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1. A different kind of Year 0
For the most part, Gary Andersen's first year in charge of the Wisconsin football program went fine.
The Badgers won at least nine games for the fourth time in five years, finished in the F/+ top 20 for the fifth straight season, again produced one of the most effective, explosive rushing attacks in the country, put a top-10 defense on the field, and came within a seven-point loss in Columbus of reaching their third consecutive conference title game. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense fit extraordinarily well with the new personnel, and the Badgers' three-headed running back combined for a gaudy 3,600 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns. Wisconsin was as good as ever in 2013.
In a lot of ways, though, the real work begins this fall. When a coach takes a rebuilding job, I often talk about the Year 0 effect, in which a coach is building from the ground up and installing his system, and the first-year results are both awful and of little consequence. Sometimes it takes until the second year to see what the coach is trying to build. (Sometimes it takes even longer.)
But on the opposite end of the spectrum, you get a different type of Year 0 effect. Andersen inherited a nearly perfect distribution of talent and experience on his first Wisconsin roster when he came to Madison from Utah State. Not only did he have three strong running backs, a go-to receiver, and a top-notch offensive line, but he also inherited perhaps the most experienced defensive front seven in the country, one capable of meeting the size requirements of a shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front.
This time around, he must replace four of his top six linemen and each of his top four linebackers.
The Andersen-Aranda duo has quickly established itself as one of the better sets of defensive coaches in the country. Andersen was a successful defensive coordinator at Utah, and it took Aranda and him just two years to put together the pieces of a top-10 defense at Utah State (No. 9 in Def. F/+ in 2012). So perhaps everything will work out just fine.
But the training wheels are off, so to speak, and we'll see if the Badgers can avoid some temporary regression as Andersen gets his own personnel firmly established.
Wisconsin is in an odd position. Only seven programs have ranked in the F/+ top 20 in each of the last five seasons: Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford, and Wisconsin. But of those seven, only Wisconsin has lost more than eight games in the last two years. The Badgers were just 17-10 in 2012-13, in part because of a baffling losing streak in games decided by one possession. They've lost 13 of 16 such games, and they've lost all eight since a 16-14 win over Andersen's Utah State squad early in 2012. It has given the program an air of vulnerability that most consistently excellent teams would not have.
Vulnerability or no, Wisconsin is remarkably well-positioned. The Badgers benefited significantly from the Big Ten's redrawn division boundaries; with Michigan State and Ohio State in the East, Wisconsin is easily the most proven program in the West, and a division title in 2014 would further emphasize that.
Can the defense hold together enough to fend off division foes like Nebraska, Iowa, and a potentially resurgent Northwestern? And while we're asking questions, just how worried should we be about the Wisconsin passing game?
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 19|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||Massachusetts||118||45-0||W||45.6 - 17.5||W|
|7-Sep||Tennessee Tech||N/A||48-0||W||31.6 - 9.5||W|
|14-Sep||at Arizona State||13||30-32||L||36.3 - 26.8||W|
|21-Sep||Purdue||114||41-10||W||38.1 - 20.1||W|
|28-Sep||at Ohio State||9||24-31||L||32.2 - 20.5||W||17.9|
|12-Oct||Northwestern||59||35-6||W||39.1 - 15.9||W||16.9|
|19-Oct||at Illinois||71||56-32||W||38.5 - 33.7||W||13.4|
|2-Nov||at Iowa||29||28-9||W||35.4 - 15.6||W||15.5|
|9-Nov||BYU||30||27-17||W||36.8 - 18.7||W||15.5|
|16-Nov||Indiana||56||51-3||W||44.2 - 12.3||W||19.5|
|23-Nov||at Minnesota||55||20-7||W||23.1 - 13.0||W||16.9|
|30-Nov||Penn State||61||24-31||L||34.2 - 35.7||L||15.7|
|1-Jan||vs. South Carolina||10||24-34||L||33.2 - 33.6||L||11.6|
|Points Per Game||34.8||27||16.3||6|
|Adj. Points Per Game||36.0||16||21.0||10|
2. A less-than-spectacular finish
Not every one-possession loss is created equal. In fact, the three Wisconsin suffered came with no overriding pattern or level of performance. First, the Badgers were hosed at Arizona State in one of the strangest endings you'll ever see. Then, they trailed by 17 to a favored Ohio State team in Columbus before putting together a late, futile rally. Finally, they suffered an inordinate number of defensive breakdowns against an underdog Penn State squad in Madison, again fell behind by 17 points early in the fourth quarter, and saw a late rally, and a last-second Hail Mary, fall short.
