If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
It’s hard to argue that the formula that the Wisconsin Badgers have used for nearly 30 years has been highly successful. Play great defense, pound your opponent in to submission and catch them with a deep ball or two along the way.
UW has gone to six Rose Bowls, participated in two College Football Playoff bowl games and won six Big Ten titles in those nearly 30 years and with said formula.
But, that last part has been missing from the Badgers offense for awhile now…you know, since Russell Wilson stopped dazzling us with his rocket arm and escapability back in 2011.
From Joel Stave to Alex Hornibrook and other quarterbacks in between, the UW offense has struggled to find that guy who makes opponents respect his arm enough to stop stuffing the line of scrimmage.
With the news on Wednesday that Hornibrook would be transferring from the program for his final season, the competition is now wide open for the next Badgers starting quarterback.
The bar for success is admittedly low, after all, the Badgers finished 102nd in the country last season with 14 interceptions and 119th in passing offense (157.7 passing yards per game). Nearly anything would be better than what the quarterbacks of 2018 produced.
Losing Hornibrook does mean losing an experienced player, but does it matter much when that player had 33 interceptions in as many games played?
Sure, he was 26-6 as a starter over three years. But, was that because of or in spite of him? I’d argue having one of the best defenses and running back groups in the country has been the driver of that success, not Hornibrook.
Which brings me to the question at hand — is there a quarterback on the Badgers roster that can be someone other teams have to respect? Is there another player ala Russell Wilson, who is capable of taking this offense from ground and pound to three dimensional?
Let’s start with a look at the only quarterback on the roster to play a college game — Jack Coan.
Last season we got the biggest glimpse of Coan to date and what was shown wasn’t all that promising. He played in five games, starting four and completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 515 yards and 5 touchdowns to 3 interceptions.
There was plenty left to be desired, but I also wonder if it was because of too much protection from the coaching staff or just not being ready for the situation. Often the game plan called for Coan to dink and dunk the ball and he was never really given the opportunity to unleash the deep ball.
It seemed like the coaching staff was trying hard to get away with not having to put the game on the sophomore quarterback.
Coan now has those four starts under his belt and with Honribrook out of the way has the experience advantage over everyone else. But, is experience enough?
We’re about to find out, because the Badgers have one of the top quarterbacks in the 2019 class in the fold this spring in Graham Mertz.
Last we saw him, he was setting records at The All-American Bowl game en route to MVP honors. He was flinging the ball deep and accurately, something Badgers fans haven’t seen from a quarterback since Wilson came in to save this team in 2011.
But, there is bound to be a learning curve as Mertz transitions away from spread-based concepts to more under center work. How that transition goes this spring and how quickly he understands and executes the playbook will be telling.
The good news is that we’ve seen Mertz challenged against the best competition in the country at the quarterback position and he’s lived up to billing on every occasion. If ever there was a QB up to the challenge of playing early in a Badgers uniform, it is Mertz.
But, that doesn’t mean he has to be “the guy” either. There are other options to consider already on the Badgers roster.
Both Danny Vanden Boom and Chase Wolf flashed moments of potential all last offseason. In fact, Vanden Boom outplayed Coan throughout most of last spring before tailing off a bit in the competition in the fall.
Could Vande Boom pick it back up this spring and become a viable option? The former Kimberly star and walk-on at UW certainly has played at a level that makes giving him a legitimate chance this spring worthwhile.
On the other hand, Wolf was one of five quarterbacks in the mix last offseason and his reps have been limited. He’ll likely see many more this spring and it’s a chance to shine.
There’s no doubt he’s the dark horse in the race to replace Hornibrook, but with a full year of studying and learning the Badgers offense you never know what will happen when he gets his chance this spring.
All of this leads me to this conclusion — no one, not even the coaching staff has a real answer as to whom will lead the Badgers offense in 2019. If anyone tells you they do, it’s just an uneducated guess at best.
But, what I do know is that spring camp provides the coaches and players the best opportunity to fully understand what the quarterbacks could be capable of in 2019.
There’s little need to get work in in the run game save for the offensive line, but what is going to be important is pressure-testing the quarterbacks. Doing so in a controlled environment like spring ball is a great way to do so.
If the Badgers want to transform from a good team to a great one, they’ll need to find that transformational quarterback as soon as possible. It could also be that the coaching staff needs to find ways to transform the Badgers offense in small ways to take advantage of the quarterback’s strengths.
Hopefully there’s a positive answer that emerges following spring ball.
Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern
It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers took down reigning West division champions, the Northwestern Wildcats just the same.
