Big Ten Previews, Pt. 12: Wisconsin Badgers

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This year we’ll learn more about who head coach Gary Andersen really is.

Few coaches get to step into a situation like Andersen’s: inheriting a program that went to three straight Rose Bowls, won three straight conference championships, and featured a roster full of studs on defense. Andersen stepped in and did pretty much what everyone expected, going 9-4 (and that Arizona State loss definitely should have ended differently).

But now, with no less than ten regular defensive contributors and four leading receiving targets out the door, the Gary Andersen era will truly begin.

2013 RECAP
Wisconsin started out doing what Wisconsin does best: crushing people. Despite the early “loss” to Arizona State (Pac 12s gonna Pac 12 ref) and falling just short of knocking off Ohio State, Wisconsin rolled through the bulk of their schedule with their signature power rushing attack (6.86 yards per rush through ten games) and stifling defense (4.2 yards per play through ten games).

But the offense stubbed its toes against Minnesota, and the defense turned in two head-scratchingly poor performances against Penn State and South Carolina (8.0 and 7.3 yards per play, respectively).

Average score, first ten games: Wisconsin 38.5, Opponents 14
Average score, last three games: Opponents 24, Wisconsin 22.7

The wheels have hardly come off in Madison, it was just a weird stretch; plus, South Carolina was a great team and Penn State was improving. But given the amount of talent gone, one wonders whether Wisconsin might not be its usual self in 2014.

(I think they probably will.)

WISCONSIN OFFENSE
Junior quarterback Joel Stave stepped into an unenviable position, taking over for arguably the greatest quarterback in Badger history, now-Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson. He’s held relatively steady through two seasons, one in split duty with Curt Phillips and the other as the starter, his completion percentage hovering around 60% and his touchdown-to-interception ratio around two-to-one.

But we’ll see how he distributes his passes without his best receiver friend, Jared Abbrederis, gone to the NFL. Stave targeted Abbrederis (122 times) as much as he targeted the second- (58 targets), third- (43), and fourth- (21) leading receivers on the Badgers’ roster combined, and for more yards (Abbrederis’ 1,086 to the other three’s 1,027).

Also, all four are gone.

Stumbling out in front of the pack in 2014 are Jordan Fredrick, Alex Erickson, and Kenzel Doe who return a whopping 26 catches for 260 yards and zero touchdowns. Stave will have to find a new favorite target, although he did find big tight end Sam Arneson in the end zone twice in 2013. (But pay attention to freshmen George Rushing, Kenwrick Sanders, and Natrell Jamerson, who are reportedly impressive in fall camp.) It’s not to say these guys can’t catch or run routes, they just haven’t really had to yet, and if you’re a Wisconsin fan you have to expect a bit of a break-in period.

(Although if the coaches decide to just hit reset on the entire passing game, rumor has it safety-turned-quarterback Tanner McEvoy had a great spring, taking first-string snaps in lieu of an injured Stave, and Andersen threw fuel on the speculative fire at Big Ten Media Days, saying the QB competition was wide open. Through fall camp, it appears to be a close battle, though Stave taking reps with the first-string offense suggests he may have an edge, at least currently.)

Fortunately for the Badgers, they probably won’t be relying on the passing game much. Melvin Gordon returns to lead a stable of running backs that combined for 3,600 yards this season, and while James White is gone, Gordon and Corey Clement are more than ready to take the reins. For a chunk of the season, Gordon was averaging a first down per carry and scored twelve touchdowns, while Clement added seven of his own and averaged 8.2 yards per tote (on a third the opportunities). They’ll have an experienced line opening up holes for them.

If you’re an opposing defensive coordinator, however, you have to like the fact that for at least a few games, Wisconsin is probably going to be fairly one-dimensional on offense . . . and the Badgers’ week one opponent? LSU. Oof. At least there’ll be plenty of time to fine-tune the passing game against the likes of Western Illinois and South Florida.

WISCONSIN DEFENSE
Speaking of reset buttons . . . the Badgers have to replace more or less an entire front seven from a unit that was dominant in 2013. If you’re a Wisconsin fan, take heart, you’re still the Wisconsin Badgers and while your front seven may not have the experience, the roster is still littered with three- and four-star guys who should be ready to step up.

It does take time, of course, for units to gel with a certain system. The Badgers put a lot of responsibility on their defensive lineman to choke out the running game, leaving the linebackers and defensive backs free to go after the big play. They’ll be depending on defensive end Konrad Zagzebski and nose guard Warren Herring, the lone returnees to play in all thirteen games, to get the rest of the unit on track. Herring returns four sacks, so all hope is not completely lost, but this unit may take a few games to find itself.

At linebacker, there’s just no replacing a player like Chris Borland, who led the 2013 defense in tackles by a wide margin. You never know what will happen when you replace the heart and soul of a defense. Vince Biegel, Leon Jacobs, and Joe Schobert have game experience but just a handful of tackles between them.

On the plus side, the linebackers will be supporting an elite secondary which returns almost all its major contributors, including Sojourn Shelton, who picked off four passes for a unit that thoroughly suffocated opponents not named Penn State or South Carolina. Expect their numbers to potentially drop off a bit this season as the new front breaks in, but all in all this secondary should be a tough nut to crack.

WISCONSIN SPECIAL TEAMS
Passing over the fact that Wisconsin has the kicker with the best possible name for a kicker in all of football (Jack Russell), he was reliable enough on kicks less than forty yards but only one-for-three on kicks longer. Andrew Endicott could stand to put a bit more oomph on his kickoffs (only 15.8% were touchbacks). Could freshman Rafael Gaglianone challenge one of them for a starting role?

In the return game, Kenzel Doe is the main man. He was a dangerous kickoff and punt returner in 2013, taking a kickoff to the house. (Then again, I’m a Nebraska fan and I’d kill for 7.3 yards per punt return, so what do I know?) Doe will likely get more potent in 2014.

2014 SCHEDULE
Well, we talked about LSU in Arlington to open the season. That’s a tough draw, especially for a team breaking in so many new moving parts (on the plus side, so is LSU). After that . . . heck, even if the Badgers regress badly, it probably won’t even matter. Western Illinois, Bowling Green, and South Florida sure aren’t scaring anyone (average Sagarin ranking: 114), and like Iowa, Wisconsin misses out on all the Big Ten East heavyweights (Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, even Indiana), leaving Wisconsin with the easiest conference schedule of any Big Ten team.

I’m not sure Wisconsin gets past LSU (sorry, Badger fans, though I’ll be rooting for you), but after that there’s nothing to suggest Wisconsin doesn’t finish anywhere from 9-3 to 11-1. The Big Ten West title seems at this point to be a three-horse race between Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa, and while Iowa gets to host both the Badgers and the Huskers, it’s anyone’s guess. Reason to have confidence in Wisconsin: they’ve won their division plenty recently and I think Andersen is the best coach in the Big Ten West.

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