NEW YORK — It returned almost everyone from a group that put up a robust 33.8 points per game last season and has the nation’s leading rusher in sophomore Jonathan Taylor this season, so how in the world can the University of Wisconsin offense be the No. 1 reason for the most disappointing football season at UW since 2000?
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the most mystifying part of the Badgers’ stunning fall from a No. 4 national ranking in the preseason poll to a spot opposite the equally disappointing Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes in a less-than-scintillating rematch at the Pinstripe Bowl today at Yankee Stadium.
A UW offense that seemingly had everything sputtered all season, only occasionally showing the promise that led people to believe it could be UW’s best ever. No matter what happens today, this UW offense will never be a part of that discussion. However, a third-tier bowl game matching 7-5 teams in chilly New York will provide the offense — and the Badgers — with one final chance to live up to their potential, one final chance to get it right.
“There’s been series, there’s been halves, there’s been quarters, there’s been games where we’ve been pretty good offensively,” guard Michael Deiter said. “But then there’s been series, halves, quarters, games where it’s been inconsistent, pretty sloppy here and there.”
Indeed, UW has battled to find the consistency and efficiency on offense it showed last season and was expected to build upon this season. But despite almost weekly promises that things would get cleaned up, the offense never really got its act together.
Another head-scratching performance against Miami would send a signal that changes in personnel and/or approach are necessary because the quality of the offense’s performance has remained static all season and it hasn’t been good enough. Or it could signal UW simply needs better quarterback play than it got this season.
Whatever the reason, UW’s offense hasn’t worked. A month of bowl prep and a switch at quarterback could change that, but UW will face a tall task against a fast, attacking Miami defense that ranks in the top 15 nationally in most statistical categories and is especially tough on opposing passing games.
“It’s a really good defense that we’re going up against, but to be able to attack them in a number of different ways, that’s going to be a challenge,” coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s playing good football and giving ourselves a chance to win. There’s times when we’ve done that and it’s been good. And there’s times where we’ve made it hard, whether it’s turnovers or penalties or just (not making) timely (plays). There’s a point in every game where you’ve got to step up and make a play. That’s what you hope to prepare them for and then they’ve got to go out and do it.”
There’s no time like the present. In fact, the present is the last time this offense will get a chance to shine like it did in the Orange Bowl meeting between the teams last year, a 34-24 Badgers victory. Both teams had better offenses and better records then, though many of the same faces remain. Especially on UW’s offense.
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A good portion of the offensive woes can be traced to the quarterback position, where junior Alex Hornibrook regressed in his third season as the starter, then suffered recurring concussions that will keep him out of the bowl game and might impact his football future. With Hornibrook out, inexperienced sophomore Jack Coan was thrown into some difficult situations late in the season and also struggled.
Ironically, it was Hornibrook’s brilliant play in the Orange Bowl that created the high expectations for the offense and the team. Now the Badgers will be looking for Coan to do the same against the Hurricanes. Coan’s breakout performance during the fourth quarter and overtimes of UW’s victory at Purdue, though brief, supplied hope he can take UW where Hornibrook couldn’t this season.
Along with penalties on the line that affected down and distance and a shortage of home-run hitters in the receiving corps, the uneven performance of the quarterbacks is reflected most in sizable drops in third-down conversion percentage and number of explosive plays in the passing game. It also had a chilling effect on Chryst’s play-calling because he lacked faith in his quarterbacks.
For the Badgers to win today, Chryst will have to take some chances and Coan will have to execute them.
“You’ve got to understand the situation and play to it,” Chryst said. “I think a big part of it is protecting the football, but there’s a fine line. You can’t play cautious and afraid, but you’ve got to understand the situations that you’re in and then facilitate accordingly.”
The Badgers should have figured that out after 12 games.
“You have to be able to learn from your good, learn from your bad and know that in this Miami game, we should have, and we expect to play, just a clean, smooth, offensive game,” Deiter said. “It should be good. You get a lot of time to prep. You should be able to work out all your kinks. You should have a good game plan going into this game. I think we still have all the pieces to have a really good game offensively like we should have every game, but this is a good chance for us.”
It’s also their last chance.