Wisconsin Football: Midseason Awards for Players and Coaches
Wisconsin football is one of the most interesting studies in all of college football. It's a team that deserves far more recognition than it's receiving for multiple reasons, but having already lost two games this season, the Badgers aren't on the radar of many.
In the Badgers' five victories, they have won by an average margin of five touchdowns, but in their two losses—one of which is heavily disputed—Wisconsin has lost by a combined nine points.
That loss, which came in the wee hours of Sunday morning on Sept. 14, will infamously be remembered for this, but it has been treated just like any other loss by poll voters. Considering the Badgers' only other loss came on the road against a Top 5 team by seven points, it's a crime that Wisconsin didn't crack the initial BCS rankings.
There's also the fact that the Badgers have the best running back in the nation in Melvin Gordon, a future pro at receiver in Jared Abbrederis and one of the best middle linebackers in the country, Chris Borland.
But alas, Wisconsin gets no love.
Well, it's time to show our love for the Badgers, a team that could very well run the table over their final five games and make a run at a BCS bowl. Amazingly, we're already halfway through the 2013 college football season, so let's hand out some midseason awards to Wisconsin's coaches and players.
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Offensive MVP: Melvin Gordon
This category really came down to two players—Gordon and Abbrederis.
Abbrederis enters Week 9 of the season as the No. 11 receiver in terms of yards in the FBS, arguably the best wide-out in the Big Ten. But the sophomore tailback has the senior receiver beat, ranking No. 2 in rushing yards with the best yards per carry average among running backs in the nation.
After busting out for over 200 yards in last year's Big Ten Championship Game, Gordon had enhanced expectations entering his sophomore season. His role was going to increase with Montee Ball leaving for the NFL, but with James White returning, Gordon was still going to have to split carries.
That's what makes his numbers even more astounding. Gordon has only rushed the football 107 times this season, but he's already accumulated over 1,000 yards. By the way, White has one more rushing attempt than Gordon this season.
He has big-play ability every time he touches the ball, especially when coming around the edge on the jet sweep. Since he has already redshirted, Gordon is eligible to enter the NFL Draft after the 2013 season, but for Wisconsin's sake, let's hope he sticks around for at least one more year.
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Defensive MVP: Chris Borland
It's difficult, almost impossible, to envision what life will be like without Chris Borland at the University of Wisconsin.
We got a glimpse of it against Illinois when Borland was forced to exit with a hamstring injury, but the middle linebacker should be back to face Iowa on Nov. 2 thanks to the bye week. Without Borland, the Badgers' defense struggled and wound up allowing 32 points to an offensively-challenged Illinois squad.
Borland has been the heart and soul of this Wisconsin defense over the past few seasons, and even though he missed the final three-plus quarters against the Fighting Illini, Borland still leads the team with 57 tackles. Second place? Michael Caputo—with 34.
There is a magnetic force that compels Borland to the football. He is almost always in on a rushing play, and he can hold his own in coverage, as well. Borland has two sacks on the season to go along with two passes defended.
He may be slightly undersized, but Borland's motor, instincts and football smarts are second to none, and those attributes should make him an NFL mainstay for years to come. Unfortunately, Borland only has a handful of games remaining in a Wisconsin uniform, because he's a special, special player.
Best play: Fake punt vs. Arizona State
Badger fans would rather not relive Wisconsin's trip to Arizona State back in September, but that's where we go to find the Badgers' best play through the first seven games of the season.
With 7:42 remaining and the Badgers down by eight points, the punt team was sent out with Wisconsin facing a fourth down at its own 30-yard line. What happened next was hard to follow at first, but it ended with Chris Borland of all people throwing a pass to Jacob Pedersen for a first down to keep the drive alive.
Wisconsin would eventually go on to score a touchdown to cut the Sun Devils' lead to two. But wait a minute—isn't Bret Bielema coaching down at Arkansas these days?
The fake punt was a staple of Bielema during his time as Wisconsin's head coach, and apparently, Andersen also possesses the guts, or stupidity, to take such a risk, as well. You don't see the fake punt everyday, and with the Badgers able to pull it off at a crucial moment of the game, it earns the award for best play.
