The Wisconsin Badgers football team suffered their first regular-season non-conference loss since 2003 when they lost to Oregon State almost two weeks ago. They followed up that performance this past Saturday by narrowly avoiding a second consecutive upset to Utah State, in part thanks to a shanked field goal in the waning moments of the game.
On offense, the Badgers are averaging just over 16 points a game through their first three non-conference contests this year. There seems to be something missing this year from an offense that put up 38 points against No. 5-ranked Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl. There seems to be something missing because there is—Paul Chryst.
Paul Chryst served as offensive coordinator for the Badgers from 2005 to 2011 under both Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema. He left the team this past December to accept a head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh. The offense at Wisconsin thrived under Chryst's leadership, well before an impressive 2011 team that featured some special players such as Russell Wilson and Nick Toon. Under Chryst, the Badgers consistently racked up points in the early part of their schedule against non-conference opponents, illustrated by the following averages during the previous three years: 48, 39, and 36 points in 2011, 2010 and 2009, respectively.
These were roughly the same caliber of teams against which Wisconsin is currently averaging just over 16 points a game. Compounding the problem of Chryst's departure at Wisconsin is the fact that most of the other coaches on the offensive side of the ball also vacated their positions—most choosing to follow Chryst to Pittsburgh rather than climb the ladder in Wisconsin.
Considering these key developments in the offseason, the most surprising aspect of the 2012 Badgers football team isn't their ineffective performance thus far on the field. What's surprising about this year is that expectations were so high in the first place.
Do you have confidence in Bret Bielema as the head coach of Wisconsin?
Is it rational to believe the Badgers could be a legitimate contender for the national championship after losing their entire brain trust on the offensive side of the ball? That's not to mention several player departures, such as Russell Wilson and some key members of the offensive line. With so many changes to their program in 2012, it seems like a stretch to believe the Badgers could pass seamlessly into the post-Chryst era.
A key to understanding Wisconsin's current predicament is to understand the history of the team since Barry Alvarez retired and tabbed Bret Bielema as his replacement in 2006. At that time, Paul Chryst was already employed as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin and Bielema decided to keep him on his own staff. Whether that was ultimately a decision made by Bielema or Alvarez is up for debate.
Nonetheless, with Chryst on his staff and calling the shots on the offensive side of the ball, Bielema's primary involvement was limited to the defense and special teams. He held the title of head coach, but effectively served as head coach of everything but the offense. The culmination of this partnership was the high-powered juggernaut many saw compete in the 2012 Rose Bowl, which correctly resulted in a head coaching opportunity for Paul Chryst.
Given the new staff and offensive system in Madison, the subpar performance of the 2012 Badgers is a lot less surprising. Bielema has little to no experience coaching the offensive side of the ball. His main responsibility this offseason was to hire competent personnel to replace Chryst and his staff. Although the jury is still out on how well Bielema performed with this duty, the recent firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the Oregon State loss isn't a very good indicator.
Bielema's recent involvement in the decision to bench quarterback Danny O'Brien in favor of redshirt freshman Joel Stave may be further evidence that where there's smoke, there's fire. Markuson may have been only the tip of the iceberg, with larger problems looming for Wisconsin soon. Bielema's involvement in the current quarterback controversy suggests that Matt Canada (the man hired to replace Paul Chryst) doesn't have sole control over the new offense, and may not have the full confidence of the head coach either.
Despite the Badgers' early struggles on the field, and some shuffling within the coaching staff, the team should not yet be considered a failure. On offense, the team is trying to learn and execute an entirely new system. There's plenty of time for the players to figure it out and raise their level of play before the season is said and done. The game against UTEP this Saturday should provide a good platform for the Badgers to improve their execution and gain confidence.
On the other hand, this is a critical time period for the Badgers; there's also a chance the team could become completely derailed. If the offense continues to struggle, fans and players will become increasingly frustrated. Canada's experience as a coordinator comes from Northern Illinois and Indiana, and it's possible that those credentials won't cut it at Wisconsin.
If the Wisconsin offense does continue to struggle under Matt Canada, it wouldn't be surprising to hear the dynamic and vocal student section at Camp Randall take up a new chant at some point during the season. The song "Blame Canada," popularized by the movie South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, might be more appropriate than the current anthem of "Jump Around" if the team's fortunes continue to slide.
If that is the case, Matt Canada won't be the only person on the hot seat. The man that originally brought Markuson and Canada to Wisconsin, Bret Bielema, will be put under the microscope as well. This past weekend it wasn't easy for Wisconsin fans to watch their Badgers sputter against the likes of Utah State while Paul Chryst was guiding his new team to an upset victory over #13 Virginia Tech.