Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Wisconsin Badgers, Part 2, Offense
Last week I got my feet wet with Wisconsin, looking at the program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Badgers will do this season.
This week I'll look at the 2012 Wisconsin offense.
2011 scoring offense: 44.1 PPG (first in the conference), total offense: 469.9 YPG (first), rushing YPC: 5.42 (first), passing efficiency: 186.20 (first)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 2.8
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: first (2009, 2010 and 2011)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: sixth (2007)
Returning starters: RB Montee Ball, WR Jared Abbrederis, TE Jacob Pedersen, OT Ricky Wagner, OG/C Travis Frederick
Open positions: QB, FB, WR, OL
Offensive formation: Pro sets
Offensive philosophy: Power/wear down the defense
Passing scheme: Has historically depended upon personnel, particularly the quarterback
Rushing scheme: Power
Wisconsin's offensive philosophy is simple. The Badgers focus on power, they run right at their opponent and they sprinkle in a pass when necessary to keep the opponent honest.
Unlike so many of the spread rush-heavy teams, which rely on gadgetry and rushing from all directions, the Badgers are straight-forward. They run directly at their opponent and dare them to get in the way.
It is a key psychological advantage when the opponent can't stop them. Such an opponent is beat regardless of the score.
Wisconsin has done this since Barry Alvarez took over in 1990 and Bret Bielema has continued that offensive philosophy—a philosophy that has seen them lead the Big Ten in scoring for three years in a row.
It is simple, but it relies on a few things. Firstly, physically-imposing, mentally-disciplined offensive linemen. Secondly, big, bruising running backs that can break tackles and never fumble. Thirdly, a quarterback and receivers that are flawless when called upon.
Simple or not, this year there is a catch. Offensive coordinator (OC) and quarterback coach Paul Chryst has moved on. Offensive line coach and running game coordinator Bob Bostad is gone. Wide receiver coach DelVaughn Alexander is gone. Tight end coach Joe Rudolph is gone.
The only remaining offensive coach is Thomas Hammock, who has been with the Badgers for one year.
The new OC (per ESPN) is Matt Canada, who comes to UW via Northern Illinois. NIU ran a spread scheme that focused on a dual-threat quarterback, but Canada will not bring that to Madison.
The big question is will all this turnover reverse the Badgers' fortunes. This is especially true of Chryst, who was not only a top-notch OC, but also the best quarterbacks coach in the conference. He didn't produce any NFL stars, but he tailored his offense to suit his quarterback's particular talents.
The offense that Russell Wilson ran was distinctly different than the one Scott Tolzien ran, which was distinctly different than the one Tyler Donovan ran, which was distinctly different than the one John Stocco ran.
It is possible that Badger fans have gotten spoiled by outstanding play-calling, but replacing Chryst will be easier said than done.
The good news for Badger fans is that Transfer U has landed another coveted transfer quarterback in the body of former-Maryland quarterback, junior Danny O'Brien.
The further good news is that the Badger quarterback rarely has to act as more than a field general in order for UW to put points on the board. Also, O'Brien is a good fit for the Badger offense.
The bad news is that based on what he's done in the past, O'Brien does not appear to be as quality a signal-caller as Russell Wilson, though one must consider that Wilson came to Madison as a senior with three years of starting experience. O'Brien, by comparison, is a junior with two years of experience, in between which was a key coaching change.
This is all handing the starting quarterback position to O'Brien, which is unfair.
Junior Jon Budmayr and freshman Bart Houston (per CBS Sports) will miss 2012 with injuries. That leaves O'Brien, senior Curt Phillips and redshirt freshman Joel Stave as the competitors in the quarterback derby.
Complicating the quarterback issue is the previously mentioned departure of Paul Chryst, which could have a huge impact on the entire offense and especially the quarterback play.
Certainly, the Badgers' quarterback situation is much better than it was in February, but everything isn't hunky-dory yet, and in fact, the position group ranking may have been a bit generous.
In 2011, now-senior Montee Ball rushed for 1,923 yards, 6.26 YPC and 33 touchdowns. He also had 24 receptions for 306 yards.
Ball is unquestionably the best returning back in the conference, but he will have a tough time duplicating last season's production given the losses on the line and at quarterback.
Ball's value to the team was palpable when UW played Michigan State during the regular season. The Badgers ran over the Spartans in the first quarter, en route to a 14-0 lead. At that point, Ball took a shot to the head that took him out of the game for the second quarter.
The Badgers, sans Ball, totaled 55 yards for the entire second quarter, and came out in the second half down 14-23.
