Up until now, the Wisconsin Badgers have gone un-analyzed on the hallowed URLs of Goose’s Gabs. The main reason: an inability to remain impartial in analysis. But now the season is over. The Baders went 11-1 and tied for the Big Ten championship. Barring a completely unexpected change in voting patterns, Wisconsin will go to the Rose Bowl. Should they win, they will likely start the 2011 season on the inside-track to play for the BCS Championship. The question is, “how did they get there?” What changed between the 2009 and 2010 seasons that catapulted the Badgers from the Champs Sports Bowl to the Rose Bowl? The answer is four-fold:
1) Big-Game Wins: In 2009, Wisconsin lost consecutive games to Ohio State and Iowa. In 2010, they won both those games, including against a Buckeyes team ranked #1 in the country at the time. Wisconsin needed to show it can win the big game, and it did. Their win over Ohio State gave them a tie-breaker in the Big Ten, and it showed coaches nationwide that this team was for real. This victory makes it incredibly unlikely for Ohio State to leap-frog Wisconsin, since every coach knows that the Badgers beat the Buckeyes at the height of their power, and soundly at that (31-18). The win against Iowa showed that when it matters, Scott Tolzien could lead his team to victory. On Wisconsin’s game-winning fourth quarter drive, Tolzien was 3/5 for 23 yards, twice converting on third or fourth down. He also rushed for 5 yards. The Badgers had some huge victories this year, beating Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan for the first time in over 50 years. These high-pressure victories hopefully prepared them for their likely Rose Bowl showdown with TCU, a team better than maybe any they’ve faced before. But the Badgers know they can play well under pressure, and they should have plenty of confidence going into their final game.
2) Professional Mentality: Despite the Badgers’ consecutive losses last season, they were still in contention up through Week 10. Then they played Northwestern, and it all went to hell. The Badgers got cocky and assumed they’d walk over an un-ranked Wildcats team. They were wrong, and what might have at least been the Capital One or Outback Bowl became something even less important, if that were at all possible. This year, the Badgers have not made any mental errors. They have approached each game with an appropriate degree of concern and preparation. When they fell behind against Iowa, the defense stepped up and let the offense win it. But against lesser teams like Austin Peay, Minnesota and Northwestern, they jumped out to early leads. But instead of getting complacent, the Badgers kept their feet on the throttle in all three games. Some might accuse Brett Bielema of running up the score. A counter-argument is that he was making sure the other team had no chance of a comeback. How many times have even NFL teams built a large lead, relax their game plan, then see it all evaporate? Every Badgers game was played for a full 60 minutes, and the result was 11 wins, the only loss coming to an MSU team that currently sits at #8 on the BCS chart. And even in that game they played turnover-free football. They just couldn’t capitalize on the Spartans’ errors.
3) Balanced Running Attack: The running corps of John Clay, Montee Ball and James White has to be one of the best running trios in college football history. The three have combined for over 2,800 yards and 44 touchdowns. There is also great balance between the three. The difference between White, the Badgers’ highest-rushing running back, and Ball, their lowest, is just 165 yards, and Ball actually has the most touchdowns, at 17. In 2009, the difference between Clay and Ball, the next-highest rusher, was 14 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards. The addition of White has turned a lopsided running attack into a dynamic trio that don’t tire because they’re almost interchangeable. Clay may declare for the draft (so as not to risk another season marred by injury), but the Badgers have laid the foundation for a strong running program for years to come.
4) Understanding Tolzien: The Badgers have finally figured out exactly how much to use Tolzien. He is not Cam Newton. He will likely not get drafted, if he even applies. But in short bursts, he is more than capable, especially when he has Lance Kendricks, the best tight end in the NCAA, catching passes over the middle. Generally, it’s about a 2-1 run to pass ratio, and the results are dramatic. Tolzien’s passing attempts are down 83 from 2009 to 2010, but his completion percentage has gone up 10 points, from 64.3 to a pristine 74.3 percent. Both seasons he threw for 16 touchdowns, but his interceptions were nearly halved from last year, from 11 down to just six. Some of this may be due to the improved offensive line, which cut sacks from 21 last year to just 11 this year. But more of it may be the Badgers coaches cutting down on opportunities for Tolzien to shoot himself (and the team) in the foot. Given fewer opportunities, Tolzien screws up less. Against Ohio State and Iowa last year, Tolzien threw five interceptions. This year, it was cut to just one in each game. And in those two games, Tolzien threw the ball half as often in 2010 as he did in 2009 (70 vs. 39 passing attempts). Knowing how to use your offensive weapons so as to maximize production is the key to winning, and the Badgers have found the golden mean. The end result: the fourth-best offense in the NCAA, with only Oregon ranked higher than Wisconsin while featuring a higher-scoring offense.
So there you have it: the four factors that have contributed most to the Badgers’ dominant season. They stepped up in big-games while not overlooking lower-profile games. They balanced the load between their elite running backs, who themselves were used in the correct proportion to Tolzien’s passing game to maximize scoring while minimizing risk (just nine turnovers all season). Couple all of that with an above-average defense (decent number of interceptions with 14, not so much for sacks with just 23) and you have the most balanced, complete team the Badgers have had in quite a while. The only test left will be their biggest, but seniors like Tolzien, Kendricks and wide receiver David Gilreath will do everything in their power to end their time at Wisconsin on the highest note they can.
On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin! Fight on for her fame! You all know the rest.