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Monday, August 27, 2007

The Story

You have to give it up for Wisconsin, a program with the momentum of a planet. Not even the retirement of the program patriarch could change the Badgers' identity as the preeminent purveyor of old school three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football. PJ Hill ran, and ran, and ran, and ran. The defense lined up and smacked running backs into the ground. If you missed the whole retirement thing and squinted real hard you might have convinced yourself that Barry Alvarez was still stalking the sidelines, albeit after some major plastic surgery.

Now the great red hope for those tired of last year's reestablished Michigan-Ohio State hegemony, Wisconsin enters the year on a tidal wave of expectation after returning a bevy of starters from a 12-1 2006 campaign. Nine starters return on offense, seven or eight on defense depending on exactly who you tag as a starter. The Badgers might have the best tight end in the country, the best cornerback in the country, and the fattest tailback in the country. If Wisconsin's ever going to break through and seriously contend for a national title, this would be the year. (Or it might be next year when lots and lots of starters return again.)

Here come the buts: wretched nonconference schedule. Missed Ohio State in-conference. Outgained nearly two-to-one in narrow Citrus Bowl victory over quarterback-free Arkansas. Fared decently but less than spectacularly against Michigan. Loses anchor left tackle Joe Thomas and three-year starting quarterback Joe Stocco, plus All Big Ten-ish safety Roderick Rogers and the top two tacklers from last year's defense. Starting defensive end Jamal Cooper hanging by a thread. Coach's haircut makes him look like a meathead (or Walter Sobchak...

... he's not wrong about the kickoff thing or the Ikegwuonu thing, he's just an asshole.). And so on and so forth.

In the worlds of Donald Rumsfeld, Wisconsin is something of a known-unknown after last year; this year they will define themselves as a true challenger to the Big Two or they will settle into their usual Wisconsin spot in Florida. But which will it be?


Last Year

Pass Eff
I propose that Wisconsin's 2006 offense wasn't actually very good despite the numbers at right. This is a difficult proposition even after removing the Charmin-soft nonconference schedule: Wisconsin finished second only to the Ohio State juggernaut in both scoring and yardage in conference games. While missing said juggernaut helps those numbers that alone is not nearly enough to explain away the numbers and declare the UW offense meh.

But there is a hypothesis: Wisconsin's offense resembled Texas Tech's in no way whatsoever save a tendency to blow away weak teams in spectacular fashion and clatter to a near-halt against top opposition. When Wisconsin went up against the many dire defenses in conference it put a thrashing on them: 52 points and 539 yards against Indiana. 41 and 527 against Northwestern. 48 and 401 against Minnesota. Only 24 points but 442 yards versus Purdue. The Badgers culled the young and weak from the herd with ruthless abandon.

Against the strong, however, matters were different:

Michigan10248131 TO. 104 UW yards come in garbage time.
316302 TO. Scoring aided by many short fields.
Penn State15
341132 TO.
201173 TO.

These teams gave up an average of 290 yards per game, and that number includes everyone's functional DNPs against wack nonconference schedules. Wisconsin fell short of this by 14 yards and only got that close because Michigan was exceptionally generous once it got up 17 midway through the fourth. Against good defenses, Wisconsin was a below average offense. Note that the point here isn't something obvious like "hey, they didn't score much against teams no one scored on." Rather, it's this: they moved the ball even less than you would expect against teams of this caliber.


Rating: 2. It's time to play pick the pass offense:
PASS OFFENSE       G   Att  Cmp Int  Pct.  Yds  Avg TD Yds/G
TEAM A........... 8 204 129 4 63.2 1799 8.8 14 224.9
TEAM B........... 8 209 134 5 64.1 1646 7.9 21 205.8
TEAM C........... 8 200 127 5 63.5 1585 7.9 14 198.1
Would you believe that one of these teams is Wisconsin? Surely you must be looking at Team C now, admirably efficient but clearly in third place. No. That's Michigan. And the team with all the touchdowns is Ohio State. Team A -- possessor of the best YPA in the conference by nearly a full yard -- is Wisconsin. All this despite having mediocre receivers and (as we will see) a terrible offensive line. John Stocco was quietly one of the top quarterbacks in the conference for the past two years; his departure will be felt keenly.

Fifth-year senior Tyler Donovan has won the job in Stocco's stead. Until late last year, Donovan was regarded as a career backup; Kansas State transfer Allan Everidge was the heavy favorite for the job. But when Stocco went down with an injury, Donovan led the Badgers to a win over Iowa and looked impressive doing it, going 17 of 24 for 228 yards and two touchdowns. (He also started and won a game against Buffalo, but that has a predictive value of zero.) Strong-ish performances in spring and fall won him the job. But what to expect?

