Wisconsin’s offense is in an intriguing predicament entering the 2016 season.
On one hand, the Badgers should get back to their proficiency on the ground. Wisconsin returns a handful of starters to the offensive line and should have a healthy Corey Clement in the backfield.
But on the other hand, Wisconsin will be looking to replace starting quarterback Joel Stave and leading receiver Alex Erickson.
The Badgers are never shy about their offensive intentions: They want to pound the rock and let the run set up the pass. That strategy has worked, as Wisconsin finished third or better in the Big Ten in rushing offense during every season from 2008 to 2014. That success on the ground has translated to the win column, because the Badgers have won at least nine games every year since 2009.
That changed in 2015. Wisconsin still won 10 games last season thanks to a stout defense, but the offense lagged behind. The Badgers finished 10th in the Big Ten last season in rushing offense and averaged only 150.3 yards per game on the ground. Senior tailback Dare Ogunbowale led the team with 891 rushing yards, snapping Wisconsin’s 10-year streak of 1,000-yard rushers.
Clement’s grossly disappointing junior season was a big reason for Wisconsin’s sudden ineptitude. A year after rushing for 949 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup, Clement was named to the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award preseason watch lists. His 2015 season started off terribly, sustaining a sports hernia injury during Wisconsin’s season opener. He played in three of Wisconsin’s final five games and was also suspended one game in between after being cited with two counts of disorderly conduct stemming from an off-campus incident. He finished the year with 221 yards and five touchdowns.
Health will be pivotal for the 5-foot-11, 214-pound senior, but he’s poised to fulfill some of last season’s lofty expectations. He’s even changed his number to No. 24 to symbolize his fresh start.
The hope is that an experienced line will help get Wisconsin’s ground game back on track no matter who lines up in the backfield. Freshmen Michael Dieter, Beau Benzschawel and Jacob Maxwell each played significantly and could earn starting roles with much more experience under their belts. Wisconsin’s most reliable unit over the past decade must become dependable again.
Getting the running game back on track could be harder if the passing game regresses, which is certainly a possibility. Stave was rarely flashy and threw for only 2,687 yards and 11 touchdowns, but his three years of starting experience will be missed.
The man most likely in charge of replacing Stave will be senior Bart Houston, who tossed 47 passes in backup duty last season. Houston played significantly during Wisconsin’s 24-13 win over Illinois last October. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in relief of the injured Stave.
Houston’s job will be much tougher without Erickson, who caught 77 passes for 978 yards and three touchdowns last season. The only other wide receiver to haul in at least 30 passes was senior Robert Wheelwright, who caught 32 passes and led the Badgers with four touchdowns.
Behind Wheelwright is a very inexperienced crop of receivers. Junior wideout Jazz Peavy could be in line for the other starting job and the Badgers will need depth receivers such as senior Reggie Love and junior George Rushing to step up on the depth chart. Tight end Troy Fumagalli also could see an enhanced role in the passing game.
With a new quarterback in the fold and a lack of proven weapons, Wisconsin will need to rejuvenate its running game to keep its offense afloat. Wisconsin’s offense might live and die by the running game more than it ever has in recent history.