UW’s defense came up big in the 24-15 victory. What happened, which players were the highlights and what needs to be worked on as the 4-0 Badgers go out of conference next week?
Our publisher, Andrew Coppens, comes to you with his full recap of UW’s win.
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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview
Wisconsin comes in its fourth game of the season flying high off of an early season benchmark win over Michigan. Up next are the Northwestern Wildcats – a program that has been very competitive against the Badgers over the last decade.
Given that history and how this early season has played out for both teams, what can we expect from the Badgers and Wildcats? Will it be revenge for Jack Coan or will Northwestern get back on track after a 1-2 start to the season.
Watch to find out the names to know, the stats to keep an eye on and more.
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Wisconsin vs. Northwestern: 5 Things to Know
For many fans of the Wisconsin Badgers, the high of victory over Michigan has not worn off. After all, it is just the 16th time in the history of the series that that happened.
But, we’re turning the corner and looking forward to the next game.
That next game is a home contest against the Northwestern Wildcats, also known as the reigning, defending, Big Ten West division champions. Let’s just say what we’ve seen from the Wildcats in 2019 does not resemble anything that we saw in 2018.
Northwestern comes in to this divisional contest on the heels of a 31-14 drubbing by an equally troubled Michigan State offense and sits with a 1-2 record on the early season.
But, overlooking anyone in the Big Ten is a big mistake. So, what do we need to know about this upcoming matchup? Let’s look at the 5 Things to know.
5: Wisconsin has won 5 of the last 6 meetings in Madison
One thing we can always count on in the Wisconsin-Northwestern series is the home team winning, right? After all, Wisconsin has won 5 of the last 6 games in Madison and Northwestern is the same 5 of the last six at Ryan Field in Evanston.
During those last six home games against the Wildcats, Wisconsin is averaging 35 points per game and has given up an average of 14.5 points per game.
In those last six road games in this series, UW is averaging 12 fewer points (23ppg) and has given up an average of nearly 12 more points per game (23.6).
Good thing this one is in Madison, huh?
4: Is the single-game record for pass break ups for Northwestern
Why would this be relevant? Well, that record was just tied last weekend as Greg Newsome II recorded four individual pass break ups in the loss to Michigan State. It was also his career high.
According to the stats, Newsome is averaging 2.3 pass break ups per game as well and that puts him in the national lead.
So far this year, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan has been remarkably efficient. He’s completed over 76 percent of his passes and has zero interceptions. Newsome is likely to go after the Badgers best performer in Quintez Cephus.
Who wins this battle could be a big factor in who wins the overall game on Saturday.
3: UW leads the country in opponent third down conversion rate
While advanced stats are all the rage, some of the old-fashioned stats are equally telling. One such stat can be third down conversions. Generally speaking, the fewer you allow your opponent to convert on, the fewer chances they have to score points.
It turns out, the Wisconsin Badgers are pretty good at it, allowing opponents to convert on just 10.5 percent of their third down chances so far this season.
The Badgers have allowed opponents to convert on just 4 of 38 attempts so far this season.
For reference, Ohio State is second in the Big Ten with an average of 23 percent. Second nationally is Kansas State at 16 percent.
Northwestern’s offense hasn’t exactly been good — converting just 18 of 48 attempts (37.5 percent) to rank 11th in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin’s offense also leads the Big Ten in 3rd down conversions at 56.4 percent on the season. That mark is also 7th nationally.
Let’s just say, third down has been Wisconsin’s down most of the season.
2: Northwestern’s Joe Gaziano is 2nd in all-time sacks
Know the name Joe Gaziano, commit it to memory and don’t let him get to the quarterback.
I’m guessing that is the message being delivered by offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph this week and it is a wise move.
That’s because the senior Northwestern defensive end is on pace to become the best sacker of quarterbacks in program history. His fourth-straight season with a sack of Brian Lewerke last week put him tied with Ifeadi Odenigbo (2013-16) for second in Northwestern history with 23.5 career sacks and is now just 4.5 behind Casey Dailey’s program record of 28.
His task won’t be particularly easy on Saturday though, as UW’s offensive line has given up just five sacks in three games and that number has only gone down since the opener.
Wisconsin gave up three sacks to USF and since then has only given up one sack each to Central Michigan and Michigan.
If Northwestern can’t get pressure on Jack Coan and allows him to be comfortable in the pocket, it could be a very long day at Camp Randall for the visitors.
1: Wisconsin leads the nation in game control
What is game control, you may be asking? Well it turns out game control is the amount of time you are able to hold a 14 or more point lead during a game.
Through three games, the Badgers have been up 14 or more points for 76.6 percent of the time per SportsSource Analytics.