One: more mobility. Donovan's always been something of a scrambler, more along the lines of a Brooks Bollinger than a John Stocco. Two: less overall goodness. Luke Winn's postcard from Wisconsin camp provides a rare take on fall practices not offered by a coach with ulterior motives:
...neither QB -- even with the Badgers' veteran receiving corps at his disposal -- is likely to match Stocco's pleasantly surprising numbers from '06. Both are average passers who still seemed mistake-prone in practice.
One man's opinion of one practice, yes, but basically all we have to go one save Donovan's performance against an awful Hawkeye secondary last year. Chances are there's a significant step back from John Stocco's quiet assassination.

Tailback & Fullback

Rating: 3. A major reason Wisconsin's offense was so wildly variable based on quality of opposition was tailback PJ Hill, who is a fat man in the mold of Ron Dayne. Let him get going in a straight line and he's a terror; foul his intended hole and he is done. If you can do the latter without bringing up a safety the Badger offense wilts since it relies so heavily on the run game to set up the deep ball. This is the hypothesis, anyway.

Unfortunately, there is precious little to test this against. Michigan crushed him but that's not a fair comparison. Aside from a couple spread-n-shred runs Ohio State managed, no one moved the ball on the ground versus Michigan even a little bit. Illinois would be interesting, but Hill missed a large portion of that game injured (he did get off to a good start with 50 yards on 12 carries). Penn State's #7 ranked rush defense, as noted in the Penn State preview, masked an average unit that had a tough time stopping any mildly prolific tailback.

We do have the Arkansas game. The Hogs were good but by no means great against the run, 33rd, and crushed Hill. He finished with 36 yards on 19 carries, 1.9 per. Wisconsin managed 17 points on just over 200 yards. Scanty evidence, sure, and the 148 yards against Penn State is a point in his favor. But I remain highly skeptical of Hill's ability to make his own yards.

The backup situation is all right. Sophomore Lance Smith was reinstated after some offseason stiletto-heel-stealing; incoming freshman John Clay just scraped by the NCAA Clearinghouse and will suit up behind the two returners.

Wide Receiver & Tight Ends

Rating: 4. Boy, does Wisconsin have some tight ends. Not only did converted linebacker Travis Beckum (above) finish the year as Wisconsin's leading receiver with 61 catches for over 900 yards, but backup/co-starter Andy Crooks picked up another 19 receptions of his own. (No word if all of them were those infuriating TE screens Michigan can't seem to stop.) Both return; Beckum is the leading candidate for the Mackey award this year. Question: can Beckum block? I note that despite his enormous year, he missed out on not only first team Big Ten -- which understandably went to Matt Spaeth -- but second team (Scott Chandler?!). Possibilities: crotchety coaches just voted for the senior, or crotchety coaches didn't care for all of Beckum's "catches" and "yards" and "obvious ability to kick ass" because he's a purse-swinger in the run game. It's whatever, really. Beckum's still real good.

At wide receiver, Wisconsin returns Luke Swan and Paul Hubbard, both of whom are rangy types with excellent YPC averages in Wisconsin's bomb-heavy pass offense. Each caught around 35 balls last year and gained around 600 yards. No possession receivers, these -- that role is Beckum's. Swan the better player. He's white and must only remind me of white guys, so he's reminiscent of recent Minnesota departure Logan Payne: smoothly fast but stiff, not a cut-cut-cut sort. Hubbard is a wildly frustrating player prone to killer drops but has decent speed and can go up and get balls. Both are large and experienced; neither is threatening on the level of Lee Evans or Chris Chambers.

Offensive Line

Rating: 3. Everyone returns except that left tackle guy, and I'm still trying to figure out what I think about that. Even if you believe last year's line was a major reason for PJ Hill's success, their performance in pass protection left much to be desired. Despite throwing only 331 times -- Wisconsin ran on 62% of its plays from scrimmage -- Wisconsin was 80th in sacks allowed.

