Wisconsin Football 2011: Midseason Report Card
Entering this season, the Badgers acquired former NC State quarterback Russell Wilson and with that acquisition, brought many expectations onto themselves for 2011.
Win the Big Ten.
Beat Ohio State and Nebraska—the newcomer to the Big Ten.
Run the table and show what their two-dimensional offense can do against an SEC powerhouse team like LSU or Alabama in the BCS Championship game or at least get to the Rose Bowl.
Wilson was tagged as a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman and is currently leading the nation's top offense (50.1 points per game) through six games.
Meeting expectations, while growing week by week in different areas (Marcus Cromarite's emergence in the secondary, improved special teams play) this Wisconsin Badgers team has a head full of steam hitting the heavy portion of their in-conference schedule.
To get where they want to go, a map has been placed in front of them pretty clearly: The BCS computers might not like the Big Ten (Wisconsin's strength of schedule wasn't exactly helped in their out of conference matchups) but they do like prolific offenses and defenses. The Badgers can chart their own destiny through executing on offense, being in position on defense and being crisp in coverage in special teams, a team crutch turned strength, from previous seasons.
The Badgers are like a recipe book coupled with a bag full of the necessary groceries. All the pieces are there, and they know what they need to do. It's just a matter now of adding the sauerkraut to the brats (this is Wisconsin, afterall).
Russell Wilson. Just say the name to anyone at UW who follows collegiate sports, even a little, and they'll probably reply "kid's a beast!" or "he's gonna be the missing piece that takes us all the way" or some variation. That's hefty praise and lofty expectations for a guy who has known his teammates only a few months.
But don't look to him for a complaint. Wilson has taken the expectations and has done what anyone would hope someone with his talent would do. He's used it for fuel and motivation, and has pushed himself to adjust to a new city, offense, team and is also continuing his education after graduating early from NC State last year.
Wilson has shouldered the load of expectations and hopes of a city admirably and has been a great fit in the Wisconsin locker room, both as a player and a humble person who works to get better every week and takes little for granted.
It's intangibles like that which may have helped other talented quarterbacks along the years who had a drop off from what they were to what they should have or could have become if they'd only met expectations or pushed when met with adversity or challenge.
Wilson's been named as a team captain for 2011, and that was after just a few short weeks with the team. If that doesn't speak volumes of how highly Wisconsin and his teammates and coaching staff think of him; nothing I could say could say it any stronger. He essentially walked onto campus and became the man.
Now, stepping into the role of "the man" is one thing, but living up to it is another completely different beast in its own right.
Wilson has met that expectation too. He's leading the FBS in passer efficiency at a crisp 210.9 for the season, while having 1,557 yards and 14 touchdowns passing, to go with two touchdowns rushing through six games in 2011.
If Wilson had a checklist of things to do while in Madison, I'd absolutely suggest he check the box that says "live up to the hype."
Next on the list? Run the table and get the Badgers a Rose Bowl or BCS Championship win (and maybe a Heisman trophy, too).
Last year, the Badgers featured one of, if not the best rushing attack in all of college football. It's very rare to have three running backs who could all step in for 25 carries a game or split three ways with their carries and still total 900-plus yards. But that's exactly what the rushing attack of Wisconsin did this past season.
With those numbers as a measuring stick to compare one's self to in 2011, this year's squad is doing more than enough to keep the reputation Wisconsin has as a traditionally fantastic rushing team.
The tandem of James White and standout Montee Ball has been effective as one would have guessed.
107 carries, 653 yards, 6.1 ypc, 16 touchdowns
69 carries, 416 yards, 6.0 ypc, four touchdowns
One question on many Big Ten analysts' minds entering the season was "Will Nick Toon take a step forward and become the legitimate threat he's shown the potential for in previous seasons?"
Through six games in 2011, we can answer with a resounding "Yes."
Toon, the son of former Badger and NFL wideout Al Toon, has done his part to prove his abilities as a No. 1 option in the passing attack for the Badgers.
He's put up pretty impressive numbers this year, considering his six touchdowns this season is 75 percent of his career total before 2011.
Toon: 25 catches, 447 yards, 17.6 ypc, six touchdowns
Being Russell Wilson's top target in the passing game this year has surely been a bonus for Toon, and his numbers have shown he is capable of stepping up that next notch to elite, at least on the Big Ten scale.
The Badgers also have a very solid second option in the passing game with Jared Abbrederis, who has 24 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns at the six-game mark.
Wisconsin's offensive line production is perhaps its strongest suit over the last 10 or so years.
It seems every Badger lineman worth his 320 lbs in gold plays at the next level, for some time.
Most famously, the Badgers' former left tackle Joe Thomas was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and has gone on to be one of their few standout signature players.
In the last 12 years, 11 Badgers have been drafted. Last year's squad featured three draftees.
This year's line has been no slouch either, allowing the already effective-on-the-run Wilson to be even more deadly while given time in the pocket. His front protection has kept him off his back, and for the Badgers to push into January undefeated with national title aspirations, the solid core along Wisconsin's offensive line will surely be a key ingredient.
The game is won in the trenches. That's been a thought on how to control a football game for the better part of the last 60 years. For the Badgers, anchors on both the offensive and defensive lines have been staples for the Bielema and Alvarez era at Wisconsin.
Last year, top defensive tackle/end JJ Watt was selected by the NFL's Houston Texans in the first round. He's likely to be joined at that level by at least one of his old teammates who're on the team this season.
