Season Report Card: Wisconsin Badgers
But with a strong core of returners and a solid first-year coach in Gary Andersen, Wisconsin, for the most part, delivered, going 9-4 while landing in the Capital One Bowl on New Years’ Day.
If one thing defines the Badgers’ 2013 season, however, it was the inability to close out big games. It started at Arizona State, when a botched call took away any chance at a last-second field goal to win the game. Against Ohio State, which at the time was riding a 16-game winning streak, the Badgers closed a 16-point gap in the fourth quarter but couldn’t quite hold on, eventually losing the game 31-24. In the Capital One Bowl, Connor Shaw and the South Carolina Gamecocks made a mockery of the Wisconsin secondary, going 22-for-25 passing with 312 yards through the air, ultimately winning the game 34-24.
It was a disappointing end to the season, but the takeaways from 2013 aren’t all bad for the Badgers. Here are their grades for the 2013 season:
In life, some things are certain: like death, taxes and the dominance of Wisconsin’s run game. Even without FBS touchdown leader Montee Ball, the dynamic duo of Melvin Gordon and James White posted 3,134 combined rushing yards, another NCAA record. There’s little to lament in terms of the Badgers’ ground game—due in large part to the perennially strong Wisconsin offensive line and the blocking of fullback Derek Watt, brother of 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
The passing game, however, left a hole in the Badgers' offense. There were good moments—a two-minute drill before half against Tennessee Tech featuring a 10-for-10 streak of completed passes for quarterback Joel Stave or Wisconsin’s 241 yards against Northwestern (though the Badgers’ leading receiver Jared Abbrederis left the game in the first quarter). Stave finished the year with a 61.9 percent completion percentage, which isn't a bad number by any means.
But, as with any young quarterback, there were equally low moments—Stave tossed 13 interceptions on the year and routinely overthrew a wide-open Abbrederis on long passes.
The juxtaposition of Wisconsin’s nationally No. 8-ranked rushing game with its No. 93-ranked passing game says it all, really.
If you take the debacle against Penn State out of the equation, the Badgers' defense played a key role in their success. Only allowing 16.3 points (sixth in the nation) and 305.1 yards per game, the only reason Wisconsin had a chance to win its big games down the stretch was its defense. Leading the charge with 112 tackles was linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
The only issue for Wisconsin was its poor secondary play, exposed in full during the Capital One Bowl. Safety Dezmen Southward was a liability, regularly finding himself lost in coverage while a receiver blew by him into the end zone. True freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton had his moments, but standing at 5-foot-9 he was outmatched multiple times in jump ball situations.
First-year head coach Gary Andersen handled his new position with poise, transitioning into the program as well as a coach can hope for. But things unraveled for Andersen at multiple junctures in the season, including the entire game against Penn State and some questionable play calling in the Capital One Bowl. Wisconsin has a traditionally run-heavy offense, and Andersen found out the hard way that attempting to deviate from that strategy can have disastrous results.
If there’s one thing that can be said for Andersen, it’s that he won the games he was supposed to, and put up a fight in games he was supposed to lose. The former Utah State coach was a part of the Cleveland Browns’ coaching search, which either speaks to his success or the Browns’ lack of it. All in all, the future is bright for Andersen at Wisconsin.
Up and down is a good way to describe the Badgers’ 2013 season. Ultimately, expectations started high and reality hit hard as the season drew to a close. Wisconsin needs to find a way to win tough games next year if it wants to go anywhere in the soon-to-be christened College Football Playoffs.