Any Michigan fan remembers various Michigan defenders tearing into John Stocco whenever he attempted a pass. Only the Penn State matched it for sheer vicious bloodsport. Aside from an eleven-yard opening run and a blown coverage that gave Wisconsin its only touchdown of the day, Wisconsin could do nothing until garbage time because it couldn't block Michigan's defensive line. Michigan ended up with four sacks and plenty of quarterback hurries. Much the same story unfolded against Arkansas. The Razorbacks sacked Stocco six times, crushed the run game, and were unfortunate to lose. Although things were better for Hill against Penn State, Stocco still went down four times. Whenever the Wisconsin line came up against a team remotely capable of getting to the quarterback, they failed. And that was with Joe Thomas, a guy who gave up one sack the entire year.

So... yeah. Questions are more extensive than you might imagine given the returning starters. Everyone just expects Wisconsin to have a great line year in and year out, but that was not the case in 2006 and is no guarantee in 2007, especially since Thomas is being replaced by a redshirt freshman, Gabe Carimi. The indicators on his talent are pretty good: he forced moderately hyped sophomore Jake Bscherer to right tackle, where he's the backup, and beat out a fifth-year senior. But any redshirt freshman is going to be a major drop from Joe Thomas.

The rest of the line, then, is going to have to improve immensely to reach competence, and no one on the planet can tell you if this is going to happen. Given that three of the returning starters were sophomores a year ago, a significant step forward is probable... but this line looks average. (Check back next year, though, when four starters return again, three will be seniors, and the only departure is the center.)


Last Year

Pass Eff
Yow! Wisconsin croosh silly foes, especially when they dare to throw the ball. Again, disclaimers about strength of competition apply, especially to the pass defense. Troy Smith wasn't on the schedule, the bowl opponent's best quarterback was Darren McFadden, and the rest of the nonconference schedule, as mentioned, was dire. Performances by decent (defined as better than average (60th) passer efficiency) opposition quarterbacks:


Hey... that's still pretty friggin' good right there, though it should be noted that one of the Henne interceptions was a bizarre bomb with less than a minute on the clock and Michigan up two touchdowns and another was a gift that went right through Mario Manningham's hands. Henne had an efficient, effective day against the Badgers. Not so for Cupito, Painter, and Tate. (Tate's bizarre day might feature seventeen yards per catch and three touchdowns, but yards per attempt and completion percentage were horrible.) Maybe they wouldn't have been the best pass defense in the country without the schedule thing, but it's hard to conclude that they weren't very good against whatever mild tests it provided.

Meanwhile, the rush defense held Tony Hunt to 35 yards, limited a multi-pronged Illinois attack to 121 yard on 41 carries -- under three per -- and gave Mike Hart a tougher game than anyone except USC. (Hart was decently effective with four YPC and 91 yards, but only decently.) The only teams that managed any better were the unconventional attacks of Purdue and Arkansas. The Wisconsin defense was for real.

Also, this is something TAMABINPO brought up a long time ago but it stuck with me: though Bret Bielema obviously doesn't know anything about haircuts or public relations, the dude coaches the hell out of defenses. The below chart is stolen from TAMABINPO
with 2006 stats added; TD = "total defense"; SD = "scoring defense":
       06TD 06SD 05TD 05SD 04TD 04SD | 03TD 03SD 02TD 02SD 01TD 01SD 00TD 00SC
KState 70 66 36 58 43 84 | 6 8 2 1 3 7 4 1
Wisc 5 2 87 57 9 6 | 43 50 63 38 58 81 79 34
The vertical lines indicate the departure of Bielema to Wisconsin. Okay, so two years ago the Wisconsin defense collapsed, but other than that he's been top ten in both scoring and total defense since 2000. Bielema's been fortunate to have some of the pansiest schedules you can possibly assemble during this run, but that's still remarkable. And he returns five of his front seven plus Jack Ikegwuonu. Yipes.

Defensive Line

Rating: 5. No team in the conference has a stronger defensive tackle rotation than Wisconsin's trio of Nick Hayden (above), Jason Chapman, and Mike Newkirk. Though none of them have flashy numbers -- 4.5 TFL for Hayden, 4.0 for Newkirk, and 6.5 for Chapman -- there is a reason Wisconsin's run defense posed a stiff test for opponents. Though middle linebacker Mark Zalewski was a decent Big Ten player, it wasn't him. The NFL draft passed him over. A small concern: Chapman is the only one who provided any pass rush.

End is a bit shallower with the departure of part-time starter Joe Monty and what seems a truly indefinite suspension for projected replacement Jamal Cooper. Cooper's always been one step away from getting run off; it seems this time he really did it. Though the press release doesn't say it's final it comes close:
Cooper will have access to full academic support services, but will no longer be a part of the football program in any other way.
If there's anyone who might reinstate Cooper after all this crap (three suspensions in under a year), it's Bret Bielema, but even he seems truly pissed off enough to cut ties.

