In previewing Wisconsin this season, I omitted a key detail; six assistant coaches left after last season. Former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took the head coaching job at Pitt, and took three other assistants with him. Two others left for Arizona State and Kansas. So Wisconsin was close to breaking in a whole new coaching staff this season...and it's not going so well. Bret Bielema dismissed new offensive line coach Mike Markuson after just two games. Quarterback Danny O'Brien was benched two quarters later at halftime against UTEP. Taking over is redshirt freshman Joel Stave, who's completed 14 of 23 passes this season for a touchdown with one interception. Stave isn't a threat to run the ball, losing two yards on six carries this season. What he's done is stabilize the Badger offense that has struggled most of the season.
Some of those struggles can be attributed to concussion problems by Wisconsin's two best offensive skill players. Receiver Jared Abbrederis missed the Utah State game after getting dinged in the first half against Oregon State. Montee Ball suffered his second concussion in two months in last week's game against UTEP; his first occurred in that early August assault near campus. On Tuesday, Ball told reporters that there was "no doubt" he would play on Saturday. He'll return to practice on Wednesday with a green "no-contact" jersey.
On defense, linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland lead the Badgers defense with 40 and 34 tackles respectively. Cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie lead the secondary in passes defended and tackles as well. For all the Badgers issues on offense, they've been fine defensively, ranking 13th in rushing defense allowing only 81 yards a game. The Badgers rank 33rd in the nation in scoring defense, holding their opponents under 18 points a game.
Last year, Nebraska kept it competitive with Wisconsin for much of the first half. The Huskers led 14-13 with five minutes left in the second quarter when turnovers and defensive breakdowns tilted the game. Three interceptions of Taylor Martinez led to Wisconsin touchdown drives of 54, 63, and 42 yards. Five minutes into the third quarter, Wisconsin led 34-14 and could put the game on cruise control behind Montee Ball, who rushed 30 times for 151 yards and four touchdowns. Wisconsin went on to win 48-17 and jumped into the national championship discussion.
Two weeks later, Wisconsin traveled to Michigan State and trailed 31-17 with nine minutes left in the game before mounting a comeback to tie the game with just over a minute to go. But Kirk Cousins fired a 44 yard touchdown pass off of B.J. Cunningham's face mask and into the arms of Keith Nichol, who lunged into the end zone as time expired to give Michigan State a 37-31 victory. The next week, Wisconsin again scored with just over a minute left in the fourth quarter to take a 29-26 lead on the road at Ohio State, only to lose on another long pass in the closing seconds. The Badgers got revenge on Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game, winning 42-39 to earn a Rose Bowl berth against Oregon. Oregon and Wisconsin played a shootout in Pasadena, with the Badgersrunning out of time at the Oregon 25 yard line trailing 45-38 to finish 2011 with an 11-3 record.
Last year, Wisconsin answered questions about their quarterback by picking up Russell Wilson from North Carolina State. Russel went on to complete nearly 73% of his passes for 3175 yards, 33 touchdowns, and just four interceptions last season. But the questions about depth at quarterback still existed, so Wisconsin went back to the waiver wire this spring for a quarterback. This time, it's former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien who still has two years of eligibility left. But before anyone says "here we go again", let's not forget that O'Brien is not Wilson. Wilson led the ACC in touchdown passes every season at N.C. State, and had a streak of 379 passes without an interception in his freshman and sophomore seasons. O'Brien struggled last season, completing just 56% of his passes with 10 interceptions. He's also not the running threat (33 carries for 57 yards last season) that Wilson was. And can O'Brien pick up the offense as quickly as Wilson did? Wilson spent 10-12 hours a day in a crash course last summer - an effort that resulted in him being named a team captain.
Let's not forget that at Wisconsin, quarterback's typically are more of a game manager. So Wilson's playmaking ability was a huge addition to the offense. Typically, the Wisconsin offense relies on the running backs to drive the offense, and the Badgers might be the best in the country at that position. Senior Montee Ball turned down the NFL after rushing for 1,923 yards and a school record 33 touchdowns last season, earning him first-team All-American and Big Ten MVP honors last year. His backup is no slouch either: junior James White rushed for 713 yards and six touchdowns last season after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. And keep an eye on redshirt freshman Melvin Gordon, who the coaches have been raving about. In 2012, the Badgers will likely lean on the running game even more to allow O'Brien to become more of a game manager.
With Wilson and Nick Toon heading to the NFL, the passing game takes on a lesser importance, but absolutely cannot be ignored. Leading receiver Jared Abbrederis returns for his junior season. Last season, he caught 55 passes for 933 yards and eight touchdowns. He's also a dangerous kick returner, averaging nearly 16 yards a punt return last season. Junior Jeff Duckworth and sophomore Chase Hammond should replace Toon. Duckworth is the speedy guy who caught 15 passes last season for 230 yards and a touchdown. The 6'5" Hammond should be a matchup problem in the secondary, as will 6'4" tight end Jacob Pederson. Pederson was the third leading receiver last season, catching 30 passes for 356 yards and eight touchdowns, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors.
Offensive lines at Wisconsin have established a pedigree like Nebraska's pipeline did in the 1980's and 1990's. They don't rebuild, they reload. In 2012, they'll need to reload more than usual as they lose two all-Americans and an all-Big Ten performer. The Badgers still have senior left tackle Ricky Wagner, an honorable mention all-Big Ten selection the last two years and junior Travis Frederick, a second team all-Big Ten honoree at left guard who will move to center. And since it's Wisconsin, you have to assume that there are talented lineman waiting in the wings and will be just fine.
Compared to the offensive line, Wisconsin's defensive line toils in relative obscurity. Inside, junior tackle Beau Allen was one of the Badgers best pass rushers, leading returning players with four sacks last season. The ends were not terribly productive last season, though the Badgers hope that senior Brendan Kelly can build on his 35 tackle, 5 quarterback hurry season from last year.
The eyepopping statistics on defense come from the linebackers. Senior all-Big Ten weakside linebacker Mike Taylor led the team with 150 tackles, while junior middle linebacker Chris Borland added 143 more. You'd be hard-pressed to find another linebacking corp with those types of numbers, and we haven't even considered who'll take over at strongside linebacker, likely junior Ethan Armstrong, who had 29 tackles in spot duty last season.
If not for the end-of-game Hail Marys by Michigan State and Ohio State, Wisconsin's secondary probably would have earned more notoriety last season. They'll have to replace two all-Big Ten honorees this season, though. Senior cornerback Devin Smith is back from a foot injury that got him a medical redshirt last season. He'll work aside fellow senior Marcus Cromartie, who emerged in Smith's absence to total 47 tackles last season. Senior Shelton Johnson is a solid safety who's also a big hitter. His 54 tackles was fourth on the team last season, and his four interceptions tied for the team lead. Keep an eye on junior Denzen Southward, who is expected to take over at free safety.
Wisconsin may not be as strong offensively without Russell Wilson at quarterback, but Montee Ball should be even better than he was last season. The Huskers will simply have to play much better defense in 2012 to win the game, though not making as many offensive mistakes wouldn't hurt either.