Tom Oates: Like the Wisconsin basketball team, the Badgers football program will bounce back from a down year
In what is shaping up to be a terrific bounce-back season, coach Greg Gard and the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team have supplied us with something that has been in short supply around here lately:
Wasn’t it just last winter that talk radio and social media were rife with complaints that Gard couldn’t coach, the players didn’t have enough recruiting stars attached to their names, the culture was eroding and the program was heading south after a lengthy run of success?
And now look at the Badgers. Gard stayed the course, injured players returned, young players improved, everyone learned from the experience and they’re off to one of the best starts in school history.
So it is with the UW football program this fall. A 2017 season that ended seven points shy of a College Football Playoff bid, a No. 4 ranking in the AP preseason poll in August and an offense that returned virtually intact led to enormous expectations, which generated a vitriolic backlash when UW limped home with a 7-5 regular-season record.
That reaction was predictable in this age of instant gratification. People jumped to the conclusion that Paul Chryst couldn’t coach, the players didn’t have enough recruiting stars attached to their names, the culture was eroding and the program was heading south after a lengthy run of success.
This is where perspective comes in. Yes, it has been a hugely disappointing season for fans and rightly so, but Chryst didn’t get dumb overnight, the players were still prominent on the All-Big Ten teams, the culture of development and accountability remains intact and the program isn’t in danger of falling off the map. UW just had a bad season, something that happens in every program.
As with the basketball team, UW’s problems were largely rooted in personnel. The Badgers simply didn’t have the depth and experience to reload following severe graduation losses, especially on defense. Then injuries hit and the shortage of depth and experience became even more acute. And the offense, which was supposed to carry the team, was hampered by inconsistent quarterback play compounded by coaches who coached as if they felt limited by their personnel.
How bad was the roster instability? UW had 40 players start games. A stunning 23 players made their first start, 15 on defense.
On offense, UW was hamstrung by uneven quarterback play, a shortage of explosive players not named Jonathan Taylor and a line that wasn’t as dominant as expected.
UW was counting on junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook to take a step up after his stellar play in UW’s bowl win over Miami (Fla.), but, other than the Iowa game, it didn’t happen. Then Hornibrook developed concussion issues and inexperienced Jack Coan was thrown into the fire, with his three starts coming at Northwestern, at Penn State and at Purdue. Any rational person would have anticipated Coan would struggle in those difficult venues, though he did show signs of improvement at Purdue.
Whoever played quarterback was hampered by a lack of explosive receivers. The season-long suspension of Quintez Cephus took away the most dynamic playmaker among the wide receivers and tight ends. Not surprisingly, UW’s longest pass all season was 44 yards. And there were no backs who could catch short passes and threaten the defense with their speed and quickness like Chryst had with Brian Calhoun, James White and Montee Ball as UW’s highly acclaimed offensive coordinator from 2005 to 2011.
As for the line, it didn’t live up to its billing as the nation’s best unit, but it did run-block well enough to have the nation’s leading rusher (Taylor) even though defenses dared UW to throw all season. Still, the line’s pass protection was suspect against top defenses and the never-ending run of penalties remains a mystery.
Defensively, UW was held together by its four linebackers, especially when nose tackle Olive Sagapolu and safety D’Cota Dixon, two senior stars, lost four games each due to injury. Everywhere else, a mix of inexperience and injuries led to a revolving door.
Of the 15 first-time starters on defense, eight were freshmen — five in the secondary, three on the line. Coordinator Jim Leonhard somehow managed to keep the defense reasonably competitive despite the occasional blown coverage, pass-interference penalty or failure to set the edge against the run.
On special teams, the extreme youth led to excessive penalties that cost UW field position. Throw in a subpar performance by some of the veteran specialists and special teams was a battle UW lost almost weekly.
Many of the criticisms fans leveled at Chryst were for being too conservative and predictable on offense. Those weren’t necessarily wrong, but there likely were reasons for his approach.
Chryst’s offense once was filled with motions and shifts and jet-sweep actions designed to confuse defenses and get his most athletic players on the edges, but there was little of that this season. The best guess was Chryst had so little confidence in his quarterbacks and pass-catchers to perform with consistency that he decided the best way to operate was to simply pound opponents in the running game.
That’s not like Chryst, who has always excelled at making the most out of whatever talent he has. Still, he never found a solution on offense all season and the lack of productivity seemed to sap the team’s energy toward the end.
That doesn’t mean UW is headed for oblivion. Chryst has a strong program built on solid principles. Like the basketball program, it will bounce back.