The return of quarterback Brooks Bollinger to the starting lineup has shifted the Badgers’ offensive focus back to the ground game.
The rushing attack was extremely effective during the Badgers’ Big Ten opener against Penn State. Anthony Davis rushed for 200 yards on 37 carries — both career highs — and Bollinger ran for 112 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
The increased focus on the grind-it-out ground game marks somewhat of a return to normalcy for the Badgers. While Bollinger was sidelined for three weeks with a contused liver, the Badger coaching staff took advantage of Jim Sorgi’s cannon-arm, throwing the ball with almost alarming frequency.
During Bollinger’s two-and-a-half-game absence, Sorgi attempted 75 passes, completing 34 of them for 627 yards and five touchdowns. With the emphasis on throwing the ball downfield, the Badger running game, the staple of the team’s offense for so many years, seemed to become an afterthought. In the loss to Oregon, Davis carried the ball only 13 times, although he did run for 130 yards and averaged 10 yards per carry.
With Bollinger under center again, the Badgers appeared to change back to their old selves, keeping the ball on the ground and controlling the clock with extended, time-consuming drives. The Badgers controlled the ball for more than twice as long as the Nittany Lions; UW’s time of possession was 41:53, compared with 18:07 for Penn State.
With most of the offensive focus on the running game, the Badgers’ passing attack was much less explosive and exponentially less productive Bollinger completed seven of 12 passes for 61 yards. Sorgi, who saw limited action, went 2 for 6 for 27 yards. Lee Evans, who averaged 162 receiving yards per game and who scored three touchdowns in the Badgers’ first three contests, was held to one catch for no yardage. Incidentally, Evans also threw for a completion on a 26-yard throwback to Bollinger.
Although the Wisconsin neglected its passing game against Penn State, the coaching staff does not seem worried at all. In fact, the 320 yards amassed on the ground were exactly what they had hoped for.
“We’d certainly like to have some balance on offense,” UW’s offensive coordinator Brian White said. “But if you gave me the choice of running the ball for 300 yards or throwing it for 300 yards, I’d say I want to run it.”
Bollinger, while not putting up the gaudy passing stats that Sorgi did in his starts, was extremely effective at throwing the football. Of his seven completions, five resulted in first downs, and another thrown to tight end Mark Anelli for a touchdown pass. But Bollinger’s arm is not the reason why the Badgers beat Penn State, nor is it the main reason he has amassed a 19-3 record as a starter.
“Brooks is a running quarterback,” UW’s head coach Barry Alvarez said. “I feel very comfortable [with Bollinger carrying the ball], just like I do handing the ball off to a running back.”
Bollinger’s mobility and running prowess adds another dimension to the Badger offense that Sorgi has yet to deliver. In his two starts Sorgi, in only 12 rushes, lost 41 yards.
The rest of the Badgers are aware of the differences between the two quarterbacks and the offenses that they will run.
“I think one of the differences is some of the play calls we have,” center Al Johnson said. “We run the option a little more with Brooks.”
Bollinger’s tendency to scramble out of the pocket means that the Badger offense often has to adjust quickly during a play.
“It’s hard sometimes when you’re blocking and the defensive lineman takes off down the sideline,” Johnson said. “You don’t know if it’s your quarterback he’s running after because your back is to the ball. It’s a little different when they start scrambling.”
Bollinger seems content to accept any offensive role he is given, as long as it produces victories. He verified this when he caught Evans’ throwback.
“I don’t really care whether I’m running [the ball], throwing it, or whether someone else is running it,” Bollinger said. “As long as we’re getting the ball down the field, it works for me.”