Since Saturday’s second half implosion in Lincoln, Neb., the quarterback controversy has certainly gained the most publicity over the last several days as being one of head coach Bret Bielema’s biggest mistakes so far this season. It was a fact that became glaringly obvious after a miscommunication between quarterback Danny O’Brien and Montee Ball led to a fumble to end the scoring hopes, and eventually the game, for the Badgers.
But what fans seem to brush aside is the fact that it should never have gotten to that desperate point to begin with.
In a less-publicized switch that was overshadowed by Joel “Sunshine” Stave’s first collegiate start, Bielema chose to also give freshman kicker Jack Russell the reigns on all kicking duties Saturday over redshirt sophomore Kyle French.
French has been far from perfect this season. After starting the first four games of the season, French made three field goals in four attempts. While certainly a respectable percentage at this point, the worrisome part was his only miss came on a 19-yard attempt against Utah State – a distance typically considered a gimme for most college kickers.
It seems Bielema made his decision Saturday night looking solely at this statistic.
In a very un-Bielema-esque decision, he decided to go with an inexperienced freshman from Waunakee, Wis., over a more-experienced, although by no means veteran, French who already had part of a 2011 season under his belt.
If the choice at quarterback for the two-minute offense at the end of the Nebraska game was any indication, Bielema seems to value experience (sometimes too much). In a decision without an obvious explanation, he chose to give the freshman his first start in one of the most intimidating environments in all of college football.
As a result, when Russell lined up for a 41-yard field goal just before halftime to extend the Badgers’ lead to 13, the nerves got to him and he missed wide left. To make matters worse, it came in a half that had already seen Russell miss an extra point earlier in the second quarter.
Add up all the points UW missed out on due to unreliable kicking and the game could have had a very different result, perhaps even giving UW a “W” to match the one on the center of its throwback jerseys.
I’m not about to begin playing the “what-if” game. Maybe French would have made the kick had he been in the game, maybe he wouldn’t have. His career long at UW is only 36 yards, and he has missed from 50 yards twice before in his career, so there is no obvious statistic to point to in defense of his abilities.
What I will suggest, though, is Russell’s statistics say even less to his ability to hit that field goal than French.
Just two weeks ago, Russell had never taken a collegiate field goal in a game for Wisconsin. After Nebraska, he now sits with a perfectly imperfect field goal percentage of zero percent, missing each of his two career attempts.
Even more, if there is one position on the field where Bielema’s belief in a veteran presence should be recognized over talent, it’s at kicker. Unlike most of the positions on the field that can have very different functions with jobs each game switching as they see opponents with different personnel, the kicker has one important job on offense when it comes to scoring points: Get the ball through the uprights.
As a result, the scenery and the environment are really the only things that change from game to game; the task is the same in every single game.
Bielema certainly didn’t help his own case after the game when he tried to explain the kicking situation in his postgame press conference.
“Both of them at times show really good things,” Bielema said. “It’s made it difficult to go with one guy.”
With so little difference between the two, the only remaining area for comparison is experience, a category with a clear favorite in Kyle French.
As long as the talent between two kickers is comparable like Bielema claims, it seems counterintuitive to throw a true freshman into the pressure cooker that is the crowd of 85,962 at Memorial Stadium without any previous experience.
So why did Bielema and the coaching staff choose O’Brien over Stave in a critical last drive, but also chose to go with Russell over French?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Maybe he was hoping to find a quick fix in an attempt to save the sinking ship that is UW’s season this year, but I like to think he flipped a coin or played eenie-meenie-miney-moe or closed his eyes and pointed blindly at one of them on the sideline.
Any other method would just seem far too logical for Bielema this season.
So even though the excitement of a potential national championship title run has worn off, at least Badger fans have Bielema’s decision-making to keep them interested in each game.
At this point, who knows what unexplained, misguided decision will come next week.
Nick is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. Share your thoughts with him on UW’s kicking struggles via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @npdaniels31.