl. While we have a pretty good idea who Utah is as a team, we really have no idea what this Michigan team will look like. No one outside of the program knows exactly what style of play the Wolverines will employ. Harbaugh has also saved us plenty of personnel surprises for game time by releasing an ambiguous depth chart earlier this week. It’s unlikely, but if he and his team can emerge victorious it will provide an enormous confidence boost for them going forward.
#2 TCU at Minnesota, 9pm, Thursday on ESPN
The main event of the opening evening is TCU at Minnesota. The last time we saw the Horned Frogs they were belittling Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. They’ve got a Heisman hopeful quarterback in Trevonne Boykin, who will be looking to follow up on his coming out party. Some still argue that TCU was snubbed by the committee last season and there’s sure to be a whole heap of hype surrounding them this season because of it. Minnesota is no slouch either. The Gophers have been steadily improving for two seasons. Boy, could they use a big win after all that’s come out about their former Director of Athletics this summer. I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.
Louisville vs. #6 Auburn (at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta), 3:30pm, Saturday on CBS
Both of these teams are getting significant preseason votes from ‘experts’ to be frontrunners in their conferences’ championships races. The problem for Louisville is the disparity between the ACC and the SEC. The Cardinals are getting some love because their conference is the weakest of the Power Five. The Tigers are drawing some attention because they’re looking like a real good football team. Gus Malzahn’s biggest worries this season have to be fixing a defense that was weak by SEC standards, and rolling the dice with a new quarterback in Jeremy Johnson. Those are the two most important pieces in the puzzle of putting together a football team, but if they fall into place the Tigers will compete for a playoff spot.
#15 Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (at NRG Stadium in Houston), 7pm, Saturday on ESPN
Arizona State is a scary team to see on your schedule this fall. They took a leap forward in 2014 while the Aggies were shoved backwards. The Sun Devils will be looking to make a statement right out of the gate, entering this season as a favorite in the crowded Pac-12 South. A&M needs a defensive overhaul, having allowed an astounding 450.8 yards per game last year. Redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici will finally get to start after heroically backing up Taylor Kelly. He and a Sun Devil offense which averaged 36.9 points per game last fall have a good chance at hanging up some big numbers in this one. This is the only Pac-12- SEC matchup in week one so the outcome will hold extra weight as many have suggested the caliber of football out west is now comparable to the down south brand.
#20 Wisconsin vs. #3 Alabama (at AT&T Stadium in Arlington), 8pm, Saturday on ABC
The primetime fixture on Saturday night is Wisconsin vs. Alabama. The Badgers, suffering from unknown quarterback syndrome, lost a close game to LSU in the 2014 opener. With Joel Stave firmly holding onto his spot they won’t have to worry about who their quarterback is, but rather who Alabama’s will be. Nick Saban still has yet to announce who he will start under center. The Tide was last seen being outclassed by Ohio State, who had spanked Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship to earn that last spot in the playoff. Don’t expect Bama and Wisco to bond over their common enemy. This one will be a big boy football game.
The ‘Better as a Basketball Game of the Week’
In the ‘Better as a Basketball Game of the Week,’ Iowa State hosts Northern Iowa. Iowa State does not have a good football program. They won only two games last year, neither of which were conference contests. Northern Iowa, on the other hand, won nine games and finished tenth in the final FCS Coaches’ Poll. This is a rare instance where an FBS team will be a significant underdog against an FCS opponent. The game starts at eight, but there’s just way too much good football on to justify watching this unless you’re a diehard fan of the Cyclones or Panthers.
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.”
This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Big Ten Championship game thanks to my aunt and uncle who booked my wife an I a hotel room for my birthday and my cousin for getting us a good deal on tickets. It wasn’t my first college football game, far from it, but it was my first as a “visiting” fan. It was the first time that I had encountered a fan base en masse that wasn’t my own.