Until the Penn State game, the Badgers had left little to chance, thoroughly defeating any team ranked outside of the F/+ top 15. But the level of play diminished at the end of the season.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Wisconsin 36.8, Opponent 18.9 (plus-17.9)
- Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Wisconsin 38.8, Opponent 19.2 (plus-19.6)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Wisconsin 30.2, Opponent 27.4 (plus-2.8)
After averaging at least 5.5 yards per play in each of the first 10 games, Wisconsin's offense averaged just 4.6 against Minnesota and 5.4 against Penn State. Meanwhile, after allowing greater than 5.0 yards per play just twice in the first 11 games, the defense allowed 8.0 to Penn State and 7.3 against South Carolina. Neither unit was particularly banged up by the end of the year, but the results just slipped a bit. Until it happens again, we'll just say it was an odd occurrence.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||48.0%||19||Succ. Rt. +||110.8||27|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.2||34||Def. FP+||104.4||15|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.3||63||Redzone S&P+||101.3||57|
|Q1 Rk||19||1st Down Rk||10|
|Q2 Rk||24||2nd Down Rk||31|
|Q3 Rk||15||3rd Down Rk||66|
3. Some unexpected red zone troubles
Again, Wisconsin was a top-20 team as a whole and left minimal room for doubt in most games; in the Badgers' nine wins, their average scoring margin was plus-29.7 points. So for most of the year, the ship sailed rather smoothly.
But if we're looking for glitches, we do find a surprising one. Despite a rushing attack that was devastating for most of the season (fifth in Rushing S&P+), Wisconsin was only average near the goal line. The Badgers averaged a mediocre 4.3 points per trip inside the opponent's 40 and ranked just 57th in Redzone S&P+. One would expect better, all things considered.
Short yardage was actually an issue away from the goal line, too. While Wisconsin's line stats were great overall -- 12th in Adj. Line Yards, fifth in Opportunity Rate (percentage of rushes gaining at least five yards) -- the Badgers were, again, thoroughly average in short-yardage situations (53rd in Power Success Rate). With a lot of experience returning up front (five players with starting experience, 75 career starts) and a pair of good-to-great running backs, one would assume those numbers improve in 2014. But one would have assumed they wouldn't have been that bad in 2013.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Joel Stave||6'5, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||208||336||2494||22||13||61.9%||16||4.5%||6.8|
|Tanner McEvoy||6'6, 223||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Bart Houston||6'4, 217||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|D.J. Gillins||6'3, 185||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Melvin Gordon||RB||6'1, 207||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||206||1609||12||7.8||7.1||53.4%|
|Corey Clement||RB||5'11, 210||So.||4 stars (5.8)||67||547||7||8.2||7.7||53.7%|
|Joel Stave||QB||6'5, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||22||70||1||3.2||2.1||40.9%|
|Austin Ramesh||RB||6'1, 235||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Taiwan Deal||RB||6'1, 225||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
4. Hey, Melvin
One way to avoid short-yardage struggles is to bust a huge share of big plays. Third-and-2 doesn't matter as much when you're rushing for 15 yards on second-and-4. And in Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin has one of the most explosive running backs in the country. After announcing his presence with a nine-carry, 216-yard performance against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game, the junior from Kenosha proved consistent and capable of taking on a heavier load in 2013. Despite splitting carries with two other capable backs, Gordon rushed for at least 140 yards in eight games last fall and averaged at least 8.0 yards per carry six times.
Actually, mentioning only Gordon in the above paragraph might be unfair to Corey Clement, who was even more explosive, albeit in one-third the carries. It's also unfair to opponents that both return this fall.
