It was just over a month ago that the question loomed in every Badgers’ fan’s mind: Can this young, inexperienced football team overcome the obstacles of a rebuilding season and put together a championship run? Just four weeks into the season the answer is beginning to rapidly unfold.
With only 10 starters returning from last season’s 9-4 team, it comes as no surprise that this season’s squad is relying heavily on the contributions of true and redshirt freshmen, as well as on the play of many first-year starters. The situation was dampened further for the inexperienced Badgers by the scheduling of two of UW’s first three games against nationally ranked opponents, and the fourth game being played at Penn State in one of the nation’s toughest stadiums.
However, after winning 18-6 in Happy Valley against a motivated Penn State team, and coming within a few plays of beating Oregon and Fresno State, the doubts have begun to vanish.
“We said going in we had a lot of question marks, a lot of inexperience,” UW coach Barry Alvarez said in his press conference Monday. “Now we have a little experience.”
Alvarez emphasized that his team didn’t start as fast as some of his previous teams due to the fact that many of his players simply weren’t ready. A game at Oregon in the second week of the season is a tough task for any college football team to tackle, much less a team that is in the midst of a massive change in player personnel. Alvarez said that it takes time for a player to acclimate himself to a starting position, and time is exactly what the Badgers didn’t have.
“They’re just learning under fire,” Alvarez explained. “We’re getting better as a football team.”
Alvarez was especially impressed with the way his young players responded to the “NFL-like” atmosphere of Happy Valley, noting that it isn’t the easiest place from which a player can walk with a victory. He credits the swift transition of most of his new starters to emphasizing on improvement, focusing on the fundamentals, eliminating mental errors, cleaning up previous mistakes and striving for excellence.
Most notable among the excelling group of rookies is freshman tailback Anthony Davis, whose currently leads the nation with 614 rushing yards.
“I don’t think there’s any way I could have predicted that he’d be as far along right now as he is,” Alvarez stated. “I thought he took it to another level Saturday.”
Davis’ performance thus far in the season has even caused Alvarez to rank him ahead of former Badger and Heisman trophy winner Ron Dayne during his freshman season.
“He’s probably further along right now than anybody we’ve had at this time,” Alvarez said. “Ron as a true freshman didn’t start until the fifth game [of the season]. I think about midseason things really started to click for him.”
Leading the freshmen class along with Davis are split end Darrin Charles, cornerback Scott Starks, running back Jerone Pettus and kicker Mike Allen, among others. With the improving play of these underclassmen, and the consistent effort displayed by the returning starters, UW is gaining momentum, and, according to quarterback Brooks Bollinger, this could help them later in the season.
“We’ve got a lot of good players on this team,” commented Bollinger. “Getting that ‘W’ in Penn State just boosted the team’s confidence a lot.”
Without one Big Ten team currently ranked in the top 15, the conference championship is certainly up for grabs and seems to be in reach of the improving Badgers.
“Everyone’s got a chance this year,” Bollinger said of winning the Big Ten title.
Two consecutive home games against Western Kentucky and Indiana will provide Wisconsin with even more time and opportunity to improve before traveling to Ohio State and Illinois for difficult conference match-ups.
The Badgers are getting better with each passing week, and with the bulk of their season still in front of them, Alvarez’s expectations are the same as they’ve always been.
“We’ve got a good team this year and I’d like to win a championship,” Alvarez said.