It was a pretty fun experience and one I hope to repeat again some day. It wasn’t the best game but I did get a few interesting takeaways about both the Big Ten and the two teams involved, especially in light of today’s announcement of College Football Playoff teams.
1. The anti-Big Ten bias might be fading.
Ohio State absolutely demolished a Wisconsin team in a manner that no one saw coming. I certainly didn’t and took some substantial flack from some Ohio State fans that I know also didn’t predict that result but got no credit for prediction the Buckeyes dropping almost 60. Wisconsin was ranked 13 at the time but there has been a crusade against the Big Ten this whole season. Everyone was shouting from the mountaintops that the conference was anything and everything from terrible to a dumpster fire.
But a smackdown of a ranked Big Ten team was enough to vault the Buckeyes over TCU into the fourth and final spot of the Playoff. For comparison, TCU clobbered Iowa State 55-3 versus Ohio State’s 59-0 win. The Big 12 isn’t considered “down” this year and TCU’s only loss is to it’s league co-champion Baylor. That’s a much better loss than Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech.
And yet here we are.
Whether it’s just the Buckeyes or the entire conference, it doesn’t matter. As long as the Big Ten is getting some kind of credit, that’s all that matters. It was better than anyone was giving it credit for and now people might be starting to realize it.
2. Ohio State has a really good quarterback problem
Last year’s starter and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller went down in the preseason with a shoulder injury that cost him the season. Doom and gloom was predicted by just about everyone, except maybe our own Executive Editor Damien Bowman.
In steps J.T. Barrett who missed his most of his senior season of high school with a knee injury. He had literally not played in a game in a year after redshirting a year. It looked like it in the first few games but then he broke Miller’s single season record for most touchdowns in a single season with a couple games to spare. Then Barrett goes down in the fourth quarter of the Michigan game with a broken ankle and in comes Cardale Jones.
Up until this point, Cardale Jones had been known more for a really dumb tweet than anything else. Now he’s known as a hero after lighting up Wisconsin and looking like a grizzled veteran despite having thrown 11 completions in his entire college career. 11! He had more completions than that against Wisconsin with 12 for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
So what happens when all three come back healthy next year?
There was rumors that Braxton Miller might transfer or enter the draft. Now he might have to. If he comes back, either Barrett or Jones will probably transfer. Maybe both. Why ride the bench at Ohio State when you could probably start at most other programs? Personally, I think depending on how Jones performs in the Playoff, he is the one most likely to transfer. If he tanks, he’ll be back regardless of what Miller does.
3. Wisconsin has a quarterback problem of another type
Ohio State has a pretty good defense but man, Joel Stave was brutal out there. 17 completions out of 43 attempts and three interceptions. Never at any moment during the game did I think that he looked like a guy who should be a starting quarterback. Stave originally split time with Tanner McEvoy, a guy who kept having his position changed over the previous season. If the guy you’re expecting to lead you into a championship game had trouble beating out last year’s safety for the starting spot, you’re going to have a bad time.
What worries me about Wisconsin is that they stuck with Stave the entire game. He was terrible and they never appeared to be considering a change. If your backup is so bad that you can’t even consider him… well, that’s not going to end well for your program. Melvin Gordon is leaving for the NFL and you don’t have a quarterback. Have fun fending off Minnesota and Nebraska.
4. Michigan State’s reign is already over
For a brief period of time, the Spartans were undeniably the best team in the Big Ten. They had begun a slow march to the top a few years ago before reaching the summit last year when they knocked off Ohio State in the championship game. They appeared to be the class of the Big Ten again. They ran out of gas against Oregon like just about everyone else and then crushed everyone else they faced.
Then Urban Meyer decided he didn’t like being sad and eating Papa John’s pizza. His Buckeyes dismantled Michigan State to announce that Ohio State was ready to resume its perch atop the Big Ten. What we’re set up for now is the birth of a new rivalry and everyone wins when that happens.
And so now the regular season is done.
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