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Best coach: Gary Andersen
You can say this is a cop-out decision—defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has led the Badgers to the No. 6 defense in the FBS, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is the head of an offense scoring 40 points per game.
But who's the man that appointed Aranda and Ludwig to their respective positions? That's right—it's Gary Andersen, who is in his first season as the head coach of the Badgers.
It's no secret that Andersen wanted to do things differently than the previous coach at Wisconsin, and a change to a 3-4 defense itself was rather polarizing at Madison. But Andersen realizes some transitions are going to take time, and that's why we continue to see the running game "power" the offense and many other similarities from years past.
Andersen is playing to the strength of his current personnel, and while he may be recruiting based on how he wants his team to look 3-4 years down the road, that doesn't mean Andersen is going to push his agenda—he's going to put his team in a position to be successful.
Yes, Andersen is getting a bit of a pass on the two close losses. There's no doubt Bielema would be taking plenty of heat. But it's a small sample size, and Andersen's gimmicks, attitude and player-friendly approach have rubbed fans the right way.
Most Improved Player
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Most improved player: Conor O'Neill
There was only one position to fill on Wisconsin's front seven heading into the 2013 season, and that was at the middle linebacker spot alongside Chris Borland. Initially, it was junior Derek Landisch earning the nod from the coaching staff over senior Conor O'Neill.
Each player had seen some playing time last season when Borland dealt with a hamstring injury, and with O'Neill being the elder statesman, some believed he had paid his dues and deserved a shot at the starting job.
Just two games in, O'Neill finally got that shot.
Landisch suffered an ankle injury against Tennessee Tech in Week 2, opening the door for O'Neill to start in his place. He hasn't looked back since—O'Neill has racked up 27 tackles, which is third on the team, and he also has 3.5 tackles for a loss to go along with a sack.
O'Neill is now a mainstay on the Badgers' defense, and another player that has really made strides is safety/linebacker Michael Caputo, who is second on the team in tackles. But O'Neill had to scratch and claw his way for over three years to finally get that starting job, and he's making the most of his opportunity.
Rookie of the Year
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Rookie of the year: Sojourn Shelton
There aren't too many freshmen seeing the field for Wisconsin this season, so it's slim pickings for this honor. But even if there was a debate, cornerback Sojourn Shelton would end it pretty quickly with the way he's performed in his freshman campaign.
Arguably, Shelton is already the Badgers No. 1 corner, which goes to show the bleak situation in Wisconsin's secondary. However, there was a lot of turnover in the defensive backfield from a season ago, and that's a big reason why the true freshman has already stepped into a starting role.
Not only is Shelton starting, but he's thriving. He leads the team in interceptions with three and in passes defended with six. That's three more interceptions combined between corners Peniel Jean and Darius Hillary, and as many combined passes defended between the two.
Shelton is also fifth on the team in tackles, and quite frankly, opposing quarterbacks have been more willing to turn the way of Jean and Hillary, a junior and sophomore, respectively.
At just 5'9" and 172 pounds, Shelton is getting it done with his ball skills and ability to recover thanks to his speed. Another true freshman in running back Corey Clement deserves recognition, as well, and both are on the right path to turn into something special for the Badgers.
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Surprise star: Warren Herring
For a guy that doesn't even start for the Badgers, nose tackle Warren Herring has put up an impressive stat line in limited action.
With just 11 tackles on the season, Herring is still managing to lead Wisconsin in sacks (3.5) and tackles for a loss (4.5), and has another pressure of the quarterback to boot. This is the first season we've really seen much of the junior defensive lineman, as he has been buried behind Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer at tackle.
The switch to a 3-4 defense has opened up more opportunities for Herring to play, as Aranda likes to use several different personnel groupings and rotate players on the defensive line. It's been a Godsend for Herring, who will almost assuredly step into a starting role in 2014 after Allen graduates.
For his size, Herring is a superb athlete, and not many could have predicted that it would be big No. 45 leading Wisconsin in sacks at the midseason point.