Gordon, Clement, and James White combined for more than 275 rushing yards per game in 2013; each averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry and 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity. White was more of a bruising force, but Gordon and Clement are each over 205 pounds and were far more efficient than White. With White gone, that might open the door for some carries for someone like Austin Ramesh or Taiwan Deal, but both Gordon and Clement are built to carry a pretty solid load. And again, they'll be doing so behind a high-class line, albeit one that still has some room for improvement.
|Jordan Fredrick||WR||6'4, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||18||10||106||55.6%||5.5%||73.3%||5.9||-25||5.9||15.5|
|Alex Erickson||WR||6'0, 198||So.||NR||16||9||127||56.3%||4.9%||66.7%||7.9||10||8.9||18.5|
|Kenzel Doe||WR||5'8, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||7||57||58.3%||3.6%||41.7%||4.8||-32||5.0||8.3|
|Sam Arneson||TE||6'4, 254||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||10||6||57||60.0%||3.0%||85.7%||5.7||-18||7.6||8.3|
|Derek Watt||FB||6'2, 231||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||8||3||20||37.5%||2.4%||50.0%||2.5||-29||2.7||2.9|
|Melvin Gordon||RB||6'1, 207||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||3||1||5||33.3%||0.9%||100.0%||1.7||-13||1.4||0.7|
|Robert Wheelwright||WR||6'2, 198||So.||3 stars (5.7)||3||1||3||33.3%||0.9%||0.0%||1.0||-15||1.3||0.4|
|Reggie Love||WR||6'3, 210||So.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Troy Fumagalli||TE||6'5, 233||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jazz Peavy||WR||6'0, 182||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Dareian Watkins||WR||6'1, 200||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Chris Jones||WR||6'2, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Krenwick Sanders||WR||6'2, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
5. Where do the big pass plays come from?
Wisconsin had a strong, explosive offense overall despite getting next to no big plays from the passing game. The Badgers got 23 rushes of 30+ yards in 2013, tied for the most in the country with Auburn and Ohio State. Meanwhile, they got just 14 passes of 30+ yards, tied for 91st in the country with Arkansas State, Boston College, Michigan State, UTEP, and Wake Forest.
And that was with Jared Abbrederis. The long-time No. 1 receiver from Wautoma caught 182 passes for 2,851 yards (15.7 per catch) and 20 touchdowns from 2011-13, and he was one of the most heavily featured wideouts in the country last year. Only seven receivers were targeted with a higher percentage of their teams' passes than Abbrederis, who saw the same number of passes as Wisconsin's next three targets combined.
Of course, all four of those targets are now gone. Whereas James White could be replaced pretty easily in the running game, he was one of the most proficient out-of-the-backfield receivers in the country; plus, tight end Jacob Pedersen averaged nearly 10 yards per target. This was a wonderfully efficient group even if the big plays were nearly non-existent. There are some intriguing youngsters vying for playing time, from sophomores Rob Wheelwright and Alex Erickson to freshmen Dareian Watkins (a four-star signee), Chris Jones, and Krenwick Sanders, but they're all quite yougn.
So the passing game starts over, and there's at least a chance that this statement goes for more than just the receiving corps. Quarterback Joel Stave's full-season numbers were decent -- completion rate over 60 percent, sack rate under five percent -- but his mistakes were costly and a little too frequent. You want your interception rate under about two percent, especially if you're not completing long passes, and his was 3.9. He went just 29-for-53 with three picks against Penn State, and he opened the door at least a little bit for someone else to steal the starting job in 2014.
The most likely candidate, by far, is junior Tanner McEvoy. A good enough athlete to have played a bit at safety last year, McEvoy's progress was a spring story line, especially with Stave out with a shoulder injury.
