Better or Worse in the Big Ten West in 2016: Wisconsin Offense
Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we’re going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We’ll do a team a day in each division, continuing with the Wisconsin Badgers …
It wasn’t quite Murphy’s law in cleats, but it was still too dang close for comfort. Star tailback Corey Clement was injured in the season-opener and never quite found his footing, battling health and discipline problems the rest of the way. As many as seven different offensive line combinations were tried, to varying degrees of success.
The bottom line: Wisconsin, informally knows as Tailback U, went from 320 rushing yards per game in 2014 to 150 in 2015, the program’s lowest weekly average since 1995.
That team went 4-5-2 in 1995.
This one went 10-3.
So while the bulk of the credit will get heaped on the No. 1 scoring defense in the country (13.7 points allowed per game) for keeping things in check, let’s spread the love a little, too.
Senior quarterback Joel Stave, despite being turnover prone, was able to push the ball downfield. Wisconsin’s offense averaged 14.1 yards per play — up slightly from the previous two seasons (13.6 in 2014, 13.3 in 2013) in which running back Melvin Gordon was responsible for carrying the flag across the line. And coach Paul Chryst, the former Badgers’ offensive coordinator and passing guru, showed that he could improvise on the fly, even as pieces started to fall apart all around him.
The good news is that Clement is getting back to speed, although the New Jersey native has been slowed during the early part of preseason camp with a reported injury to his right leg. And an offensive line composed largely of redshirt freshmen that was rocked for 25 sacks last fall now has enough depth — and game experience — to run eight or nine bodies deep.
Sometimes you learn more from adversity than from a raging success. We’re going to find out this fall just how well those lessons stuck.
Here’s what you need to know about the rest of the Badgers’ offense:
Wisconsin by the numbers
Total yards per game: 378.6 (7th in Big Ten/No. 79 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 150.3 (10th in Big Ten/No. 94 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 228.3 (7th in Big Ten/No. 59 nationally)
Key players lost: OT Tyler Marz
Key returning players: RB Corey Clement, RB Dare Ogunbowale, OT Ryan Ramczyk
The skinny: It’s not fun to go from running at will to running at walls, but that’s what happened last fall in Mad City. Among the most telling discrepancies were on rushes on first and second down, in which the Badgers went from 7.19 and 7.39 yards per carry in those situations in 2014 to a pedestrian 4.12 and 3.69, respectively, in 2015. And hello, third-and-longs.
A healthy Clement should make early-down pounding more productive, especially behind a more seasoned blocking front. Against 10 unranked opponents, the Badgers ran, on average, 43 times for 185 yards and 4.3 yards per carry. Versus three ranked foes, those totals fell to 27 times for 33 yards and 1.2 yards a tote. With a 2016 dance card that features five ranked opponents among the first seven dates on the dance card, the sooner Chryst can get the ground game cranking again, you feel, the better for all involved.
Key players lost: QB Joel Stave, WR Alex Erickson, TE Austin Traylor
Key returning players: QB Bart Houston, WR Robert Wheelwright
The skinny: A starter (mostly) from his redshirt freshman season on, the 6-foot-5 Stave left school as the Badgers’ all-time leader in quarterback victories (31) after last December’s 23-21 win over USC in Holiday Bowl. Stave was at the helm for an era that saw Wisconsin produce two Big Ten division-winning sides, a league champion (2012) and a pair of postseason victories (2015 Outback Bowl, ’15 Holiday).
So now Chryst hands the keys to either senior Bart Houston or freshman Alex Hornibrook, a battle that was still raging through the first few weeks of camp. Houston, a 6-4 right-hander, has more practical game experience, including 232 passing yards in a win at Illinois last October. But he also tossed two picks in that contest, and some feel Hornibrook, a 6-4 lefty, has the higher ceiling, long-term.
Regardless, whomever gets the bulk of the snaps figures to see better protection than Stave got last year, which ought to help the transition some. And they’ll have viable weapons with which to work, a core that includes wideouts Wheelright (13.0 yards per catch in ’15), Jazz Peavy (13.4 per grab, tight end Troy Fumagalli (11.2) and tailback Dare Ogunbowale (8.3).
One stat that must improve
This one: 4.43. As in, the Badgers’ points per “value” drive, which ranked 103rd nationally. According to the stat site BCFToys.com, “value drives” are possessions that “begin on the offense’s own side of midfield and reach at least the opponent’s 30-yard line.”
In other words, how well do you take advantage of short fields, compared to your peers?
The closer to seven points this number is, the better. And in Wisconsin’s case, it wound up a lot closer to three. Not surprisingly, the Badgers also finished 72nd among FBS programs in percentage of offensive drives that ended with a touchdown (24.5), according to FootballOutsiders.com. If there’s a key word for 2016, it’s this: FINISH.
1. That nobody grabs the reins at quarterback and hangs on to it. What’s the old line about playing two quarterbacks, meaning that a coach doesn’t really have one? Especially if those two signal-callers aren’t a compliment/contrast (one’s a drop-back thrower, one’s a runner, etc).
2. Clement. Period. The run game works with Ogunbowale. It’s just that it probably works better with Clement at 100 percent. Or, heck, even 80 percent.
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER IN THE RUN GAME, BUT … It’s hard to imagine the Badgers failing to cowboy up on the ground again, regardless of who winds up getting the most carries. Which is good, because how the passing game evolves is still one of the biggest questions not just in Madison, but over the entire West division. Chryst needs a body who can keep defenses honest, first and foremost, and if that’s squared away, the rest ought to take care of itself. It better, because a schedule that drops Maryland and Rutgers from the East and replaces the pair with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State won’t easily forgive.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler