Rose • Bowl-itis (n.): a disorder leaving fans with excessive feelings of confidence or hope before the season starts; symptoms include booking flights to Los Angeles and hotels in Pasadena in August; most prevalent in the Midwest
I, too, was a victim of the hype, my dreams driving deeper with each preseason analysis and poll I locked my eyes on.
With a Heisman finalist returning to the backfield and another quarterback savior flying in from the ACC, the Badgers were a lock for Indianapolis. A modest prediction it seemed. A third-consecutive Rose Bowl appearance seemed not only within reach, but likely. There were too many key returnees, too many backups more than ready to step in, to not come close to matching 2011’s success.
What a difference a year makes.
But after sliding by Utah State thanks to the shaky right foot of Aggies kicker Josh Thompson, this team isn’t even in the same orbit as its preseason expectations. The Aggies are certainly a quality nonconference opponent, but a Rose Bowl-bound unit doesn’t come close to falling in its home stadium to a team hailing from the Western Athletic Conference.
Danny O’Brien isn’t Russell Wilson. That was clear from the day Wisconsin pulled the former ACC Rookie of the Year away from Maryland. Yet what UW fans didn’t realize was just how wide the gap was between those players, that O’Brien wouldn’t be able to build an instant chemistry in Bret Bielema’s pro-style offense, a la Wilson.
The once potent scoring machine of Wisconsin has dropped to 16.3 points per game — just more than a third of what it averaged per game in 2011. Those were the days when three touchdowns was little more than a solid quarter with a Badger offensive line that steamrolled Big Ten defensive linemen, a future NFL-starting quarterback at the helm and an explosive Ball lighting up opponents in the backfield week after week.
While the massive turnover of the UW coaching staff has played a role in the early season struggles, it’s not the lone reason for the severe offensive drop-off. What that drop-off has revealed is how much Wilson meant to this team. Not only was he a dead-accurate passer, seemingly never rattled by a 300-pound defensive tackle flying toward him, but his mobility added a new dimension to the Badgers’ offense.
His quick feet in the pocket allowed him to extend plays with his feet, eluding defenders before they could get a solid grasp on his No. 16 jersey. More importantly, his speed opened up the running game and made for a deadly play-action pass. When he proved he was a dangerous passer, defenses couldn’t simply stack the box and clog up any holes along the offensive line — a strategy that has worked perfectly in stalling the Badgers’ offense this year.
And once Ball got his legs moving — he averaged 137.4 rushing yards per game — the play-action left Jared Abbrederis and Co. wide-open downfield, ready to field the long balls from their ever-efficient quarterback.
It’s easy to not recognize the massive impact that one player can have when it comes so easy, when you’re too elated to see the Badgers dismantle Nebraska by 31 (remember when Lee Corso picked the Cornhuskers? Ha!) to break down each individual play, to recognize how one player reshaped the possibilities and image of Wisconsin football. The “how many points will they score this time?” mindset overwhelmed any analysis of why this was working.
But that was then and this is now. The expectations continued to soar — especially given a friendly schedule where UW faced its two toughest opponents, Michigan State and Ohio State, at home — but the play didn’t follow.
O’Brien supposedly had some mobility in the pocket, but with 11 yards gained (you don’t even want to know the net yardage) this season using his own feet, it hasn’t exactly been a critical part of his pocket presence in the nonconference season. And when he can’t complete the playbook-opening passes down the sideline, the offense will not warrant comparison to the 2011 crew.
But don’t take my word for it. Just glance over the difference in third-down efficiency between 2011 and 2012. Last year Wisconsin led the nation in converting 55 percent of its third down tries. This year it has dropped to 31 percent, with Ball stuffed on every other 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-2. On those short yardage third-down tries, Wilson and Co. likely converted at an even better clip.
Equally telling is the Badgers are averaging 15 third-down tries per game in 2012 instead of the 12 per game they averaged during the 2011 season. Not only was UW much better at them last year, but it often didn’t even need a third down for a touchdown drive. And the small sample size from this season has come against supposedly the weakest competition on the Badgers’ schedule, so it may get even worse.
So what have UW fans learned from the first three games, in which the Badgers escaped by the skin of their teeth in two home victories and lost the other game on the road? They’ve learned that this isn’t 2011, and that the “next man in” mentality players and coaches in this program love to spew has not worked this season. One look at the offensive line proves the rotation of talent that worked seamlessly between 2010 and 2011 is not working this year. At all.
It’s still early, and Wisconsin has nine more games to prove it can rally around this unexpected adversity and secure a spot in the Big Ten Football Championship Game. Maybe O’Brien finally got the message this weekend when Bielema pulled him out in favor of Joel Stave, a quarterback with exactly zero minutes of game time experience before Saturday. Maybe this is when everything turns around.
But the strongest message from the first three games is crystal clear: Beware of the preseason hype. What a difference a year makes.
Ian is a senior majoring in journalism. Did you also catch preseason a case of Rose Bowl-itis this summer? Tell him about it at email@example.com.