This season, like most for the University of University of Wisconsin football team, has flown by in a hurry.
It’s hard to believe Saturday will be the Badgers’ home finale and that the regular season will be done in less than two weeks. It’s been a strange ride, but we’ve officially entered the stretch run.
Season record prediction update: I'm sticking with 9-3.
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Badger basketball this time. Jim, every year, without fail (ok except the Final Four yrs) the Badger team struggles to score. I know Bo and Greg focus on D, but why is this the case every year? What can they do to avoid this recurring theme?— Chris Davis (@cdavis20000) November 16, 2021
There could be an entire column written on this — and believe me, this general topic in listed in a document of story ideas I’d like to get to at some point.
The simple answer is that UW hasn’t had enough shot makers/creators. It’s become an offense that relies heavily on the 3-point shot — that’s not rare in college basketball these days — but the Badgers often don’t have a Plan B to fall back on if the long-range shots aren’t falling.
Look at UW’s six most efficient offenses since Bo Ryan arrived in 2001 and you’ll notice a common thread: The leading scorer went on to play in the NBA, and he was surrounded by other really good players:
2014-15: Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes
2010-11: Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor
2013-14: Kaminsky and Dekker
2003-04: Devin Harris and Mike Wilkinson
2006-07: Alando Tucker and Kam Taylor
2009-10: Leuer and Trevon Hughes
Gard’s best offensive team, the 2016-17 group, had Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ and Hayes. UW was 33rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency that season, per KenPom, though it would have been much higher had Happ and Hayes not struggled so much from the free-throw line.
I do think they’ve got some young players on this roster with good offensive skill sets — Johnny Davis, Ben Carlson and Steven Crowl, plus a distributor in Chucky Hepburn — but I think UW is a year away from being a top 20 offense nationally.
Wisc football was left for dead at 1-3. Now look at them. It seems like the biggest factor is the quality of the line play. What adjustments have you noticed there?— firstname_bunchofnumbers (@firstname_numbe) November 15, 2021
Better play from the line is one of the biggest factors, and I’d throw Graham Mertz becoming much more efficient and UW flipping the turnover script as two other main reasons the Badgers have been able to turn around their season.
Regarding the line play specifically, I’d point to continuity and experience as the main reasons for improvement. Center Joe Tippmann and right guard Jack Nelson hadn’t started a game before this season. Tyler Beach hadn’t started a game at left tackle before the opener against Penn State and was injured much of training camp.
Once those players got more reps — and once offensive line coach Joe Rudolph found a group he liked and stuck with it rather than rotating — the results have been much better. The line has played with more confidence and it’s led to an improved performance in both run blocking and pass protection.
With the extra COVID year factored in, how does that impact recruitment? Roster juggling and difficult discussions with some players inevitable?— Todd (@pilprin) November 15, 2021
This was a good question for UW coach Paul Chryst, so I asked him a version of it at his weekly news conference Monday.
“You go in and have some conversation, you have an idea, a sense of it with the guys,” he said. “Yet you don't want them to feel like they have to make a decision. That's kind of how we approached it last year, too. And a lot of it depends on where are they at in school and where are they at, really, kind of in their lifeline. How many years do you want to be in college? And what is it that you're trying to get out of it?
“And so I think that it certainly is manageable that way. I think you always kind of cover yourself on different ends, but I feel pretty confident there that you have an idea of what you will have to offer. Certainly we've been fortunate, that's been a big part of it, too, never been concerned about, ‘We've got one scholarship that we didn't sign.’ We've got a lot of guys that come here and walk on and gives us an opportunity if we can take care of one of them, to do such. So I don't think that it ... really hasn't been, last year wasn't hard and I don't anticipate it this year.”
As part of this, is there a new limit on total number of scholarships? Also, do RS Seniors like Sanborn and Ferguson have another year?— Bill_Woj (@Slough_Creek) November 15, 2021
The NCAA awarded an extra year of eligibility to all student-athletes who played fall sports through the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The organization isn’t counting that against the 85-scholarship limit in 2021 but, barring a change, it will go back to normal starting in 2022.
Ferguson is a fifth-year senior and Sanborn is a fourth-year senior. Both would have the option of returning in 2022, though I’d be shocked if either of them does so.
As for UW’s scholarship situation, it’s not like the Badgers are in a tough spot. Remember, they’ve had eight scholarships open up since early September due to players hitting the transfer portal or being dismissed from the program.
How will the Badgers D contain Martinez running skills?— Paul Yochum'63 (@PaulYochum63) November 15, 2021
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez leads the Cornhuskers with 502 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He’s also fourth in the Big Ten with 2,512 yards passing and third with a passing efficiency mark of 149.0
He will test the Badgers with his arm and legs. That said, is anybody doubting that this UW defense, which has been magnificent, will be up to the challenge?