Yes, it has come against two bad opponents and a Michigan team that got its soul crushed by the Badgers. But, for a Wisconsin team that has been notorious for playing down to competition, this is about as good an indication of how good they have been as you will find.
Add in Northwestern’s offensive struggles and this game feels like it won’t look much like the competitive ones we’ve been accustomed to and that have some believing this game a rivalry.
Be wary of the trap against Northwestern?
It feels like the classic trap game, right? Wisconsin just dominated an opponent everyone seemed to think was better than them on paper and Northwestern is coming to Camp Randall.
I mean, Northwestern has just one win on the season and is coming off a 31-14 loss to Michigan State that wasn’t as close as the score would tell you.
Given the history of the Badgers and Wildcats this isn’t good news, right? This is your classic Admiral Ackbar moment:
Or is it?
Well, sure, you may point to the fact that Wisconsin has won five of the last six inside Camp Randall and the trouble has really been on the road, but may I remind you that Northwestern got the Badgers 13-7 in 2015 for a split of the last two games in Madison?
Let’s also remember that every year is different from the next, until it start to feel like all the others playing out right before your eyes once again.
Speaking of which, did I mention that Northwestern is notorious for slow starts to their seasons? See 2016 (1-3), 2017 (2-3) and 2018 (1-3) for reference and then see what they did the rest of those seasons.
Well, this year the Wildcats are 1-2 in games prior to their school year even starting.
It all should give Wisconsin some pause because it seems like the Wildcats are historically poised to break out.
But, there’s a big difference between most of those years and this year — in most of those years, the Wildcats were playing good football and just couldn’t find a way to win.
You can’t say that about the 2019 Wildcats to say the least and stats are our friend here.
Let’s just start with the fact that the Wildcats of 2019 have not found a way to score even if it would bite them in the backside. The passing game has just one touchdown to six interceptions, completing just 48.3 percent of its passes for 408 yards.
That’s Wisconsin 2018 levels of bad, if not worse.
Northwestern is also averaging just 15.7 points per game, dead last in the Big Ten. Even Rutgers has managed to score an average of three times a game (21.3 through 3 games).
Through the first three games of last season, Northwestern averaged 24 points per game and topped the 30 point mark in two games (a 31-27 opening game thriller over Purdue and a 34-39 loss to Akron).
In 2017, Northwestern averaged 32.3 points per game in the first three of the year and in 2016 the average points per game were nearly as bad as this year — at 17.3 points per game.
That 2016 season is one this team would like to forget, as they went just 6-6 on the regular season before winning their bowl game over Pittsburgh to eek out a winning season in the end.
On the flip side, the Northwestern defense has usually been able to be counted on. So far this year, they have given up an average of 20.6 points per game, putting them 8th in the league, but right around their averages for most of the past three years as well.
But, Northwestern has faced Stanford, UNLV and Michigan State — three offenses that have largely struggled to get going themselves this year.
Is the Wildcats stat machine an indication of a good defense or just bad offenses they have played against?
Well, we can go to the advanced stats to tell us just how different the Badgers and Wildcats have been this season. Let’s take a look at the plot chart of S&P+ for instance:
For those of you new to this type of chart and rating, the more lower and to the right you are, the better you are. The further to the left and up you are, the worse you are.
So, what you are seeing is the byproduct of just how bad Northwestern’s offense as been. They are way off to the left on this plot chart, indicating they are amongst the worst overall performing teams in the Big Ten.
When you are in the category of Rutgers, you are doing it wrong, oh so wrong.
Take a look at Michigan State, where their defensive rating is so good, but the offense has been so bad (up until last week against Northwestern ironically) that they are where they are on this chart.
Or how about Hunter Johnson, the former 5-star recruit to Clemson that transferred and was expected to be the savior of all things Northwestern’s offense in 2019.
Well, the advanced stats have him as one of the bottom 15 quarterbacks in average PPA.
On the flip side, the metrics have a love affair with Wisconsin right now.
One thing is for sure, we’re going to get an ornery Pat Fitzgerald.
Maybe Fitz will hire one of those experts to get his offense in gear? Either that or hold off for another week, because Wisconsin would like another week of you not figuring out how to advance the ball on offense.
Either way, expecting the normal Badgers vs. Wildcats craziness just shouldn’t be a thing this week. These two teams are going in very different directions and fast.
Does that mean the Badgers will take Northwestern lightly going in to Saturday? Since the majority of this team were on the field for Wisconsin’s soul-crushing loss in Evanston, you can bet they won’t be taking anything for granted on Saturday morning.
Just don’t expect this to be the classic trap game it has been for both teams in the past.
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