As we begin our look at the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers football team, it is also important to remember where this program was last season. History has a funny way of telling us all about our pasts, and that can often times be true on the football field as it is in any other aspect of life — perhaps even more so.
With the return of Wisconsin’s native son, Paul Chryst, as the new head coach for the Badgers, many weren’t sure exactly what to expect out of the Badgers in 2015. After all, the change at the top meant three head coaches in the matter of four seasons.
That kind of change, especially all the way down to the assistants in the program, can be really hard on a team of young adults. How did the Badgers handle that change and what did 2015 tell us about UW’s future?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly and what it all means.
There’s little doubt that Wisconsin would’ve been in major trouble in 2015 had it not been for one of the best defenses in the country. Once again, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda adjusted and found a defense that would dominate almost every opponent on the schedule.
Just how good was the Badgers defense? It led the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.7), rushing defense (95.4 yards per game), total defense (268.5) and finished second in passing defense (173.2). Those numbers ranked first, fourth, and seventh in the nation respectfully.
Hard to argue against the raw numbers, but even advanced stats show that Wisconsin’s defense was about as dominant as it came in the world of FBS football for 2015. UW finished seventh in the country in defensive S&P+ rating, while never ranking lower than 14th in any specific category either.
Sure, UW would lose a few defensive battles, but when you are giving up fewer than two touchdowns a game to opponents that is more about the offense than anything the defense wasn’t capable of doing.
When one thinks of the Wisconsin Badgers, pounding the ball down the throats of their opponents is likely the first thing that comes to mind. After all, UW went in to the 2015 season having had a 1,000-yard running back every year since 2004.
After watching Corey Clement nearly go for 1,000 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup the previous year, it was likely that a 1,000-yard season was in the offing for the junior from New Jersey. Instead, it went all pear-shaped before the season even got underway.
What was thought to be a groin issue turned in to a sports hernia and that meant Clement was off to Germany to have surgery performed to correct the issue. It cost him the majority of the 2015 season and meant the running back duties fell to a redshirt freshman (Taiwan Deal) and a former defensive back turned running back (Dare Ogunbowale).
Ogunbowale would end up the leading rusher, but gained just 819 yards on the ground to become the first running back to lead UW in rushing with less than 1,000 yards in a decade. Deal mustered up 503 yards and there was even a place for linebacker turned freshman bowling ball, Alec Ingold.
In total, the Badgers managed just 1,954 yards rushing as a team and were just 10th in the Big Ten with 150.3 rushing yards per game.
That was not how anyone saw that season going, but it wasn’t just Clement’s absence either. UW found themselves having to start as many as four freshmen on the offensive line due to injury and transition at various points in the season.
No consistency up front and a lack of experience behind the line was a lethal blow to a usually lethal rushing attack in Madison.
There are seemingly a few games every season that set college football back to its original days as low-scoring affairs. One such contest just so happened to involve the Badgers in 2015, and it was a brutal 10-6 loss to the rival Iowa Hawkeyes.
Not only did the loss cost the Badgers a chance at the West division title, it also was an embarrassment to offensive football. There’s a difference between a defensive battle and downright awful offensive football, and that contest was exactly the later.
The two teams combined for more interceptions (3) than touchdowns (1) through the air, while both teams combined for three lost fumbles as well.
UW mustered up just 86 yards on the ground and Iowa contributed just 77 yards in the pass game themselves.
All of three points were scored in the entire second half of the game, and the two teams combined for as many punts as Iowa had completed passes (9).
Let’s just say this “struggle” between two long-time rivals wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, even if you like defensive football.
What it Tells Us for 2016
Not every season is a harbinger of things to come, and that can certainly apply to the Wisconsin Badgers. There’s little doubt that 2016 is going to be a new starting point for the program, as Chryst has suffered the loss of his starting quarterback (who started all or parts of every year of his career) and the mastermind of the defense that led UW throughout 2015.
Those losses mean a big battle for the starting quarterback job and a different feel to what should be a similar 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
What 2015 did tell us that this team needs a healthy Corey Clement and the offensive line to grow up quickly if it is to get to nine wins again. The margin for error seemed small last season, but with MSU, Michigan and Ohio State all in a row to open Big Ten play, that margin for error gets even smaller in 2016.
For the Wisconsin Badgers of 2016, the previous season was all about re-establishing what it meant to be a Badger like it has meant since 1990 and the arrival of Barry Alvarez. Establishing a feeling of home for fans, alumni and ex-players alike was certainly key to establishing a bright future.
So, if anything it is that return to emphasis on what worked for UW in the past that meant the most going forward.
Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers
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.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019
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.
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.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019
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.
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.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019
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.
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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