|Ryan Groy||LG||33||1st All-Big Ten|
|Rob Havenstein||RT||6'8, 327||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||28|
|Kyle Costigan||RG||6'5, 315||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||21|
|Tyler Marz||LT||6'5, 321||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13|
|Dallas Lewallen||LG||6'6, 322||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||7|
|Dan Voltz||C||6'3, 313||So.||4 stars (5.8)||6|
|Ray Ball||LG||6'7, 321||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Walker Williams||RT||6'7, 322||So.||3 stars (5.7)||0|
|Alex Walker||LT||6'4, 239||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Trent Denlinger||RG||6'6, 297||So.||NR||0|
|Hayden Biegel||LT||6'6, 281||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Ben Hemer||LG||6'4, 274||RSFr.||NR|
|Jaden Gault||RT||6'6, 310||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Michael Deiter||C||6'5, 310||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.8%||19||Succ. Rt. +||114.8||17|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.7||56||Off. FP+||102.5||32|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.5||8||Redzone S&P+||108.8||28|
|Q1 Rk||20||1st Down Rk||29|
|Q2 Rk||22||2nd Down Rk||25|
|Q3 Rk||8||3rd Down Rk||10|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Konrad Zagzebski||DE||6'3, 278||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||14.5||2.2%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Warren Herring||NG||6'3, 294||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||13.5||2.1%||6.0||4.0||0||0||0||0|
|Bryce Gilbert||NG||6'2, 305||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||8||6.0||0.9%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jake Keefer||DE||6'3, 265||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|James Adeyanju||DE||6'2, 265||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Alec James||DE||6'4, 239||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Arthur Goldberg||NG||6'3, 290||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Chikwe Obasih||DE||6'3, 260||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Garret Dooley||DE||6'2, 227||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Billy Hirschfield||DE||6'6, 270||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Conor Sheehy||DE||6'4, 275||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
6. An underrated front rebuilds
With a cast of three-star defensive linemen, Wisconsin coaches Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda have built a Badger defense that is physical and difficult to run against inside but also protects the secondary and allows the defensive backs to play "bend don't break" coverages.
The linemen protect the linebackers, the linebackers protect the secondary, and the opponent finds itself with nearly nowhere to go. Borland gets a lot of the credit, and he's a phenomenal player, but let's pause and sing the praises of the Badger DL: Pat Muldoon, Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Tyler Dippel, Warren Herring, and Konrad Zagzebski. It is a unit that is both largely unheralded and one of the most dominant units in college football in 2013.
Last November at Football Study Hall, Ian Boyd wrote a lovely piece about how and why the Wisconsin defensive line was so good in 2013. (The defense then proceeded to fall apart. Blame Ian.) The line didn't make many plays of its own, but its primary job was to free up linebackers, and it very much did that. But of the six players Ian listed above, four are now gone. Meanwhile, those freed-up linebackers will have completely different names this year as well.
Wisconsin's pass defense had some issues in 2013, especially late in the season. The pass rush wasn't incredibly dynamic (though it was pretty good in blitzing situations), and while the downfield breakdowns weren't incredibly common, they were pretty significant. But Wisconsin was able to force teams to become one-dimensional because of a top-notch run defense. Not a single team averaged better than 4.5 yards per carry on the Badgers last year, not even Ohio State.
Now we're looking at a "strength gets weaker, weakness gets stronger" situation. The secondary is exerienced, but there are new names littered throughout the front seven. The coaching is top-notch, and the return of Zagzebski and Herring shouldn't be overlooked, but it's hard to imagine there won't be at least a little bit of regression.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Derek Landisch||ILB||6'0, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||10||26.0||4.0%||2.0||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|Vince Biegel||OLB||6'4, 233||So.||4 stars (5.9)||13||22.0||3.4%||3.0||2.0||0||2||0||0|
|Joe Schobert||OLB||6'2, 230||Jr.||NR||13||18.0||2.8%||2.5||1.0||0||3||0||0|
|Marcus Trotter||ILB||6'0, 233||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||5||16.0||2.5%||2.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Leon Jacobs||ILB||6'2, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||13||5.5||0.9%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jesse Hayes||OLB||6'3, 236||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Jack Cichy||ILB||6'2, 208||So.||NR|
|Keelon Brookins||OLB||5'10, 193||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)|
7. Potential? Check
