Wisconsin athletics should be happy heading into this weekend. Its volleyball team reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament yet again with a solid performance against Pepperdine at the Field House. The men’s basketball squad, in what looks like a season of resurgence after a disappointing 2017–18 campaign, fought back once again from a second-half deficit to claim its first conference win on the road against No. 14 Iowa.
The men’s hockey team tied No. 6 Penn State on Friday night (despite losing the point to a shootout), and the women take on Syracuse this weekend.
And yet, on a day where college football conference championships are being played throughout the country, the Badgers will not be in Indianapolis, where many—including myself—thought they would be prior to the season starting.
A season that was so hyped before it began by those outside the program, with talk of College Football Playoff, Spots Illustrated covers, and assorted hoopla, is now juxtaposed with the reality of a 7–5 regular season, a non-New Year’s Six bowl, and the Axe in possession of Minnesota.
The causes have been discussed ad nauseam, but some positive signs should first be acknowledged to provide at least a hint of perspective. The offense’s rushing attack, led by Jonathan Taylor and the stud offensive line, became one of the best in the nation (seventh at 268.4 yards per game). That lived up to expectations, especially Taylor, who is still the nation’s leading rusher and can clinch a 2,000-yard season in the upcoming bowl game, wherever it is.
Redshirt senior inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly shined this season despite UW replacing seven starters and other key contributors on defense. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel started looking like his 2017 self in the final few games after suffering an injury against BYU. A young secondary gained experience and showed the depth of talent coordinator Jim Leonhard has for years to come.
Wisconsin’s beloved placekicker, Rafael Gaglianone became the all-time leader in field goals made.
However, those accomplishments are overshadowed by the failure to live up to the expectations that were set upon them, fairly or unfairly as they were.
That starts with the offense. The passing game failed to live up to the hype many, including myself, thrust upon it. Admittedly, I thought Alex Hornibrook would take a Scott Tolzien-like leap from last year to this season, and when he owned Miami’s secondary in the 2017 Orange Bowl to the tune of 258 yards and four touchdown passes, I believed that was a sign of things to come.
That obviously did not happen, as Hornibrook completed under 60 percent of his passes with just 13 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions while only playing in nine games due to head injury.
All signs pointed to the wide receivers making big strides after a great end to last season. Again, that did not come to fruition. Losing Quintez Cephus to suspension after he was charged with sexual assault very likely played a role in the passing game not taking off like it should have. Danny Davis II, himself suspended for two games early on, made more of an impact later on, but as a couple of former Badgers noted, were the receivers making enough plays or creating enough separation?
I also wonder how much the injury to tight end Zander Neuville played a role in the offense’s output this season. Though he isn’t a traditional pass-catching threat, he was able to both run block and catch efficiently. Wisconsin’s third-down conversions also went down from a year prior.
Injuries to the defensive line—to all three starters at some point before or during the season, with ends Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk and later nose tackle Olive Sagapolu—forced three freshmen into key roles. One of those freshmen moved from the offensive line to not only shore up the depth, but to be inserted as a first-teamer right off the bat during fall camp.
The way Minnesota gashed Wisconsin for 201 yards—and, to a smaller extent, the way Northwestern gained 182 yards on 3.7 yards per attempt)—wore down Leonhard’s unit. And a young secondary, with that emerging talent, also fought through some growing pains.
Even on special teams, Gaglianone only connected on 10 of 15 attempts, where his longest successful field goal was from 42 yards out.
Football is a team sport, and as seen against Minnesota and in the other four losses, all phases contributed to defeat. Before this season, I would not have counted any defeats as “bad” losses by teams led by head coach Paul Chryst. This year, two—BYU and Minnesota—pop out instantly. I give the Northwestern game a pass in that category, since Evanston and Ryan Field have been a black hole of failure in recent memory outside of Wisconsin’s 2016’s win.
These Badgers still have one game left to play with each other before the seniors exhaust their eligibility, and I believe there will be a bounce back from the disappointing loss to the Gophers.
Next year comes with more uncertainty. The departing seniors will leave important holes to fill at inside linebacker, offensive line, safety, outside linebacker, fullback, and placekicker. The positions will likely have candidates with some significant game-time experience outside of fullback and kicker, especially the first three mentioned.
A Heisman-caliber back, Taylor will be in his third and quite possibly last year at Wisconsin. How the youth continues to develop will be a key theme for Wisconsin next season, and a new class of recruits with expectations already set high for themselves will make their way to Madison.
Quarterback will likely be the position everyone watches with Hornibrook and Jack Coan. There’s also Danny Vanden Boom and Chase Wolf, both a year wiser in Chryst’s system—and, yes, 2019 four-star commit Graham Mertz. Tons of expectations are already placed upon Mertz despite him not even being enrolled at UW yet, and there is a sizable jump between high school and college ball. With UW’s play at the position this season, however, the fuel for the Mertz hype train has only intensified.
Again, though, that is for next year and for us to preview and deliberate after Wisconsin’s bowl game.
For now, on this soggy, cold Saturday, many will sit to watch the Big Ten Championship Game and not see cardinal and white on their screens for only the third time in eight years. Quite honestly, though, it probably hits harder for those players in the locker room far more than the fans who follow this team.
Coming up next week
Monday: Men’s basketball vs. Rutgers (7 p.m. CT, BTN)
After its big win at Iowa, UW hopes to contain a Scarlet Knights squad that gave Michigan State a good run for its money on Friday night.
Tuesday: Bucky’s 5th Quarter at Bierock
Another taping of our podcast! Stop by, say hello, and I’ll bring a couple copies of Walk-On This Way that fans could take home simply by showing up!
Friday/Saturday: Volleyball TBD
Sweet 16 time! We’ll know more after Saturday’s games.
Saturday: Men’s basketball at Marquette (4 p.m. CT, FOX)
The in-state rivalry (is it a rivalry to UW fans?) takes the action to the new Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.