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Wisconsin Badgers 2018 season review: The good, the bad and the ugly

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Yes, the Wisconsin Badgers still have one game remaining in the season, but that one game isn’t going to make or break how we see the 2018 season for the Cardinal and White. 

As we move on towards the bowl game and try to get over the fact that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is no longer in the Badgers trophy case, it’s also time for us to reflect back on the season as a whole. 

Over the next few weeks we’ll give various looks in to the 2018 season. That starts today with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the season that was. 

Of course, before we get there we have to acknowledge that this season on the whole was a bitter disappointment. Going from one of the top teams in the country to 7-5, not winning the Big Ten West division and losing to bitter rival Minnesota to close out the season was not how anyone believed this season would go. 

If anything, the 2018 season is a cautionary tale in believing that one game makes or breaks the reality for a team. It seems that many bought in to UW’s performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl last season as a sign that this team was turning a real corner as a program. 

Clearly that didn’t happen, but what did happen in 2018 to get us where we are today? 

The Good

Two words, one player — Jonathan Taylor. 

It’s scary to think of how the 2018 season would have gone without him leading the way for the Badgers offense. Taylor followed up a stellar freshman season with another record-setting year for the Badgers. 

So far this season, Taylor has racked up 1,986 yards and is very likely to top 2,000 yards when the Badgers play whatever bowl game they’ll end up in. His combined two-year total yardage is the best for anyone in FBS history and he finished the year averaging over 24 yards more per game than the next best number on the year. Oh, and he bested the next best rushing total in the Big Ten by a measly 800 yards

Wisconsin’s run game accounted for 268.4 of the 433.2 yards per game on the year. Taylor accounted for an average of 165.7 of those 433.2 yards per game, otherwise known as 38.2 percent of the teams total yards in a game. 

Of course, Taylor wasn’t the only one that got their jobs done well in the run game. UW’s offensive line was impressive, continuing to maul and wear down opposition defenses time and again. 

By the end of the season, four of the Badgers starters were named All-Big Ten first team selections and senior guard Michael Deiter was the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year. 

It was arguably one of the best rushing seasons in program history and the best per-game average of any Badgers team since 2014 to put it all in perspective. 

The Bad

This one is easy — injuries. 

Wisconsin’s defense started the season behind the eight ball with a pair of devastating injuries to expected defensive end starters in Garrett Rand and Isaaiah Loudermilk and it just snowballed from there. 

Rand missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, while Loudermilk struggled to get consistent playing time thanks to his injury nagging him on and off all season. As it was, he played in just eight games on the year and racked up just 14 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack and 2 pass break ups in those eight games. 

The injury bug bit both Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun at outside linebacker, as they both picked up nagging injuries early on in the season. Neither of them hit their stride until near mid season and UW’s defense came along nicely after their return.

But, that didn’t last long as the Badgers secondary then got the injury bug too. Scott Nelson and D’Cota Dixon missed games and that led to freshman Reggie Pearson getting a start, only to see himself get injured. 

UW’s cornerback depth nearly ran on empty at points this season as a myriad of injuries were racked up by the young group. Yes, Madison Cone played all 12 games and Faion Hicks played in 11, but literally no one was able to go all season without missing plays due to injury. 

Names like Travian Blaylock and Alexander Smith, who weren’t expected to be contributors at all got in four and three games respectively this season, largely because UW had no other choice at times given in-game injury situations.  

In fact, eight of UW’s 10 cornerbacks on the roster saw game action as a cornerback (and not just on special teams) this season. Only walk-ons Cristian Volpentesta and Kobe Knaak failed to make an appearance on the stat sheet this year. 

Wisconsin came in to the season young and inexperienced in the secondary and up front as well. What it found out is that the combination of young, inexperienced and injury-prone wasn’t a fun one. Depth is great, but it only extends so far and the Badgers extended it to their extremes on the defensive side of the ball in 2018. 

The Ugly

Nothing was more ugly for this Badgers team than quarterback play. Arguably, the biggest reason for optimism heading in to 2018 came from the way Alex Hornibrook played in the Orange Bowl win. With UW’s run game bottled up at times, it was Hornibrook that really led the way in the win. He was on time with his passes, threw the ball with real zip and played with complete confidence. 

But, the cautionary tale of the 2017 season was that the Orange Bowl was an outlier to the rest of Hornibrook’s season. Would that one game be the catalyst for change or would it be more of the same. 

The answer was clearly more of the same and that didn’t bode well for a Badgers team that needed to challenge defenses with more than just a powerful run game. 

Hornibrook completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw nearly as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (13) for the second straight year. 

He also went down with two concussions in a three game span and that gave sophomore quarterback Jack Coan a golden opportunity. He didn’t take advantage of it at all, albeit against some really stiff competition — Northwestern and Penn State. Coan finished the year completing 61 percent of his passes for just 442 yards and 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. There was a 60-yard performance in a start at Penn State. 

Simply put, no one stepped at the quarterback position and without that happening, the Badgers were so one-dimensional that it made it easy for teams to tee-off on defense. 

Wisconsin has to go back to the drawing board at quarterback this offseason if it really wants to become a national contender. What they got from Coan and more importantly, Hornibrook, was completely unacceptable. 

Perhaps the biggest offseason question has to be if the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country, Graham Mertz, can come in and take the job by the horns. If not, it’s hard to see how the Badgers are more competitive on offense next season. 

