Summer Preview: Wisconsin Badgers
In our next summer preview, WNUR Web Director Eric Klaus previews the reigning Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin Badgers 2012 Season Preview
Last Season: For the Badgers, 2011 was one of the best in school history. They won 11 games, including the inaugural Big Ten Title game, reached their second consecutive Rose Bowl, scored the most points in school history, and finished the season ranked #10 in the country by the AP. Not to mention, they also had two players, Montee Ball and Russell Wilson, finish in the top ten of the Heisman voting. Even with all of these successes, it is likely that many will look back on the 2011 season with some sense of disappointment. Had it not been for back-to-back last second road losses to Michigan State and Ohio State at the end of October, the Badgers likely would have been playing for the National Championship, instead of the Rose Bowl. To add to the disappointment, the Badgers lost a thrilling Rose Bowl to Oregon by a score of 45-38.
Key Losses: It is hard to find another team in the Big Ten who lost as much talent as the Badgers did this past offseason. The most sizeable losses can be found on the offensive side of the ball, where the Badgers lost seven of their eleven starters from a year ago, including quarterback Russell Wilson, who accounted for 39 TDs and more than 3600 yards of offense last season. The Badgers also lost wide receiver Nick Toon, the third-leading passing catcher in school history, as well as the whole right side of their offensive line as three-year starters Kevin Zeitler (right guard), Peter Konz (center) and Josh Oglesby (right tackle) all graduated. In addition, fullback Bradie Ewing and blocking tight end Jake Byrne will also be missing from the starting lineup.
The losses on defense are less significant, but still worth noting. In all, the Badgers lost five starters from a year ago. Free safety Aaron Henry (32 career starts, 7 career INTs) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (32 career starts, 9 career INts) are probably the most notable losses, however the Badgers will also be without defensive end Louis Nzegwu (11 career sacks), defensive tackle Patrick Butrym (27 career starts) and strong side linebacker Kevin Claxton (85 career tackles).
Furthermore, the Badgers also lost three significant players on special teams as kicker Phillip Welch (the second leading scorer in school history), punter Brad Nortman (third in school history in career punting average) and long snapper Kyle Wojta (39 games as a LS) all graduated. The three of them were the primary starters at their respective positions over the last four years.
Key Returnees: Despite losing seven starters on offense, the Badgers should still be one of the better offenses in the Big Ten. The backfield combo of Montee Ball (1923 rushing yards, 33 rush TDs in 2011) and James White (713 yards, 6 TDs) will likely keep Wisconsin atop the league in rushing once again, even with three new starters on the O-line. The passing game may not be quite as strong as a year ago, but should still be a decent threat thanks to juniors Jared Abbrederis (55 receptions, 933 yards, 8 TDs in 2011) and Jacob Pederson (30 receptions, 8 TDs).
The defense returns six starters led by All- Big Ten linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. Other returning starters include strong safety Shelton Johnson, cornerback Marcus Cromartie and defensive end Brendan Kelly. Wisconsin allowed just 19 points a game a year ago, despite having major struggles against offenses like Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon. With the returns of Borland, Taylor and Johnson, Wisconsin’s defense should be in pretty good shape for the coming season and may actually be better than they were last season.
New Players in Big Roles: For the second consecutive season, Wisconsin will have a transfer student starting at quarterback in Maryland-transfer Danny O’Brien. Although O’Brien does not possess all the physical tools that Russell Wilson featured, he comes to Madison with lots of experience having started 17 games for the Terps over the last two seasons. At 6’3, he is built more like a prototypical pro-style quarterback, a la past Badger quarterbacks Scott Tolzien and John Stucco, who is much more of a threat with his arm than his legs. Given the Badgers’ strength at running back, O’Brien will likely be asked to simply “manage” games, which should help limit the number of mistakes throughout the season. The Badgers will not be nearly as prolific on offense as they were a year ago, but they should still be able to put up enough points to win a lot of games.
Other players who will be expected to step into big roles this season will be defensive end David Gilbert, who had 3 sacks early last season before going down with a foot injury, cornerback Devin Smith, who has the physical tools to be a shut down corner, wide receiver Jeff Duckworth, who is expected to replace Nick Toon and special teamer Kyle French, who may handle both kicking and punting duties this season.
2012 Outlook: The Badgers’ 2012 schedule is very comparable to last season’s schedule. Once again their non-conference schedule lacks quality opponents as Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP all travel to Camp Randall, while Oregon State hosts Wisconsin in week 3. The most challenging of the four will be the road game against Oregon State. However, since Wisconsin beat them 35-0 a year ago, it is hard to imagine Wisconsin coming out of Corvallis without a win.
In conference play, the Badgers will play the same eight opponents they played a year ago, only in different locations. As a result, the Badgers will travel to Nebraska, Purdue, Indiana and Penn State, and will host Michigan State, Ohio State, Illinois, and Minnesota during the 2012 conference season. Wisconsin’s only two conference losses last year were on the road against Michigan State and Ohio State, so the switches in venue for those two games should help as the Badgers have won 16 consecutive games at home. The Badgers’ biggest game of the season will likely be the conference opener against Nebraska in a game that will probably feature two-ranked teams for a second consecutive season. If the Badgers are able to steal that one in Lincoln (which is very possible considering Northwestern beat them there last year), they may have a shot at an undefeated regular season. The home games against Michigan State and Ohio State, as well as the road game at Penn State will also be tough games, but the Badgers should be favored in all three. Even if Wisconsin slips up a couple of times in conference play they should be in a good position to once again represent the Leaders division in the Big Ten Championship game. This is because the Badgers’ biggest division rival, Ohio State, is ineligible for postseason play in 2012. Meanwhile, in the rest of the division, Penn State continues to deal with off-the-field issues and Purdue, Illinois, and Minnesota are lacking the talent to make much of a dent in league play.
The 2012 Badgers are not as talented as the 2011 group, especially on offense, but they still have a good chance of matching or even exceeding their accomplishments from last year. A return trip to the Rose Bowl and another top ten finish are certainly in reach for this group, and if everything falls into place they may even have a shot at a national championship. Wisconsin’s team success will also have an impact on Montee Ball’s Heisman candidacy as the Badgers’ running back will start the season as one of the favorites for the coveted award.
What this means for NU: For the second consecutive season, the ‘Cats will not face the Badgers during the regular season. The only potential meeting for the two teams would be in the Big Ten Championship game. In October 2013, the two teams will be battle at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium.