Thursday, January 23, 2014

Grading the 2013 Wisconsin Badgers

The Wisconsin Badgers began the 2013 football season ranked 23rd in the AP Preseason polls. At the time I was disappointed in the ranking but could understand reason for doubting the team given the significant changes in coaching staff. Gary Andersen brought a lot of energy and a whole new posse of coaches with him and the team looked sharp, but not many knew what to expect. The result was a very solid season, capped off by a poor showing against Penn State on senior day and a disappointing ending to the Capitol One Bowl against South Carolina. The team finished with a 9-4 record and a 6-2 showing in the Big Ten. Kickers are kickers and punters are punters, but the best way to understand what went well and what didn’t for the team in 2013 is to take a look at each position on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.

Quarterback – C. After breaking his collar bone several games into the 2012 season, Joel Stave won the starting quarterback job in camp, beating out sixth-year senior Curt Phillips and transfer Tanner McEvoy. What the coaches most like about Stave is his throwing accuracy and ability to get the ball down field. With Jared Abbrederis returning as arguably the top wide receiver in the Big Ten, many thought it was wise to go with the best throwing QB of the bunch and give the offense its best opportunity to stretch the field. The result was a mediocre season for Stave. He made many great throws, but also missed A LOT. He finished with 22 passing TDs to 13 interceptions and threw for 2,494 yards. He was arguably a better player on the road, throwing just 4 interceptions in 6 road games, versus 9 in 7 games at home. The most glaring issue with Stave seems to be his inability to find the open man. As a young quarterback, this is somewhat understandable, but Stave became a bit predictable in games as he would often seem to lock on a single receiver (usually Abbrederis) before the start of a play and abandon any sense of progression as the play developed. He will most likely have a firm grasp on the starting job heading into 2014, but there is certainly room for improvement.

Melvin Gordon will return for his junior year.
Running Backs – A. The running game was yet again the bright spot for Wisconsin in 2013. The Badgers finished 8th in the country in rushing, combining for 3,689 yards. Melvin Gordon emerged as one of the best backs in the country, leading the team with 1,609 yards while reaching the end zone 12 times and ranking fourth in the country with an impressive 7.8 yards per carry. James White wasn’t far behind, totaling 1,444 yards and 13 scores. Gordon raised eyebrows as many thought he might enter the draft as a potential second or third round draft pick, but the sophomore announced after the regular season that he will return to Madison in 2014 for his junior season. The third shining star in the backfield in 2013 was youngster Corey Clement. The freshman ran for 547 yards on just 67 carries and reached the end zone 7 times. With Clement and Gordon returning in 2014, there’s no reason to expect anything less than another 3,000 rushing yards from the Badger backfield.

Receivers – B. Heading into 2013 the Badgers knew they had something special in senior Jared Abbrederis, the former walk on who had earned first team All-Big Ten honors as a junior. Senior tight end Jacob Pederson was also returning after winning the Big Ten’s Kwalick-Clark award as the league’s top tight end. Beyond these two however, questions remained unanswered heading into the season opener as to who would answer the bill as the team’s number two wide receiver. The questions never really got answered, as no wide receiver outside of Abbrederis caught more than 12 passes. Abby hauled in an impressive 78 catches for 1,081 and 7 touchdowns while Pedersen snagged 39 balls for 551 yards and 3 scores. James White was also incredibly reliable out of the backfield, catching 39 passes for 300 yards and 2 scores. “Old Reliable,” Jeff Duckworth was next on the team with 12 catches for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns. The team will look heavily to youngsters Jordan Fredrick and Alex Erickson in 2014 to step up and carry the load as a receiving corps. Melvin Gordon will also need to play a bigger role out of the backfield than he did in 2013, catching just one pass for 10 yards.

Offensive Line – B. After losing starting center Travis Frederick to the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the NFL Draft, the Badgers offensive line needed some returners to step up. They did fairly well, once again blocking for one of the best rushing attacks in the country and keeping quarterback Joel Stave on his feet. The team ranked 17th nationally with 16 sacks allowed, an average of just 1.2 per game but loses left guard Ryan Groy to graduation. This is a hole that has to be filled, but the unit remains young and full of potential heading into 2014.

Defensive Line – B. With new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda came a new 3-4 scheme that worked surprisingly well for the Badger Defense in 2013. As a unit, Wisconsin ranked 15th in total defense, 6th in scoring defense, and 5th in rushing defense throughout the campaign. The one glaring statistic that keeps this unit from an “A” rating is the disappointingly low sack total. The team totaled just 26 sacks on the season, with 4 of those coming from backup nose tackle Warren Herring. Beau Allen has garnered attention leading into the NFL draft and Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel did well managing the ends. Look for the defense to remain consistent in 2014 but look to create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

This will always be my favorite Chris Borland picture.

Linebackers – A. Moving to a 3-4 scheme as a defense meant shifting Brenden Kelly from his defensive end position to and outside linebacker spot. This freed up middle linebacker Chris Borland to be more aggressive in attacking the ball carrier. Borland had his best season yet, recording 112 tackles and earning consensus first team All-Big Ten honors. Ethan Armstrong and Conor O’Neill were third and fourth on the team with 51 and 41 tackles, respectively and were a big reason for the team’s success against the run. The unit needs to find a way to replace Borland in 2014, but I believe the 3-4 scheme will continue to promote future success.

Secondary – B. After losing both starting corners and a safety to graduation heading into 2013, the Badger defense faced a lot of question marks in the secondary. The unit was good, however, ranking 17th nationally against the pass, allowing 202 yards per game. Senior Dez Southward returned and provided consistency for the group, totaling 40 tackles and nabbing one interception. The bright spot here was true freshman Sojourn Shelton. Shelton made his share of mistakes, as should be assumed from an 18 year old, but also pulled down 4 interceptions and primarily manned opposing team’s top wideout. Shelton receive praise from former Badger standouts Jamar Fletcher and Scott Starks for his confidence and competitive nature, but needs to sure up his coverage, as he was burned a few times too many throughout the course of the season. Michael Caputo was another bright spot, moving from linebacker to safety and looks to have a hold on the spot heading into 2014. Look for this young unit to grow and improve under Aranda.

Until next time, Beers, Brats, and Championships.

-Joseph Norton (@JoeP_Norton)

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