As we begin our look at the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers football team, it is also important to remember where this program was last season. History has a funny way of telling us all about our pasts, and that can often times be true on the football field as it is in any other aspect of life — perhaps even more so.
With the return of Wisconsin’s native son, Paul Chryst, as the new head coach for the Badgers, many weren’t sure exactly what to expect out of the Badgers in 2015. After all, the change at the top meant three head coaches in the matter of four seasons.
That kind of change, especially all the way down to the assistants in the program, can be really hard on a team of young adults. How did the Badgers handle that change and what did 2015 tell us about UW’s future?
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly and what it all means.
There’s little doubt that Wisconsin would’ve been in major trouble in 2015 had it not been for one of the best defenses in the country. Once again, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda adjusted and found a defense that would dominate almost every opponent on the schedule.
Just how good was the Badgers defense? It led the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.7), rushing defense (95.4 yards per game), total defense (268.5) and finished second in passing defense (173.2). Those numbers ranked first, fourth, and seventh in the nation respectfully.
Hard to argue against the raw numbers, but even advanced stats show that Wisconsin’s defense was about as dominant as it came in the world of FBS football for 2015. UW finished seventh in the country in defensive S&P+ rating, while never ranking lower than 14th in any specific category either.
Sure, UW would lose a few defensive battles, but when you are giving up fewer than two touchdowns a game to opponents that is more about the offense than anything the defense wasn’t capable of doing.
When one thinks of the Wisconsin Badgers, pounding the ball down the throats of their opponents is likely the first thing that comes to mind. After all, UW went in to the 2015 season having had a 1,000-yard running back every year since 2004.
After watching Corey Clement nearly go for 1,000 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup the previous year, it was likely that a 1,000-yard season was in the offing for the junior from New Jersey. Instead, it went all pear-shaped before the season even got underway.
What was thought to be a groin issue turned in to a sports hernia and that meant Clement was off to Germany to have surgery performed to correct the issue. It cost him the majority of the 2015 season and meant the running back duties fell to a redshirt freshman (Taiwan Deal) and a former defensive back turned running back (Dare Ogunbowale).
Ogunbowale would end up the leading rusher, but gained just 819 yards on the ground to become the first running back to lead UW in rushing with less than 1,000 yards in a decade. Deal mustered up 503 yards and there was even a place for linebacker turned freshman bowling ball, Alec Ingold.
In total, the Badgers managed just 1,954 yards rushing as a team and were just 10th in the Big Ten with 150.3 rushing yards per game.
That was not how anyone saw that season going, but it wasn’t just Clement’s absence either. UW found themselves having to start as many as four freshmen on the offensive line due to injury and transition at various points in the season.
No consistency up front and a lack of experience behind the line was a lethal blow to a usually lethal rushing attack in Madison.
There are seemingly a few games every season that set college football back to its original days as low-scoring affairs. One such contest just so happened to involve the Badgers in 2015, and it was a brutal 10-6 loss to the rival Iowa Hawkeyes.
Not only did the loss cost the Badgers a chance at the West division title, it also was an embarrassment to offensive football. There’s a difference between a defensive battle and downright awful offensive football, and that contest was exactly the later.
The two teams combined for more interceptions (3) than touchdowns (1) through the air, while both teams combined for three lost fumbles as well.
UW mustered up just 86 yards on the ground and Iowa contributed just 77 yards in the pass game themselves.
All of three points were scored in the entire second half of the game, and the two teams combined for as many punts as Iowa had completed passes (9).
Let’s just say this “struggle” between two long-time rivals wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, even if you like defensive football.
What it Tells Us for 2016
Not every season is a harbinger of things to come, and that can certainly apply to the Wisconsin Badgers. There’s little doubt that 2016 is going to be a new starting point for the program, as Chryst has suffered the loss of his starting quarterback (who started all or parts of every year of his career) and the mastermind of the defense that led UW throughout 2015.
Those losses mean a big battle for the starting quarterback job and a different feel to what should be a similar 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
What 2015 did tell us that this team needs a healthy Corey Clement and the offensive line to grow up quickly if it is to get to nine wins again. The margin for error seemed small last season, but with MSU, Michigan and Ohio State all in a row to open Big Ten play, that margin for error gets even smaller in 2016.
For the Wisconsin Badgers of 2016, the previous season was all about re-establishing what it meant to be a Badger like it has meant since 1990 and the arrival of Barry Alvarez. Establishing a feeling of home for fans, alumni and ex-players alike was certainly key to establishing a bright future.
So, if anything it is that return to emphasis on what worked for UW in the past that meant the most going forward.