The experience level plummets, but Wisconsin has recruited quite well along the line and linebacking corps. Four-star redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih was a spring standout and could start, and there are nine other linemen and linebackers who were given either a four-star rating or the highest three-star rating by Rivals.com. Vince Biegel made a couple of plays when afforded the opportunity last year, and it doesn't appear that size will be too much of an issue despite youth. There is potential everywhere you look, but almost nobody has proven much on the field.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Michael Caputo||FS||6'1, 206||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||13||49.5||7.7%||3||0||0||3||0||0|
|Sojourn Shelton||CB||5'9, 172||So.||3 stars (5.7)||13||33.5||5.2%||0||0||4||5||1||0|
|Darius Hillary||CB||5'11, 187||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||25.5||3.9%||0||0||1||5||1||0|
|Nate Hammon||SS||6'1, 196||So.||2 stars (5.2)||12||22.0||3.4%||1||1||0||1||1||0|
|Tanner McEvoy||SS||6'6, 223||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||20.0||3.1%||1||0||1||4||0||0|
|Peniel Jean||SS||5'11, 187||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||13.0||2.0%||0||0||0||4||0||0|
|Leo Musso||FS||5'10, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||13||11.0||1.7%||1||0||1||0||0||0|
|T.J. Reynard||CB||5'8, 172||Jr.||NR||7||6.5||1.0%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Dare Ogunbowale||CB||5'11, 186||So.||NR||8||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|A.J. Jordan||FS||6'0, 178||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Devin Gaulden||CB||5'10, 180||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Vonte Jackson||S||6'1, 199||So.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Hugs Etienne||CB||5'11, 182||So.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Austin Hudson||SS||6'2, 185||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. Hold onto the damn ball
Short yardage struggles and untimely turnovers from the offense certainly played a role in Wisconsin's continued failures in close games. But there's been another factor; in 2012-13, Wisconsin defenders have intercepted 17 passes and broken up 112. The national average of interceptions as a percentage of passes defensed is typically around 22-23 percent; for Wisconsin, it's been 13 percent in the last two years, and you could say it's cost the Badgers 12 or 13 takeaways.
Failing to capitalize on turnover opportunities helps you consistently lose close games. It also forces you to defend for longer periods of time and could lead to more breakdowns. Wisconsin's secondary was ultra-young in 2013 -- among the top eight tacklers were six freshmen or sophomores -- and it could have used every break it got.
Despite the loss of safety Dezmen Southward, the level of experience is quite a big stronger in 2014. Seven of the aforementioned eight return, including a potential star in sophomore corner Sojourn Shelton, who both made and allowed some big plays last fall. The secondary might have to carry a bit more weight this year if the front seven isn't making quite as many plays against the run.
|Drew Meyer||6'3, 185||Jr.||53||38.6||3||15||19||64.2%|
|Andrew Endicott||5'9, 166||So.||57||58.3||9||0||15.8%|
|Jack Russell||6'0, 172||Jr.||34-34||8-10||80.0%||1-3||33.3%|
|Kenzel Doe||KR||5'8, 170||Sr.||20||26.5||1|
|Kenzel Doe||PR||5'8, 170||Sr.||16||7.3||0|
|Special Teams F/+||50|
|Field Goal Efficiency||87|
|Punt Return Efficiency||44|
|Kick Return Efficiency||19|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||67|
9. A little more leg, Drew
The Wisconsin special teams unit basically had two weaknesses in 2013, and one got at least partially rectified when Jack Russell took over for Kyle French as place-kicker. But the Badgers still needed a bit more leg from punter Drew Meyer, who did pretty well in terms of kick placement but ranked just 94th in both Net Punting and Punt Efficiency.
Despite high efficiency on both offense and defense, then, Wisconsin was only decent in terms of the field position battle. If the punting game improves at least a little bit, return man Kenzel Doe could turn this unit into an overall strength. (Seriously, almost every damn Big Ten team has a great return man.)
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||24.1% (10)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||47|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||1 / 1.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||10 (6, 4)|
10. The West is the place to be
It's going to be an interesting year in the Big Ten West.
Wisconsin is easily the top dog and most proven entity, but the Badgers do have some questions to answer regarding one of last year's biggest strengths (defensive front seven) and one of its biggest weaknesses (big pass plays).
The offense will be good regardless, but if there's slippage in run defense, and the secondary is still creating some messes of its own, then the offense will have to win some shootouts. And while the running game will be as good as anybody's, you do have to threaten defenses through the air.
If Wisconsin can maintain a top-30 level despite these questions, and if the Badgers can remember how to win tight games again, they could conceivably end up with a better record in 2013 despite some regression. The schedule features just one projected top-30 team (LSU in the season opener) and only two others projected higher than 50th.
But how they fare against Iowa and Nebraska could determine whether they reach the conference title game for the third time in four years. The numbers like their chances quite a bit, but they do still have more uncertainty than we're used to seeing.