Wisconsin Football: Midseason Grades for Players and Coaches
Through six games, Wisconsin football finds itself at 4-2 as we've reached the halfway point of the 2013 college football season. It's a loss or two more than the Badgers would prefer, but, all things considered, the future is bright in Madison, Wis.
An adjustment period was inevitable with a new coaching staff in place, and we can finally see the new 3-4 defense coming to fruition. Wisconsin also has its three most difficult games on paper behind it and could very well run the table in the second half of the season.
In the Badgers' two* losses, they didn't embarrass themselves, giving both Arizona State and Ohio State all they could handle. The running game remains dominant, and top-end recruits continue to pile in since Gary Andersen took the reigns as head coach.
But we're not going to get ahead of ourselves—this is about reflecting on the first half of the season and handing out midseason grades to the coaches and players at Wisconsin.
Head coach Gary Andersen inherited a team that doesn't quite suit his way of doing things.
He likes a mobile quarterback but still values an accurate arm above anything. He wants a different breed of offensive linemen but acknowledges the power running game is the way to go with the current roster. Andersen wants more athletes at a program notorious for punching you square in the face.
In other words, Andersen needed to make do with what he had and play to his roster's strengths. You have to give Andersen credit for staying patient with the transition that will inevitably take full effect at Wisconsin.
His tough-minded approach has rubbed off on his team, and while the Badgers have fallen short in two close games already this season, it's not due to a failure to execute. It's more because of mistakes and mental lapses, something that a coach can't completely take the blame for.
Andersen brought in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, and it's safe to say the guy knows what he's doing. Wisconsin is No. 10 in the FBS in rush defense, No. 13 in pass defense and also has a top-five scoring defense. Not bad for a team in its first year of running a 3-4 defense.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has also made his mark as the Badgers break the top five in rushing yards as well.
We're only six games in, but it appears Wisconsin has completely bought into what this coaching staff wants to do. The Badgers should continue to grow more comfortable with new schemes and concepts as the second half of the season progresses.
Once again, the quarterback position drew the most attention during the offseason, especially with a new coaching staff, and after three different players started under center during the 2012 season.
Sophomore Joel Stave won out over Curt Phillips and Bart Houston, and Stave has taken every meaningful snap at quarterback this season. At times, fans have grown irritated with Stave's inaccuracy and, on the season, his numbers are as follows—61.8 completion percentage, 1,297 yards, 11 TDs, 6 INTs.
That's in six games of action, roughly the same amount of time Stave played during his freshman season. His numbers last season? 58.8 completion percentage, 1,104 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs.
Stave is improving—there's no doubt about it. The interception number is higher than you'd like to see, but not all six of his picks are the quarterback's fault. Stave's tendency to stare down his receivers is also a lingering issue, and the accuracy hasn't been there at times on passes downfield.
But Stave is Wisconsin's best option at quarterback, and he hasn't done anything to cost the Badgers a game this season. Remember—he's only a sophomore, and there is plenty of time for Stave to iron out his bad habits and continue to grow as a quarterback.
You might as well just scroll down to the bottom of the page now, because no explanation is needed for why this unit passed its first half test with flying colors.
In four different games, the Badgers have had two rushers eclipse the 100-yard mark. The rushing attack has been led by sophomore Melvin Gordon, who is averaging nearly 10 yards per carry and has a chance to top the 1,000-yard plateau in Wisconsin's seventh game of the season.
He'd probably already be there if not for James White, but the senior has done his job as more of a between-the-tackles runner and is also Wisconsin's second-leading receiver. White is also excellent in pass protection, and his willingness to split out wide allows the Badgers to put their two greatest weapons on the field simultaneously.
Even true freshman Corey Clement has gotten in on the action, racking up 353 yards in garbage time with 7.4 yards per carry. Fullback Derek Watt has seen his role decrease a little under Andersen, but his blocking up front is integral to Wisconsin's power running game.
So yeah—here's the grade you all knew was coming.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
For the Badgers to have success in the passing game, someone not named Jared Abbrederis needs to step up.
Or maybe not.
The prime example was Abbrederis' monster performance against the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes. The senior receiver caught 10 passes for 207 yards, despite going up against All-American cornerback Bradley Roby for much of the night, and his numbers in comparison to the rest of Wisconsin's wide receiving corps are staggering.
Abbrederis: 35 catches, 646 yards, 5 TDs. Everyone else: 64 catches, 682 yards, 6 TDs.
That brings us to tight end Jacob Pedersen, a player on the Mackey Award watch list who was expected to step up and take some pressure off of Abbrederis. Pedersen has battled injury and has only 12 receptions this season, but when Abbrederis exited with a head injury against Northwestern, Pedersen stepped up, catching four passes for 30 yards and a touchdown.
Stave was forced to spread the ball around and grow comfortable with other options, and that could help the Badgers' offense moving forward. They are experienced at tight end, and those tight ends deserve credit for Wisconsin's success running the football.
