If adversity builds character, then this Wisconsin team has it in spades.
After another nail-biting, come-from-behind win in week 3 against a solid Utah State team, the Badgers have made it clear that this year, it’s all about survival.
Even with the offense looking more like a David than its traditional Goliath status, even with its star running back struggling to find gaps to run through and less-than-stellar play at the quarterback position, the Badgers have managed to find a way to stay in games.
It’s an encouraging sign for a Wisconsin team that has been outgained by its opponents 968 to 828 yards through three games this season to walk away from two of those contests with wins. The defense has showed that it has the talent and tenacity to hold opponents in check until the offense – or special teams – finds a way to put points on the board. But it’s evident that the recent style of play the Badgers have displayed doesn’t resemble anything close to a winning formula in conference play. And with just one nonconference game remaining before a trip to Nebraska, time is running out to find the answer.
If anything, the first three games of the season have brought into question who it was that shaped the Wisconsin identity over the past several years. The offensive line – in its first season since the departure of longtime offensive line coach and running game coordinator Bob Bostad – has looked shaky all year. Saturday night, in a recurring theme from the past two games this season, the Badgers failed to convert from third and short on the ground. Without the ability to win the battle on the line of scrimmage, the offense has ceased hold of the traditional Wisconsin identity.
The play-calling hasn’t exactly been creative either. It’s understandable the Badgers are still adjusting to the new offensive schematics of Matt Canada, but through three games, the team has only achieved 828 yards of total offense. In comparison, former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst – who left the team this past offseason to take over as head coach at Pittsburgh – and his Panther squad gained 537 yards of total offense in an upset of the No. 13 Virginia Tech Hokies Saturday. Against Utah State, Canada did display some new wrinkles, using Melvin Gordon and James White off the edge in motion and in the slot, but the play-calling was still extremely predictable.
And that’s perhaps the biggest decision the Badgers’ have to make on offense. If the run game isn’t working, especially on third and short, do you keep running until you wear a defense down or do you open up the playbook and try to get more creative with more balanced play-calling? The decision to stick with the run during Saturday’s game yielded mixed results.
While Wisconsin failed to convert a handful of third and short plays – converting just three of its 15 third downs – on the ground, holes began to open up as the second half wore on. Ball’s 17-yard touchdown run for the go-ahead score capitalized a series where the offensive line got their traditional push in the trenches, an encouraging sign for a unit just one week under a new position coach.
Ball did gain 80 of his 139 rush yards in the second half, but the Badgers suffered multiple three-and-outs as a result of predictability in the play calling – and some untimely penalties. Granted, in the past Wisconsin has dominated by the ground regardless of what defenses have thrown at it. But in a season where the line is struggling, Canada has not made play calls – outside of a deep pass to Jared Abbrederis against Northern Iowa in Week 1 – where it’s evident he has outcoached the opposition, as Chryst did so many times in his career at UW.
But can two key departures alone really yield this large of a difference on offense in just one season? Time will tell, but after three games Wisconsin is still struggling to find its identity on offense in the absence of Chryst and Bostad. With a quarterback change in the second half of Saturday’s game, the identity on offense still remains as murky as ever. Regardless, a team trying to compete once again for the Big Ten Championship Game and a spot in the Rose Bowl usually isn’t enduring a quarterback controversy three games into the year.
While some may regard the change to sophomore Joel Stave over Danny O’Brien as the right call, it should also be documented that O’Brien hasn’t received the time in the pocket quarterbacks at Wisconsin have received in the past. The pass protection has at times been porous and while O’Brien has shown a knack for making poor decisions with the ball in the past two games – mainly a negated interception and a fumble the lone time he was sacked against Utah State. But it isn’t totally O’Brien’s fault for the rough start Wisconsin’s offense has endured. Maybe the Wisconsin offensive personnel responds more favorably to Stave, but as far as performance goes, Stave didn’t exactly win the job based on game performance alone.
It’s a no-brainer to say that this season will serve as the most effective measure to date of Bielema and his exact worth as head coach. It was a bold and rare move to fire former offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games, and while it will take more than just one game for the offensive line to show its true change under Miller, the offensive woes continued Saturday night.
If the Badgers hope to even win half their conference games this season, they must find their identity as an offense in a hurry. While a win is indeed a win, no player, coach or fan enjoys games as achingly close as they have been this season.
But it’s important to remember, if Wisconsin has found a way to win when so many things are going wrong, what will happen when things finally click?
Nick is a fifth-year senior majoring in English and history. You can listen to Nick on WSUM’s “The Student Section” on Mondays from 4-6 PM as well as “The Badger Herald Sports Hour” on Sundays from 4-5 PM. Agree or disagree with the column? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.