Earlier this week, Badger Herald Sports Content Editor and fellow Columnist Nick Korger wrote that any outcome from Saturday’s game with Indiana would come at no surprise. He is exactly right.
A Wisconsin victory would reshape the crumbling confidence surrounding the program. An Indiana victory would all but take the Badgers out of the running for the Big Ten Championship and a third chance at an elusive Rose Bowl victory. In a season where nothing has gone according to plan, anyone can still ponder what the plan has in store for Saturday.
UW Head Coach Bret Bielema confirmed earlier reports Thursday that redshirt senior Curt Phillips would be the starting quarterback against Indiana, and it all came to me. As I write, three days removed from Korger’s column, the case remains the same, only now the outcome of Saturday’s game really doesn’t matter as much as it should.
What does matter is the fact Wisconsin has no identity, hasn’t had one all season, and this issue stems as a full-blown feature of the UW program since Bielema took over the head coaching reigns from Barry Alvarez in 2006. In his modest attempts to establish Wisconsin as an elite program, Bielema has folded instead of molded the Badgers’ identity.
Alvarez handed over a program known for running the ball around, through and over opponents. Since then, some good things have happened and some bad things have happened. It may be a sad realization for the tried and truest of Badgers fans, but those days are long gone.
Just a few years after the switch, Wisconsin was already searching for an identity.
In 2008, a season Bielema would likely love to have wiped from his transcript, a transfer quarterback (sound familiar?) named Allan Evridge from Kansas State began the season as the starter and ended as sideline signal-caller (sound familiar?).
The Badgers’ offense was stunted, the run game thwarted and a senior quarterback was thrust into role of starter midway through the season (sound familiar?).
Then in 2010, a loss to Michigan State seemed to crush the Badgers’ hopes of a Rose Bowl berth. Former Badger Herald sports editor Mike Fiammetta asserted that Wisconsin had an “identity crisis.” Sensing a theme?
Wisconsin then ripped off seven consecutive victories and found itself in the Rose Bowl with a stout defense, and with – in Bielema-speak – an un-sexy offense.
That unsexy offense turned erotic as ever in 2011 with Russell Wilson at the helm, but the defense that seemed so absolutely sound from a year prior could hardly hold a Duck out of any end zone, as seen in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon.
And now, a Wisconsin identity is lacking once again.
Korger wrote a column in early September, following the Oregon State loss, claiming Wisconsin needed to find its identity throughout the remaining nonconference games. We thought this happened, but then a broken collarbone to starting quarterback Joel Stave refueled the identity discussion.
One year, a great defense. The next, a great offense. After that, mediocrity all around. It has truly turned into a revolving door of what on earth is coming next.
Yes, the Stave injury was a crushing blow to whatever momentum or identity Wisconsin had installed midway through this 2012 campaign. But would USC stop throwing the football 35 times a game if Matt Barkley’s season came to an abrupt end? Would Oregon give up the running-plays-faster-than-you-can-think – or blink – mentality if Kenjon Barner was lost for the year? If Nick Saban left Tuscaloosa, would Alabama lose its world-class defense? Nope. These programs all have identities.
And now, with it’s starting quarterback sidelined, what does Wisconsin have to fall back on?
The Badgers are hoping they can count on Phillips, the man tabbed No. 3 on the depth chart after fall camp, over Danny O’Brien, the once-starter, once-ACC Freshman of the Year, once-Wilson-heir apparent, once-everything.
I’m not about to say the move to start Phillips is a foolish one. I am going to say it caps off a season in which much faith has been lost (or at least should be lost) in Bielema and co. Seriously, what is Wisconsin football?
Eight weeks ago, O’Brien was a large part of the Badgers identity. Now, Wisconsin has demoted him to a theoretical fourth place in line, behind Stave, September O’Brien, and Phillips. Quarterback may not be what Wisconsin does best, but what does it do best?
It is hard to imagine a program moving forward and upward in the ranks when its best trait is consistently left in question.
Wisconsin could try to become the run-oriented team like it was when Alvarez relinquished his duties to Bielema.
The only characteristic that has successfully translated since that 2006 decision is the 1-0 mantra and the coach who instilled it more than six years ago. Some identity that is.
UW also could lean on its defense like it rode J.J. Watt in 2010 and O’Brien Schofield in 2009.
Or the Badgers could settle with the senior quarterback over the transfer like in 2008, a season that ended with a 42-13 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Just like Korger said Monday, we’ll have to wait and see.
We might be waiting for a while.