Fans and pundits had every reason to hype the University of Wisconsin’s offensive line as the best in the country this preseason. The group returned all five starters, three All-Americans, a rising star at center and were introducing a promising young left tackle to the fold.
With high expectations come an even bigger microscope, however, and a less-than-exceptional start to the year turned that praise to criticism in an instant.
“I can’t really fault people,” UW left guard Michael Deiter said. “From the outside looking in, if you looked at the guys we have, you’d say, yeah, those guys should be really good. … When you put those expectations and hype on someone, if there’s ever a bad week, people think the sky is falling — that O-line sucks, they had way too much hype, overrated.
“I think the best way to do it is at the end of the season, look at how the season went, then you can decide who was the best.”
The evaluations of UW’s offensive line may look much, much different by the end of the season than they did a month ago.
Since the Badgers’ bye week, they’ve put together three stellar rushing performances in which they’ve averaged 6.95 yards per carry over that span. UW rushed for more than 350 yards each against Nebraska and Illinois and also ran the ball effectively at Michigan, which boasts one of college football’s best defensive fronts.
While the Badgers still experienced some pass protection issues against the Wolverines, those up front are once again resembling a group of future NFL linemen.
“We expect it to be good, and we still do,” UW right tackle David Edwards said. “I think that we felt ourselves as a unit more disappointed that we didn’t do our job as effectively as we could. I don’t think it’s the end of the world when you have that bad game, but we expect to be on every week.”
The one that sticks out as that “bad game” Edwards referred to was UW’s 24-21 loss to BYU on Sept. 15 — the beginnings of what has become an underachieving season for the Badgers as a whole.
UW’s running game couldn’t find its footing consistently that day at Camp Randall Stadium, and the Cougars sacked quarterback Alex Hornibrook twice in what became a massive upset of the sixth-ranked Badgers.
“It was something you have to take personal because we weren’t that good in that game,” Deiter said. “I think what it did is it just kind of reenforced that if we’re not at our best, the team’s not as good. … We need to be on if we want this football team to be as good as it needs to be. There’s a lot on our shoulders. We need to be on, and I think we’ve responded well.”
Unforeseen circumstances may have factored into the group’s early-season struggles.
Offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph revealed this week that Edwards, perhaps the poorest of the bunch against the Cougars, played through a shoulder injury early in the season. Blocking tight end Zander Neuville also left the BYU game on UW’s first drive of the day, before the Badgers had prepared linemen Logan Bruss or Jason Erdmann to fill into that role.
Many expect perfection from a unit with so much talent. While the Badgers’ offensive line may not always deliver on that hope, the group appears to have hit a stride that could help propel UW to a third straight Big Ten West title over the final five games of the regular season.
“I tell them, the goal is to strive to be perfect knowing you’re never going to be perfect,” Rudolph said. “I think they have that mentality, though. I think they want to do that, and they fight hard to do that. … I think they concentrate on trying to get a little bit better each week. That’s really the goal we wrote up — to be at our absolute best at the end, to not have any falloff. I think we can do that.”
Hicks to play at Northwestern
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Wednesday that cornerback Faion Hicks will play at Northwestern this week.
The redshirt freshman, who missed the last week’s game versus Illinois with a left leg injury, was listed as questionable earlier this week. Leonhard said Hicks nearly played against the Fighting Illini.
Leonhard said the Badgers’ other four defenders who entered the week questionable — nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (left leg) and safeties D’Cota Dixon (right leg), Scott Nelson (right leg) and Reggie Pearson (left leg) — could be game-time decisions Saturday.