I thought it was interesting that UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard brought up unprompted earlier this week the 2019 meeting between these teams. The Badgers won that game 37-21, but Nebraska finished with 497 total yards. The Huskers had 277 yards rushing — the second-most by an opponent in Leonhard’s 68 games in charge of UW’s defense — and Martinez had 89 on 16 attempts.
“I like the way we're playing and you think of when we played them in 2019 to now, I feel like we've added different elements to our defense that we didn't have and we needed back then,” Leonhard said. “Doesn't mean success this year, but I like what we're able to do from a scheme standpoint a little bit better than we've done in the past against them.”
This may be a close game and I wouldn’t be completely stunned if Nebraska won, but I don’t think that’ll be because the Badgers are overlooking this game.
UW coaches and players all said the right things during media availability Monday. They know the Cornhuskers’ record is deceiving because their average margin of defeat is 6 points and their “most-lopsided” loss was 26-17 at home to Ohio State.
This has been a pretty focused team over the past six weeks, and I’m not expecting that to change.
What's the biggest reason explaining Badgers recent success - other than less O-turnovers? Solidified and stable OL? Emergence of Braelon Allen? Defensive turnovers? Mertz's improved decision making? Weaker Competition?— John Schneider (@OnWisJohn) November 17, 2021
All of those things you listed are important and I could make a case for most of them being at the top of the list.
In order, I’d go:
1. Mertz: I’m a big believer that it’s hard to overcome poor quarterback play. Mertz has cut his turnovers and has played at a pretty high level over the past 2½ games.
2. The offensive line: Not only have they done a better job protecting Mertz, the run blocking has improved a ton.
3. Braelon Allen: UW has found a difference-maker at its premier position. Allen’s value shot up even more when Chez Mellusi, who had taken a big step forward, was lost to a season-ending knee injury.
4. Defensive turnovers: What the contagious nature of the Badgers collecting turnovers has done is turned what could be close games into blowouts. UW is getting ahead in games and that’s allowed the defense to be aggressive. The result? Takeaways galore.
5. The competition: Has the schedule lightened up? Yes, but there have been a couple impressive wins during this stretch. The one at Purdue, which was coming off a win at Iowa and later beat Michigan State at home, looks even more impressive now than it did at the time. And dominating the Hawkeyes the following week was telling as well.
Is this Tony granatos last season as badger mens hockey coach?— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) November 15, 2021
I’ve had some form of this question for four consecutive Open Jim mailbags, I think, and my answer remains the same: Granato led the Badgers to a Big Ten regular-season title last season and, if you’ve followed this athletic department long enough, that’s going to provide some job security.
New UW athletic director Chris McIntosh made his first big coaching decision, firing men’s soccer coach John Trask last week, but McIntosh doesn’t strike me as the type to be reactionary. Everyone knew this would be a rebuilding season.
So Granato isn't going anywhere unless he chooses to leave on his own.
Packers fans have been spoiled by QB play for 30 years. However, very few Packers defenses during time were very good. Is the change in this year’s defense because of coordinator/coaching or players playing to talent/potential?— Kevin Stalsberg (@broncoatc) November 15, 2021
It’s taken awhile, but I’m a believer in this defense. I wrote a few weeks ago that this stretch against really good quarterbacks — Arizona (Kyler Murray), Kansas City (Patrick Mahomes) and Seattle (Russell Wilson) in the past three weeks — would tell us a lot about whether this defense was good or a product of going against average passers.
Well, the defense has made a statement.
When a unit improves as much as this one has, it’s never just one thing that’s led to the surge.
Individual players have made jumps. Outside linebacker Rashan Gary is probably the biggest example of that. Nose tackle Kenny Clark started the season a little slow but has been a force of late. Even cornerback Kevin King has been pretty good since returning from an injury.
A couple new additions have stepped in and made an impact. The biggest? Inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who has solidified a position that has been a weakness in the past for the Packers. Rookie cornerback Eric Stokes has had to play a bigger role than expected because of injuries to Jaire Alexander and King.
And, of course, defensive coordinator Joe Barry deserves a ton of credit. I’ll admit I was skeptical when Barry was hired because his track record as a coordinator was terrible. Plus, he was joining a staff of holdovers, so I wondered how long it would take for everybody to get on the same page.
But it appears the other assistants welcomed Barry with open arms, and he’s let them do their jobs with their individual positions and has been inclusive when it comes to putting together a game plan. It’s a team effort, with everybody working together for a common goal.
That camaraderie, both among players and coaches on that side of the ball, is probably the biggest reason the defense is statistically among the best in the NFL. We now will see if the Packers can keep it up.