That leaves starters Matt Shaughnessy and Kurt Ware. Shaughnessy was second team All Big Ten a year ago despite pretty average numbers: 35 tackles, 8 TFL, and 4 sacks in a full season against lots of bad teams. So there must be something there not reflected in the numbers. He did put those up as a true sophomore coming off ACL surgery; he's clearly on a stardom track entering his junior year. He projects as excellent, a potential first team All Big Ten player. Ware, on the other hand, has given no indication he can match that level of performance. A fifth year senior, Ware found his most extensive playing time as a part-time starter his redshirt sophomore year, picking up 3.5 sacks and being named UW's defensive player of the week against... Temple. Last year he was used sparingly despite apparently being healthy (he started the Bowling Green game and played in all 13 UW games) and Cooper had beaten him out despite all the shenanigans. Even better: Ware missed almost all of fall camp with an injury and may still be gimpy. Adequacy here is unlikely.

Still, the tackles and a rising star at defensive end make this the best line in the conference with the possible exception of Iowa, pending the development of Michigan's trio of new starters.


Rating: 4. Badger partisans are very excited about this group, especially weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who FanHouse Big Ten/Badger guy Bruce Ciskie calls a "beast" whenever I instant message him. Conversations usually go like this:
MGoBrian: so here's this article about some Big Ten player doing something stupid. Post it maybe?
MGoBrian: I hate you.
Normally I would regard this with considerable skepticism, but the exact same thing happened last year with Jack Ikegwuonu and boy howdy were Badger fans right about that. A quick glance at the stats confirms: 83 tackles, 12.5 TFLs (led team), and two sacks as a true sophomore. Oh, if only Chris Graham could have done that. Honorable mention All Big Ten a year ago, Casillas is movin' on up. Practice hype combined with on-field production has me sold. Buy low on the Casillas hype now.

Also returning is strongside linebacker Deandre Levy, the team's leading sacker a year ago. The story here is much the same as with Casillas minus the constant Ciskie promotion: a sophomore who was more than adequate as a first year starter should take another significant step forward as a junior. Wisconsin will use him as a frequent blitzer and may even depoy him as an edge rusher on passing downs if Kurt Ware doesn't provide much in the way of production. Without Casillas' stats, hype, and 2006 honorable mention, he's not likely to match his teammate's production, but he won't be bad.

Middle linebacker Mark Zalewski graduates, paving the way for a man with a familiar name: Hodge. This is Hawkeye destroyer Abdul's little brother Elijah (clowning above) and when he isn't stealing mopeds he's attempting to follow in his older brother's footsteps. The rest of the Big Ten heartily wishes Hodge all the failure in the world in this endeavor, but 25 tackles and two sacks in erratic time spotting various linebackers as a redshirt freshman are an indication he has talent comparable to his brother. He also makes funny faces.

I almost gave this group a five, but the relative youth -- still no seniors -- prevented it.

Defensive Backs

Rating: 4. Though the nation's #1 pass efficiency defense was greatly helped out by the schedule, the conference numbers are nothing to scoff at:
PASS DEFENSE             G   Att  Cmp Int  Pct.  Yds  Avg TD Yds/G
1. Wisconsin........... 8 244 116 9 47.5 1205 4.9 6 150.6
The no-Ohio-State caveat is worth repeating, but the numbers in the "last year" section indicate that the Wisconsin pass defense was not just a paper tiger. The ones directly above look like Wisconsin played Juice Williams every week. They were bad ass.

A large part of the badassery is due to the services of one Jack Ikegwuonu (right), an NFL prototype corner who was subject to a huge amount of preseason hype from the Badger camp and lived up to it. Though Mario Manningham got loose twice against Wisconsin, both times he was working on Detroiter Allen Langford, not Ikegwuonu. Manningham did manage a few shorter routes, but Ikegwuonu stuck close enough to the New Math to spook Michigan into avoiding him lest one out get jumped with disastrous results. He's a potential All American.

Allen Langford returns for a third year of starting opposite him. Langford made a leap from enormous liability to honorable mention All Big Ten a year ago, but I'm a bit dubious about that. Manningham torched the guy twice; on the second touchdown he was beat by five yards easy. A bad game? Just Manningham's general unstoppability? Maybe. You don't put up stats like Wisconsin did without at least two good corners, and even Charles Woodson got beat a few times. Still, he's clearly the weaker corner.