Louis Nzegwu and Patrick Butrym anchor the 2011 defensive line for the Badgers and have given opposing offensive lines fits all season. Pressure on the quarterback has been part of the success recipe for Wisconsin this season, as everyone knows if a quarterback has less time to make a decision, he's that much more likely to make the wrong one. And with the Badgers pass defense having six interceptions in six games, forcing quarterback mistakes has paid off in spades through the halfway mark of 2011.
As if landing Russell Wilson from NC State wasn't a big enough boost to the 2011 Badgers, they also returned a healthy Chris Borland (Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year, 2009) to strengthen their linebacker corps.
Boreland has already rang up 24 solo tackles, and 58 total, with 8.5 tackles for a loss. That kind of impact at the linebacker position was dearly missed in Wisconsin's close loss to TCU at the Rose Bowl.
Adding the second push to stop the run before it breaks to the second level, athletic linebackers like Boreland and Mike Taylor have helped seal the gaps and keep the opposing rushing attacks to just 3.5 yards per carry on the season.
The team has been able to lean on Boreland and Taylor when needing help over the middle of the field and when a runner cuts upfield. It's play like this that limits the gashing runs for 60 yards to the house and keeps Wisconsin's defensive pressure on the opponent's offensive unit to get creative.
This summer the 6'1", 180-pound Cromartie, cousin of New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, worked out with his cousin and Clay Matthews of the Packers, among other NFLers, to take his game to the next level, in an almost literal way.
Head coach Bret Bielema should be so glad. Little did Cromartie know, he'd see a bigger role than nickel corner as Devin Smith (senior starter opposite of Antonio Fenelus at corner) has seen his season come to an early end.
Working with Matthews and his cousin, Cromartie said it pushed him.
“We were running up this sand hill,” Cromartie said of Matthews,. “He was telling me, ‘C’mon, Wisconsin.’ I’m like, ‘I’m coming.’’
Maybe its a need to be pushed, maybe a need to be hungrier to win the starting job next year and become the player people have said he's physically able and gifted enough to become, but Cromartie says he's matured, and that's allowed his game to do the same to shore up a secondary which sports safties Aaron Henry and Shelton Johnson and the No. 6-ranked pass defense in the land.
For the Badgers most improved unit to continue its early success, the secondary must keep its cool in close games (should the Badgers face one, before a bowl game) when they need to show up as a shutdown unit. So far so good in that respect.
Along with the secondary, one of the most scrutinized units of the Badgers the last few years has been the special teams and its inconsistent play.
Some games, the tackling on kickoffs and returns was sharp and made the difference. In another game, The Badgers special teams unit blocked an extra point last year which proved to be a game changer against Arizona State in a 20-19 win.
Jared Abbrederis has been effective in the punt return game, breaking the occasional run for extras and setting the offense up with a short field.
He hasn't been alone in showing up on special teams, though.
Lately, the play of Bradie Ewing (particularly in a block for Abbrederis for a return touchdown) has caught the eye of followers of the team. He's sealed blocks and created return lanes. After September 1st's showdown (read: beatdown) with UNLV, he was named the Badgers' special teams player of the week.
If the unit can keep consistent through the remainder of the schedule, it will only strengthen a team that has at times, won in spite of its poor special teams play.
A hot rod for Big Ten message boards, Bret Bielema has kept Wisconsin strong in the post-Alvarez era and has the team playing very quality football which he says hasn't even been their best yet for the season.
The Badgers (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) are very effective on both sides of the ball and that has a lot to do with the coaching staff having their players prepped to perform against the week's opponent.
Now, Bielema and staff aren't without criticism, though. Boasting an offensive attack with two likely All-Americans (Russell Wilson and Montee Ball), it's a bit shocking to read this: Wilson has only thrown four fourth-quarter passes.
Call it taking the foot off the pedal, call it getting backups some reps, but in a day and age where the BCS computers matter more than the human polls do, impressing the machines as a team from the otherwise lackluster 2011 Big Ten is difficult as a team, if you do not put 60 points on the score board every week.
To their credit, the Badgers do have the highest scoring offense in the land at 50.2 points per game, but they'll likely need to keep that mark throughout the season to make up for their projected strength of schedule (109th out of 120 schools) to keep them in BCS title contention come January.
His staff has been accused of running up the score, but let's consider this for a second: as i've stated above, the Badgers need to blow everyone away, whether it's Nebraska or the Sisters of the Poor. They need to fight the computer bias against non-SEC schools by overachieving statistically, game in and game out.
So in all honesty, he's doing exactly what his team needs from him, to reach their lofty hopes. At the end of the day, isn't that what any coach should be doing?
We're all familiar by now with Wisconsin's tradition of "Jump Around" between the third and fourth quarters each game.
It's one of the beautiful parts about going to a Badger game, experiencing the craziness of House of Pain's classic and thousands adorned in red jumping in unison.
Shouldn't be a stretch of the imagination to assume it pumps up players on the field, knowing their fans are going crazy while they run up and down the opponent to victory.
The quiet confidence and leadership in the locker room by players like Aaron Henry and Russell Wilson have proved invaluable this season, while Wisconsin pursues a perfect season.
Bucky has the rare blend of swagger and substance this season, and for that reason, they get an A here.
Overall Grade: A
**Note, this is not an cumulative grade, rather an overall.**