LOS ANGELES – On the first snap of Wisconsin’s 2012 campaign, Montee Ball stayed on his feet for just two yards before a Northern Iowa defensive back swarmed him, the start of a 14-play drive that stuttered inside the red zone and ended with a field goal.
Three months later, a similar run brought more fruitful results. Ball again took a carry to open up the game, but this one was good for seven yards and just three plays later Melvin Gordon bolted for a 56-yard touchdown run.
The first game ended in a worrisome near-upset by an FCS opponent at Camp Randall, the second a shocking 70-31 blowout victory over a favored Nebraska team in the Big Ten championship game. The Badgers’ offensive potential was never more apparent than in the game that earned them a spot in the Rose Bowl, where the season’s offensive frustrations were seemingly unleashed in 60 minutes of play.
“Definitely a sign of what we can do when we’re firing on all cylinders,” left guard Ryan Groy said. “I think we knew we had the potential the whole time, that’s why we didn’t back down. When we lost a couple close games we knew we had it in us, we just had to prove it.”
But Ball’s first rush of the year served as an appropriate microcosm of the lack of consistent offensive production so evident in a 20-14 loss to No. 6 Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The 301 total yards of offense in that game will be lost in the fact that a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes that ended with disappointment typical of this season when quarterback Curt Phillips threw an interception.
An anemic offense plaguing Wisconsin through the early part of the season and made a 2-1 record through the first three games a victory in itself, the two wins coming by a combined seven-point margin.
After a troubling performance from the offensive line in a 10-7 loss to Oregon State, departed head coach Bret Bielema dumped offensive line coach Mike Markuson.
By the fourth game of the season, Bielema benched quarterback Danny O’Brien – a transfer from Maryland expected to clear up any battle for the starting spot under center – in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave. In the Big Ten opener against Nebraska, UW showed renewed energy with Stave at quarterback but the Huskers outscored the Badgers 20-7 in the second half to escape with the win.
“This season was kind of take one step forward, two steps back and it was all over the place,” Ball said.
Two games later, Wisconsin erupted for 467 rushing yards in a rout of Purdue, the offense churning along behind the usual suspects – a physical tailback and a massive offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage.
The gears then gradually slid into their place in UW’s offensive machine, Ball making up for lost time by logging three consecutive games with at least 100 yards in the middle of the season. Yet sustained success would not grace this team with such ease.
After three convincing wins against lower-tier Big Ten opponents, the offense again looked befuddled by the more athletic and talented defenses of Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Badgers lost Stave to a season-ending injury in an overtime loss to the Spartans and O’Brien stumbled through the second half before Phillips earned the first starting nod of his career against Indiana.
Phillips turned into the reliable game manager, leading two game-tying drives against Ohio State and Penn State, though Wisconsin lost both games. Despite the undying trials, UW found at least a slice of the offensive identity it lacked for most of the season.
“I think we’ve kind of found our identity as the season’s progressed,” Phillips said just days before the Rose Bowl. “New players, new positions, new coaching staff, we were all kind of feeling each other out at the beginning of the season. But it seems like it’s really come together pretty well here at the end of the year. It really seems like guys are playing for each other.”
Then came the unexpected offensive explosion against the Cornhuskers. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada strayed far from the vanilla play-calling that defined the year, using trick plays and creative formations to leave the Nebraska defense in a cloud of dust behind Wisconsin’s offense.
But perhaps Stanford head coach David Shaw said it best at the Rose Bowl Media Day: Wisconsin football flourished by returning to the run-first approach installed by Barry Alvarez, the very man who returned to the sideline to coach his fourth Rose Bowl.
“Early in the season they had some struggles and they got back to playing Wisconsin football,” Shaw said. “They started being Montee Ball and a lot of Montee Ball between the tackles. Our favorite play – the power play.”
It was a fitting end to a season defined by turmoil and change, with six new assistants – four of them on the offensive end – joining the team before the season. The Badgers posted at least 37 points five times, providing flashes of the record-setting 2011 team but often following it up with defeats marred by poor play from the the offensive line.
Three days before their third straight Rose Bowl, players insisted the potential always existed. The problem, for Wisconsin’s offense, came in execution.
“I think the chemistry and everything was always there, and us understanding our roles, I think we knew that from the beginning,” Gordon said. “We just had to click as a team.”