This was supposed to be a glorious week for the University of Wisconsin football team.
It turned out to be nothing of the sort.
The first College Football Playoff rankings of the season came out Tuesday and UW, a team many expected to be in the mix for a national title back in August, was nowhere to be found. Rather than being 8-0 and in the discussion for a playoff berth, UW has a 5-3 record entering November. The Badgers’ playoff hopes are gone and their aspirations for a return to the Big Ten Conference title game are hanging by a thread.
After falling at Northwestern last week, UW will try to save some face against a reeling Rutgers team today at Camp Randall Stadium. Saving the season will be considerably more difficult.
So what happened to the Badgers?
First things first. As disappointing as UW is, it’s not nearly as bad as some fans with pitchforks and torches on social media would have you believe. Although UW isn’t the elite team many expected it to be, it is still solid and competitive. It remains a strong program that is experiencing one of those seasons where nothing seems to go right.
UW has been plagued by uncharacteristic inconsistency and hasn’t played really well for any extended period of time, which is why it has three losses, only one of which was totally unexpected. It’s not like the Badgers to take an opponent lightly under coach Paul Chryst, but that was the case in the home loss to a so-so BYU team. The other two losses — to Michigan and Northwestern — weren’t close but at least were understandable because they were on the road against red-hot teams that were well-equipped personnel-wise to slow UW’s signature running game.
UW’s offense started slowly this season, as usual, but hasn’t picked up steam, which is unusual. The Jonathan Taylor-led running game has solid numbers — fifth nationally with 267.5 yards per game — but it has wobbled against big, physical front sevens and the third-down conversion rate has plummeted.
The veteran offensive line, which was supposed to carry the team, has played well after a slow start, but penalties on the blockers have too often put UW in long down-and-distance situations. That’s part of the reason UW ranks 43rd in the nation in third-down conversions (42.4 percent) after finishing fourth (48.6 percent) last season.
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It’s not the only reason, though. Opposing defenses have always crowded the line of scrimmage to stop UW’s running game and that trend is even more pronounced this season, in part because the passing game isn’t making them pay for it. It hasn’t helped that Zander Neuville, the best run blocker among the tight ends, missed almost the entire season due to injury. Whatever the reason, UW has been held under 210 rushing yards three times and lost all three games.
Chryst has lacked aggressiveness in his play-calling, perhaps because he doesn’t trust the personnel in the passing game to make things happen downfield. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook hasn’t made the jump many expected in his third year as a starter and remains a hot-and-cold passer. And minus graduated tight end Troy Fumagalli and suspended wide receiver Quintez Cephus, the pass-catching corps hasn’t produced the expected numbers, either.
Fumagalli and Cephus were a quarterback’s best friend last season, using their size and ability to make clutch catches even when the ball wasn’t thrown perfectly. Because no one has filled that role this season, the Badgers aren’t stretching the field. In 14 games last year, UW completed 14 passes of 30 or more yards. In eight games this year, it has four such completions.
On defense, inexperience and injuries have made every game a mix-and-match challenge for coordinator Jim Leonhard. The returning starters up the middle — nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly and safety D’Cota Dixon — have been outstanding, but inexperience at the perimeter positions has led to inconsistent play, which is ongoing because injuries have sidelined or limited players at almost every position.
That has led to an increase in big plays by the opponents, either due to coverage mistakes or a failure to contain running plays on the edges. Last season, UW’s defense allowed 39 explosive plays (20 or more yards) in 14 games. This season, it is on a pace for 53 should the season extend to 14 games.
Third down also has been a problem for the defense. After finishing fifth in the nation in third-down conversions (29.1 percent) last season, the defense ranks 54th (37.9 percent) this season. Part of that is a lack of pressure on the quarterback and part is the young, banged-up secondary, where 10 players have started. Of the 10, only Dixon had started a game prior to this season and he missed the past three games.
Finally, the special teams haven’t been much help, with uber-reliable Rafael Gaglianone missing a potential tying field goal against BYU and a run of penalties — many by freshmen — that have affected field position and wiped out decent returns.
None of that means the coaches have forgotten how to coach or the players can no longer play. However, it does mean the margin for error is thin with this group and everyone — coaches and players alike — needs to step up his game starting today.