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Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers

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No recruit has ever been as hyped as quarterback Graham Mertz has been in Wisconsin Badgers history.

Normally that would lead to coaches tempering their words and expectations. Given head coach Paul Chryst’s history of exactly that, it was a bit surprising to hear him speak with excitement about what Mertz may bring to the table in Madison.

So far, Chryst has been very impressed with how Mertz is handling everything on and off the field.

“Yeah, Graham has got a great personality,” said Chryst at Big Ten media day on Friday. “I think he’s done a nice job of — he came in the spring, and getting to know our teammates, and I think he’s handling — there’s a lot of buzz and talk about him, and I think he’s handled it well, and I think the team has handled it, as well.”

What has impressed the head coach most about his freshman quarterback? Chryst says it is how he is handling everything that has been thrown at him since he entered school in January.

“They’re experiencing a lot for the first time, going to school and being away from home, and there’s obviously a ton of football with it, and I think all three have handled it, and Graham has handled it well, and I’m excited for those three, Graham in particular, that went through spring and then you have summer and now they’ll be able to go into fall camp and it’s not all new to them,” said Chryst.

“But I’ve been impressed with how Graham has handled himself, and I think he’s — again, cares a lot about teammates and is a good teammate himself, a good person, and I think that’s a great place to start.”

Perhaps the most telling statement from Chryst during his time at the podium on Friday, was the one where he actually used the words “excitement” and “Graham” in the same sentence.

“And certainly we’re excited, really excited about Graham,” Chryst said to the media. “He’s early in on the process, and so I like the group that we have. I’m thankful that we’ve got Jack coming back that’s played in games, and certainly looking forward to fall camp and seeing the growth and development of all of them.”

Does that mean Mertz is the immediate savior of the Badgers offense? No.

But, unlike years past, Chryst is at least willing to go out on a limb and live in the excitement of what could happen in the future.

This type of talk should only serve to continue to spark the speculation and the spotlight on the quarterback position in Madison in the next few weeks.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019

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Believe it or not, the start of the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp is right around the corner and we’re hitting the home stretch of our preview season as well.

Previous Positions:Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker | Inside Linebacker |

No position has had more of the spotlight and taken up more of our conversation than what is happening at quarterback. After watching the QB play go from ok to disaster in 2018, it is back to the drawing board in many ways.

With Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State for his final season and the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badgers history on campus, this offseason has been full of intrigue.

But, what will the 2019 season look like for the most critical position on this offense? Let’s take a look at exactly that.

Best Case Scenario

The Badgers find out they hit the jackpot with Graham Mertz and he’s spent the time between spring and fall ball getting up to speed on the offense. Mertz immediately shows this is his job and the coaching staff sees it quickly as well.

Either that or Jack Coan comes in and commands the position and the offense with accuracy and an ability to hit the deep ball. The offense gels around him and heading in to the opener at South Florida, Coan is the man behind center by a wide margin.

Yes, there are two best-case scenarios at play. But, that’s because Wisconsin’s coaching staff would really love for someone to flat-out win the starting job early on in fall camp. Will that happen? That’s the million dollar question and don’t count out Chase Wolf from this competition either. He came on strong as spring went along and his abilities give the Badgers offense some different wrinkles that could be intriguing.

No matter whom wins the battle in fall camp, the best case scenario is that that person wins the battle early, the offense can focus on installing around that quarterback and said quarterback shows why he won the job with quality play during the season.

Worst Case Scenario

If we go in to week three of fall camp and there is no winner to the quarterback job, I’m not so confident in this group. Yes, it’s the job of everyone to compete at a high level, but the coaching staff not being able to separate between the bunch isn’t good news.

My worst-case scenario would be no winner coming out of fall camp, we see quarterbacks splitting time in the fall and this offense stalling out in the pass game once again.

Musical chairs at quarterback never seems to work at Wisconsin and that especially played out last season with Coan clearly thrown to the wolves before he was ready to make a full impact after Hornibrook’s injury.

As long as the Badgers can avoid having to play multiple quarterbacks because none of them have wrestled the position for themselves, UW’s offense should be in a better position in 2019 than it was in 2018.

Most Likely to Happen

As much as the fans want to see Graham Mertz come in and be this game-changing quarterback out of the gate, the most likely scenario is that Mertz gets some game action in the non-conference games and Jack Coan is your regular starter.

I can foresee the scenario playing out much like Coan’s true freshman season. The only difference being that Mertz won’t have to give up his redshirt to play in a single game.

It seems like the most likely to happen scenario is that Coan is your starter for the year with Mertz as the man getting the early season reps behind him and then Chase Wolf being the other option to get reps during conference play.

Let’s not forget that Coan is the only quarterback on this roster that has seen more than a complete mop-up duty. Danny Vanden Boom could be an option too, but it seems like Wolf and Mertz passed him up in the spring competition.

As much as Mertz is the future, coaches are paid to win games now and that likely means playing it safe with Coan.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019

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We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker |

Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.

What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.

Best Case Scenario

Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.

Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.

No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.

It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.

Worst Case Scenario

What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?

Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.

Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.

The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.

Most Likely to Happen

The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.

I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.

Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019

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This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.

But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.

Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.

In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver

Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.

Best Case Scenario:

Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.

Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.

Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.

Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.

In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.

Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.

Worst Case Scenario:

Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.

Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.

If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.

Most Likely to Happen:

Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.

I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.

That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.

So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.

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