Safety is not set. The entire two-deep graduated, including second-leading tackler Joel Stellmacher and second-team All Big Ten Roderick Rogers. All we know about the two replacements is that their labrums are flimsy indeed. Remarkably, both Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter spent last year on the shelf after tearing said muscle, missing out on an opportunity to get blooded on something other than special teams. Now they are redshirt sophomores and starters. In high school both were regarded somewhat dubiously by the recruiting gurus: Pleasant was a marginal three-star Michigan State commit who fled to Wisconsin; his other offers were from Indiana, a then-decrepit Illinois, and MAC schools. Carter was a two-star. Wisconsin makes a living with these guys year-in and year-out but replacing two longtime starters with sophomores whose only experience is covering kicks is a potentially huge dropoff.

Special Teams

Rating: 4. Wisconsin's kickers are probably the best in the league. Kicker Taylor Melhaff was second-team All Big Ten a year ago, going 15 for 20 and missing only one field goal inside 40 yards. With Garrett Rivas gone, he's the Big Ten's top kicker. Punter Ken DeBauche was above average last year and returns for a senior season; Wisconsin's net punting average was 17th in the country. (And this despite giving up bundles of yards to Steve Breaston.)

However, the Badger return game was a mess last year. Wisconsin finished dead last in kickoffs at a paltry 15 yards per and was not much better in the punt game, finishing 96th and suffering a series of Zach Hampton muffs. Hampton's gone, but the alternatives aren't particularly appealing.


Turnover Margin

The theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.

2006Int + Fumb +Sacks +Int -Fumb -Sacks -
0 (58th)15102.23 (50th)9
2.31 (80th)

Wisconsin was dead even a year ago. No conclusions to draw.

Position Switch Starters

Theory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.


Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview

Just because.

They ranked the top offenses. The results:

7. Wisconsin

9. West Virginia

The mind... boggles. Boggle boggle boggle. Boggle!

Flickr Says...

Hyyyarrr, thar she blows. Either she batters Michigan's national championship hopes to splinters or, harpooned, wallows in plankton-laden seas as we chop her stem to stern.

An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt

Best Case

Ohio State 2002. 12-0.

Worst Case

If the line does not improve its pass protection the offense will take a step back from its only moderately successful 2006 and anyone who can stuff Hill with some consistency will splatter the Badger offense. If Donovan can't threaten the deep ball like Stocco did, this will be lots of teams. This could be an improved version of those Penn State teams that did things like lose 6-4 -- the offense just can't be quite as bad -- and finish 8-4.

Final Verdict

Wisconsin was, is, and will be a one-dimensional offensive team that relies on its running game to plow through opponents. This has been enough to make the Badgers a perennially good team but never a great one, and that will be the case again this year. Tyler Donovan is probably going to be average at best. PJ Hill is overrated and will get shut down several times this year. The offensive line was a mess last year and will sabotage an inexperienced quarterback without wholesale improvement. There will be four to six better offenses in the Big Ten.

However, there will not be more than one or two better defenses -- if there are any. You can sort of argue four starters return on the line what with Newkirk being a quasi-starter as the third defensive tackle. Two good, potentially great, outside linebackers also return. You are entering a world of pain if you try to run on the Badgers. It would be a shock if anyone in the conference finished with a better rushing defense. Despite the presence of Ikegwuonu, the prognosis for the pass defense isn't quite as rosy. The safeties are a major step back from last year's pair and the pass rush generated by the front four probably won't be great unless there are unexpected developments.

9/1Washington State
Probable win
9/8@ UNLV
9/15The Citadel
Functional DNP
10/20Northern Illinois
Michigan State
10/6@ Illinois
Probable win
10/13@ Penn State
11/3@ Ohio State
11/17@ Minnesota
Absent:Purdue, Northwestern

The schedule makers have withdrawn the Most Favored Nation status the Badgers had last year by removing Purdue and Northwestern, two teams nearly guaranteed to run screaming, King Kong-style, from PJ Hill's gargantuan thighs. Though MSU, Minnesota, and Indiana are no threat to do anything but crumple, there are five teams that can plausibly contain Hill and keep the Badgers from scoring much. Two or three of these teams will probably get run over anyway. The rest will be tough outs. Many close games are in the offing; though Wisconsin is likely to end up on the right side of most of them there are a couple losses in there somewhere. 10-2 is the projection; I would be less surprised at 9-3 than 11-1.