The Wisconsin Badgers will be heading into week 11 of the college football season accumulating a 6-3 record along the way. For many fans, Bucky loyalists or general observers, this has been a disappointing season. There is no denying this season has fallen short of expectations. Coming on the heels of a 12-0 regular season and Orange Bowl victory, goals for this season were high and fans were dreaming of Big Ten Championships and College Football Playoff berths.
Wisconsin Badgers: In Season Progress Report
This was all for not. Early on you could tell this team was not fully clicking. The young defense was giving up big plays, the defensive line had no push, and the offense was nowhere near as electric as it was expected to be. Hence, enter the BYU game. At the time #4 ranked Wisconsin then took its first regular season loss in nearly two years to the Cougars. The loss was just 23-20, but it may has well been a knock out blow to for the playoffs. The Cougars gashed the soft defensive line of the Badgers, rushing for nearly 200 yards. On the other side of the ball, the offense failed to pick up its defense, stalling on third downs numerous times. A missed field goal at the end of regulation sealed their fate. Thus Paul Chryst’s boys faced an incredibly untimely setback.
As the season has progressed their consistency has stalled. Battling injuries, inexperience has shown, while returning starters have failed meet new expectations, albeit very high expectations. This article will aim to look at position groups as a whole, rather than just individuals, grading on an A-F scale the position groups as they stand to this point in the season. The grades have been determined by a variety of factors, from expectations, to production, as well as consistency. These grades are by no means final.
Coming into the season, Alex Hornibrook’s stock was on the rise. And rightfully so. The junior ended last year’s campaign in the Orange Bowl with his best performance to date. Unfortunately for Hornibrook, his inconsistencies have yet to have been put behind him. The junior has shown less progression in the passing game than fans would have liked. This was the year this offense should have taken off in part because of this balanced attack that was seemingly promised following the Orange Bowl. You can’t put all the blame on him however. The offensive line has failed in pass protection on third downs, while the talented receiving corps hasn’t lived up to its billing coming into the season. More on that later.
The one bright spot of this offense has been in the backfield. Jonathon Taylor is a clear Heisman candidate. To date, he has rushed for 1,300 yards with 11 touchdowns. However, all is not perfect in his world. He is continuing to struggle with hanging onto the football. Taylor has fumbled in multiple games, most notably @ Northwestern. Alec Ingold has continued the storied tradition of the Wisconsin fullback. Both Taiwan Deal and Garrett Growshek have proven effective in limited roles, the latter primarily out of the shotgun role and in screen passes. The depth of this group is stunning, as they are still missing Bradrick Shaw. Shaw, a junior, is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered late last season.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
This talented, but albeit young group faced high expectations coming into the season. The group finally has the depth that Badger fans have been seeking for years at the position. As a result, the assumption was this group would take off. While there has been growth, it hasn’t been as substantial. With the loss of Quintez Cephus in the pre-season, somebody would have to step up as the leader in this crowded room. AJ Taylor had a phenomenal month of September, but has since cooled. Freshman Jake Ferguson has proven reliable, and will be a name Badger fans will come used to for the foreseeable future. The talented duo of Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor has been exciting at times, and invisible at others. This group is still young, with lots of room to improve.
The Wisconsin Badgers offensive line came in with unparalleled hype to any we’ve seen in the history Badger football. They were literally on the cover of Sports Illustrated. While this group has been good, they haven’t lived up to the billing. Plain and simple. In the trenches they generally get good push, but were not seeing the parting of the red sea like we were expecting. Some of this has to do with opposing defenses putting nine or ten players in the box each play forcing Hornibrook to make a play with his arm. This is still a very good unit. They are big, strong, and athletic and without them this team would be in an even tougher spot than it is now. Unfortunately they’re facing sky high expectations which can’t possibly be met.
This has been the most disappointing unit on the defense. Badger fans aren’t used to seeing their defense get gashed carry after carry. After graduating all but one player in the regular rotation, regression was expected. However injuries to Garrett Rand and Isaiah Loudermilk have put this group behind from the start. This unit is young, they will improve. Badger fans must understand however is that it will take time. You were blessed to have such a loaded front seven for so many consecutive years. They do not have the luxury of having five star recruits coming in every year like the Alabama and Clemson’s of the world.
Bucky fans have been blessed to have two of the best inside linebackers to ever come through Madison, be around at the same time. Ryan Connelly and TJ Edwards are absolutely fantastic. There is no other way to describe their contributions to the team. They are what makes being a Wisconsin Badger so special. Connolly, the walk on who earned his spot in the starting eleven after an injury to Chris Orr on the first snap of the 2016 season. Then Edwards, the former quarterback and two star recruit, who made an immediate impact during his redshirt freshman campaign. This grade takes nothing away from the contributions of those two players this season, and in their careers.
As for the outside backers, starters Zack Baun and Andrew Van Ginkel have toughed through this season battling an incredible list of injuries. Both are tough, gritty, and talented. However, their injuries have in turn plagued the Badgers usual stout outside pass rush. The two have combined for just three sacks. However, nobody can question the toughness of both of these players.
Like the defensive line, this unit saw a lot of turnover from last season. Big plays have been given up seemingly every game as wide-outs surge behind the defense. Departing were three starters, along with the expected top corner this season in Dontye Carriere-Williams. The current secondary is loaded with freshman and sophomores. While they will take their bumps and bruises now, expect this group to improve drastically in the next year. Senior leader D’Cota Dixon has been vital in helping these young defensive backs develop, but injuries have hampered his season.
Redshirt freshman safety Scott Nelson looks like the next great Badger safety, if he can stay healthy. There is a plethora of young corners, from Faion Hicks, to Madison Cone and Rachad Wildgoose Jr., as well as Caesar Williams who will only get better from the experience. Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, expect this group to learn and improve.
Rafael Gaglianone became the all time leader in field goals made helping cap his illustrious career with the Badgers. Unfortunately, some fans might remember his legacy as for missing the game tying kick against BYU. That shouldn’t be the case as he has been clutch more than he has not throughout his career. Newsflash for those fans, this team wasn’t making the playoff anyways.
Anthony Lotti has been hit or miss in an otherwise average junior year campaign for his standards.
Aron Cruickshank has shown explosiveness on kick returning duties, as Badger fans are no doubt enticed by his blazing speed. It’d be interesting to see him start fielding punts as well. With his speed, he can change a game in the blink of an eye.
It’s no stretch to say this team overall his failed to hit expectations. After going 13-1 and an Orange Bowl victory, anything other than a playoff berth is deemed unsuccessful. Maybe, just maybe, if Badger fans take a step back and look at the bigger picture, they’ll see just how far this program has come. They’ll finish with eight or nine wins. Most programs would kill to achieve that mark. The bar has been raised and rightfully so. Going to the Outback Bowl is no longer considered the bench mark for a successful season by fans and players alike. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy this years teams through its flaws, as there is still a lot to like.
So sit back and enjoy. The rides not over yet.