Take a look at the ESPN 300 for the 2020 high school senior class of football players. Up and down the list, players are almost exclusively committing to major programs like Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Georgia.
Top recruits — especially from the South where elite skill position players are found — don’t want to play in the cold of a Midwestern winter. If they are willing to bundle up, they choose storied programs like The Ohio State University, Michigan or Notre Dame. The Wisconsin Badgers fall just short of that “storied” label. We have plenty of history, but there’s just something missing.
It’s been that way for years now, and it’s part of the reason the Badgers are forced to play a slowed down, old-fashioned style of football we’re going to call “dinoball.” So don’t go blaming Head Coach Paul Chryst every time you think we should throw but instead run up the gut.
The style of play also ties in, at least in part, to the level of talent throughout Wisconsin’s high schools. Each year the state produces at least a few high-major, sometimes even elite, offensive linemen. For decades the Badgers have capitalized on being the state’s only NCAA Division 1 program.
Joe Thomas, Travis Frederick, Ryan Ramczyk, Rick Wagner, Kevin Zeitler, Peter Konz, Kraig Urbik — the list of in-state lineman who became Badgers and later made the NFL literally feels endless. It’s entirely possible I missed a few all-time greats, and that just goes to show the depth of linemen in the state.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Wisconsin’s next best position seems to always be running back. Chryst can essentially guarantee wide-open running holes and therefore opportunities to make plays to any tailback he’s trying to convince to come to the University of Wisconsin.
Having players like Melvin Gordon, Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, John Clay and now Jonathan Taylor has built up a culture at UW that ultimately helps in the recruiting process. Wisconsin is one of a few schools that truly has a claim at “RBU.”
While Chryst relies on his running game to fuel long, sustainable drives, high powered offenses across the country are throwing the ball around all game. Inherently they’re taking risks, but ultimately making game-changing, momentum-swinging plays.
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The question is, which offensive style wins football games?
Over the past couple of seasons, losses in big matchups with Ohio, Michigan and Penn State have proven you need to take some chances to win at the highest level.
And, in the end, that comes down to the quarterback. We’ve all had moments begging Chryst to take a shot and he runs it up the middle. But if you don’t trust the man under center, what’s the point in taking those shots?
Jack Coan has played well, and he’s undoubtedly closer to what a championship team needs than Alex Hornibrook or Joel Stave ever were. But still, he’s not the guy who’s going to come in and change the Badgers’ offense enough to make it unpredictable.
That’s why Badger fans got so excited to land freshman Graham Mertz this year. The four-star Kansas product has been hailed as the best QB to come here since Russell Wilson, so people were stunned to hear Coan would be starting this year.
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Chryst got on Mertz early, securing a commitment when he was just a junior in high school. Not too long after, top-tier offers from those same programs mentioned earlier started rolling in.
It seemed like every day on Twitter, Mertz was announcing he had a brand new offer from the likes of Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. Badger fans everywhere held their breath all the way to Dec. 19 of last year, when it became official that Mertz would be a Badger.
His case is a great example of why Wisconsin needs to recruit proactively and take risks if they want to land elite talent. But until he shows he’s ready to start in the Big Ten and earns that nod from the coaching staff, fans are going to have to be content with dinoball.
Maybe that will be next year, who knows. With Jonathon Taylor likely gone to the NFL after this season, Mertz may very well get a chance to prove he can come in and change the culture at UW.
The Badgers are storied when it comes to the running game, but that won’t land you quarterbacks and wide receivers. Hopefully, Mertz can turn it around. It’d be great to feel comfortable throwing on third and five.
But he might not be what we all hyped him up to be, so Wisconsin fans everywhere need to be ready to watch more ground-and-pound, dinoball football for years to come.