Hey Jim- should the Packers be looking for a new place kicker before the playoffs start?— Sean Stephenson (@sgstephenson) November 15, 2021
Unless there’s an absolute sure thing out there somewhere — and I can’t see that being the case — I think Green Bay has to stick with Mason Crosby.
It’s important to remember that when a kick doesn’t go through the uprights, we shouldn’t automatically blame the kicker. The Packers already are on their second long snapper this season and some of the holds by punter Corey Bojorquez have been shaky as well. The operation seemed to be fine on the 42-yard attempt Crosby missed on the opening drive against Seattle on Sunday, so that one appeared to be on him.
I get why fans are concerned: He’s 14 of 21 this season, and all seven of those misses have come over the past six games. It’d be a shame if an Aaron Rodgers-led team that finally has what appears to be a great defense misses out on a chance at a Super Bowl because of a missed field goal somewhere along the way.
But I think it’d be risky to make a move now. Even though he’s struggling, Crosby has made some big kicks in the postseason over the years.
It appears it just … kind of happened, Ryan.
Here’s the answer I got from a UW spokesman:
When the video board was added to Camp Randall Stadium in the mid-2000s, UW used several songs for the team entrance, including "Where The Streets Have No Name," and it just kind of stuck and has become synonymous with the historical video shown before the team runout.
UW gets a fair amount of feedback on this topic and it's become — for whatever reason — "a thing." Fans like it and so have players.
Badgers fans on Twitter revved up after Wisconsin's blowout victory over Northwestern
In for a tougher test
NW offense was terrible. Won’t be the same next week so D will be far more challenged. Need Allen to stay healthy. They look like the team I thought they’d be all year. Nice.— Chris Davis (@cdavis20000) November 13, 2021
Making all the difference
Nice to see the continued development of the passing game, with better pass pro and poise in the pocket by Mertz. Allen a difference maker for sure. His emergence and forced turnovers still reason 1(a) and 1(b) for the Badgers’ surge.— ryebadger (@ryebadger1) November 13, 2021
Badgers came out flat until Williams interception. Wisconsin will go as far as Braelon Allen takes them. He has to stay healthy the rest of the year because the running back cupboard is bare and any postseason hopes will be gone. He’s that valuable.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) November 13, 2021
I'll take any win over Northwestern. Dominant and Northwestern had a top 30 pass defense coming in. Very impressive game from Mertz when you take that into consideration. He keeps improving the sky is the limit for this team.— Matt Anderson (@mbanderson83) November 13, 2021
More the merrier
Stress free football. Total dominance. Nice to give the second string some reps two games in a row— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) November 13, 2021
Mertz threw the ball quick and with confidence. One bad decision at end of half.— Rob (@finleyr27) November 13, 2021
Why the heck do you put Mertz and Schipper back in following Davis and Acker fumbles??? 😡— Terry Heiliger (@terbear421) November 13, 2021
No shortage of talent
I love how our backups on D performed. UW will be top shelf for years to come.— No Más 🦡 (@JoRy_MaMa) November 13, 2021
Standing out in a crowd
Leo is still a superstar, and we're still not that bad.— Kyle Runde (@KyleRunde) November 13, 2021
Took care of business against an inferior team. And nice to have a stress free win with no major injuries.— Madtown Alum (@madtownalum) November 13, 2021
Braelon Allen hype train is barreling down the tracks, as it should, and excited / appreciative of his efforts today— Jeremy Wojtecki (@jwojPAC) November 13, 2021
The only correct answer, tbh...— O'Doyle Rulz (@RulzOdoyle) November 13, 2021
There it is
Best team ever!— aarondentz (@aarondentz) November 13, 2021
Just the kind of win we like to see over Northwestern.— Kurt Sagendorph (@ksagendo) November 13, 2021
For good reason
Nobody wants to face them in the Big 10 Championship game— Jack (@gunnz907) November 13, 2021
Don't stop now
Need to give Davis some more carries even though he fumbled— Bill_Woj (@Slough_Creek) November 13, 2021
Dodging a bullet
Just happy to win. Northwestern seems to always have our number— Royce Wiersma (@RoyceWiersma) November 13, 2021
Full speed ahead
Great win, need to keep chugging along!— Foxes Of WI (@FoxesWi) November 13, 2021
Our offense is Allen and if he goes down, it will not be pretty— Bryce Kingsley (@BMONAY85) November 13, 2021
Belong with the best
Dominant Defense— David Roelke (@droelke) November 13, 2021
Better late than never
Mertz looked like what we thought he would Finally.— Seth Doyen (@Scoobie_227) November 13, 2021
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.