Abbrederis helps bring this grade up, but the lack of balance in the passing game is what hurts this unit in the end.
Losing two offensive linemen, who are currently suiting up for teams in the NFL, is difficult to recover from regardless of your program, and the Badgers had gaps to fill at left tackle and center entering the 2013 season.
There have been a few bumps in the road—injuries to centers Dallas Lewallen and Dan Voltz, as well as a back-and-forth at right guard between Kyle Costigan and Zac Matthias. But it appears the Badgers have finally settled on their starting five offensive linemen.
The leader of the group is left guard Ryan Groy, who was willing to make the switch to left tackle before Tyler Marz stepped up. Instead of playing on the left side of the line, Lewallen has played admirably at center, despite having some snap issues in the early going. On the right side, there aren't many complaints regarding the play of Costigan and right tackle Rob Havenstein, either.
The line deserves a lot of credit for Wisconsin's top five rushing attack, and Stave has only been dropped for a sack eight times through six games. Pass protection was the unit's biggest weakness in 2012, and that aspect has improved despite concerns about depth and skill level.
The result? One of the better positional unit grades on Wisconsin.
Compared to past years, what is now expected from Wisconsin's defensive line is different, and that largely has to do with the switch to a 3-4.
Obviously, there is one less down lineman but even more playing time to go around. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda does plenty of rotating on the line to keep everyone as fresh as possible, opening up opportunities for players like Warren Herring and Tyler Dippel.
The line is still expected to generate some push as well as a pass rush, but the main objective is to take up as many blockers as possible to free up space for the blitzing outside linebackers and, at times, defensive backs. Even so, the defensive line has accounted for seven of Wisconsin's 14 sacks this season.
Opponents are only rushing for just over 90 yards per game and 2.85 yards per carry. Both marks crack the top 10 in the FBS, and those numbers are partially due to the experience the Badgers have on the line. Nose tackle Beau Allen will be playing on Sundays next year, and in his place, Herring will make his own case to play at the next level.
The Badgers have one of the best front sevens in all of college football, and while it may start with their defensive line, there's no question that it ends with their linebackers.
The biggest concern entering the season was how Wisconsin was going to replace David Gilbert, who transferred to Miami (FL) during the offseason. There were also questions about how defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Brendan Kelly would adapt to his new position, including how well he'd adjust to dropping back in coverage.
Players have stepped up in Gilbert's place, like Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel, and after beginning the year as a backup; Conor O'Neill is a bona fide starter at middle linebacker. Ethan Armstrong has also carried over his strong play from last season, and safety Michael Caputo has even made his mark playing some outside linebacker.
Oh yeah—there's also that Chris Borland fellow.
To no one's surprise, Borland is leading all Wisconsin tacklers by a landslide and is just a freak-of-nature athlete. He may be a little undersized, which could hurt his projections at the next level, but Borland will be playing in the NFL and that's the bottom line.
These guys are fast and have been wreaking havoc on the football field this season. It feels as though the transition period to a new defense and new coaching staff is just about complete.
Entering the season, many believed that the defensive backfield would be the weakest area for Wisconsin, and those people were correct in their assessment.
Of course, no unit lost more starters (three) from the previous season than the secondary. No matter which way you sliced it, there were going to be some growing pains, and those growing pains have been plenty evident through six weeks of play.
The only returning starter, senior safety Dezmen Southward, has had too many lapses in coverage and needs to step up. A back-breaking 40-yard touchdown pass allowed at the end of the first half against Ohio State, in which Southward let Philly Brown get behind him, is the most glaring mistake to date.
That was preceded by true freshman Sojourn Shelton letting an interception slip right through his fingers, but he has been the biggest playmaker. Shelton has three interceptions on the season and leads the team in passes defended.
Another bright spot has been quarterback-turned-safety Tanner McEvoy. The JUCO recruit has been a sure tackler, and his 6'6" frame makes him an intimidating presence in the secondary. McEvoy earned his first start of the season against Northwestern.
Statistically, the Badgers have been pretty good against the pass, but it was in their two biggest games—Arizona State and Ohio State—where this unit faltered.
The fact that the Badgers just made a kicking change seven weeks into the season tells you all you need to know about their special teams unit.
It makes you wonder if Kyle French truly would have knocked home the 32-yard attempt at the end of the Arizona State game if Wisconsin was rightfully awarded the chance to do so. Now, after missing a field goal against both Ohio State and Northwestern, he's been replaced by Jack Russell, who hasn't made a field goal attempt in three tries.
Things are a little more positive at punter, where sophomore Drew Meyer is averaging 40.1 yards per boot. He has just one touchback on the season and has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line eight times. He's reliable and should be a four-year starter for Wisconsin.
In the return game, Kenzel Doe's absence was felt, as he is explosive and someone the Badgers can count on. He's averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return and 8.3 per punt return.
But only in the kicking game is where points tend to be earned or missed, and that area has been nothing short of abysmal for the Badgers.