Whether junior James White can carry the offense is in question, but he is invaluable as Ball's backup. White has yet to officially "start" a game but has received more carries in his career than most other "starters." In 2010, White led Wisconsin in rushing and all-purpose yardage. Last season, he was slightly less productive but still managed 713 yards on 141 carries.
Sophomores Jeffrey Lewis and Melvin Gordon could probably start for a number of the teams in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin will have to replace departed fullback Bradie Ewing. Needless to say, fullback plays a substantial role in UW's power-based offense.
As of mid-August, the depth chart listed former tight end sophomore Sherard Cadogan as the No. 1 with former linebacker freshman Derek Watt—this former Badger's little brother—as No. 2.
Despite the issues at fullback, there is no question which team has the best running backs in the Big Ten, and one of the three best running back groups in the country.
Junior Jared Abbrederis is another in a long line of Wisconsin walk-on success stories (via Sports Illustrated). Last season, he had a team-second-best 55 receptions to go with a team-best 933 yards.
Fellow junior Jacob Pedersen is the lone returning all-conference honoree amongst all Big Ten pass catchers. In 2011, he continued UW's tradition of playmaking tight ends by catching 30 passes for 356 yards and eight touchdowns.
Speaking of strong production out of the tight end spot, every Badger starting tight end since 2007 has been recognized as a first- or second-team all-conference player. Two have been All-Americans. Since 2006, five Badger tight ends have been drafted.
Ideally, Wisconsin has gotten to a point where it doesn't rebuild at tight end, it reloads. In effect, one could assume the Badgers will find somebody at least serviceable for the second tight end spot. Junior Brian Wozniak is most likely to fill the role, though sophomore Sam Arneson, per WSAW.com, is also in the mix.
The problem is, as previously mentioned, the UW tight end coach since 2006, Bob Bostad, has left Madison to become the OC at Pitt. One is left to question what effect that could have on the tight ends (let alone the offensive line, which Bostad also oversaw).
All of this leaves a glaring hole at second receiver—not to mention the slot in UW's three-wide looks and the overall depth.
All of the Badgers competing for playing time are inexperienced, with juniors Jeff Duckworth and Manasseh Garner; sophomores Kenzel Doe and Chase Hammond; and redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick as the most notable.
The above group has combined for 22 receptions, with Duckworth supplying the majority of the production. Also, Fredrick, who had been running with the top three, bruised his calf last week. Bielema, via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel couldn't specify a timeline for his return, but did note his X-rays came back negative.
The Badgers' conference ranking, however, has less to do with the outlook among the Badgers' pass catchers than it does with the lack of returning star power amongst all Big Ten pass catchers.
In fact, the Badgers' pass catchers look like little more than a middling, though dependable, group.
Wisconsin has gotten to a point where it reloads on the line, but it has not only lost a ton over the last two years, it also lost its offensive line coach and offensive coordinator. Moreover, unlike last season, there are only two semi-experienced players ready to step right into starting roles.
Junior Travis Frederick and senior Ricky Wagner are the stars of this bunch, and they will man center and left tackle, respectively. They will also make all-conference this season.
Part-time returning starters junior Ryan Groy and sophomore Rob Havenstein will also find a place in the starting lineup, most probably at right tackle and left guard.
After that, the other guard position as well as the backup roles will be wide open.
Currently, the top candidates for the other guard spot are senior and former walk-on Robert Burge, and converted defensive tackle, sophomore Kyle Costigan.
After that, it's junior Zac Matthias and a host of freshmen.
There is no question that Wisconsin will have a solid O-line in 2012—a line that will easily maul the weaker foes on its schedule. The question is how will it do against Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois, which feature defensive fronts that won't be easy to push around.
This year's Badger line will be good, but it won't be as dominant as it's been the last three years. Furthermore, an injury to Frederick or Wagner could cripple the offense.
Over the last three seasons, the Badgers have averaged 39.5 PPG. Even more impressively, the offense has improved—from a PPG standpoint—every year for the last four years, with the Badger offense averaging 42.8 PPG over the last two years.
That improvement will end this year.
The Badgers might still have the best scoring offense in the Big Ten and will have one of the top three offenses in the conference.
But Wisconsin will not put up 40-plus PPG the way it has for the past two years. It will not run over every defense that stands in its way.
A soft schedule will help bolster the stats, but this year's offense won't break the 35-PPG mark, and will struggle, by recent Wisconsin standards, against elite defenses such as MSU and OSU.
Again, hardly small potatoes, but a step back from the lofty heights at which it's been.
Coming this Wednesday, an overview and breakdown of Wisconsin's defense.
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