Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Athletics
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Since Bret Bielema took over as head coach in 2006, Wisconsin has established itself as one of the perennial top dogs in the Big Ten. Coming off a Rose Bowl bid the previous season, the stakes were high for the Badgers in 2011, and they did not disappoint.
They opened the campaign 6-0, which included a 48-17 thrashing of new Big Ten member Nebraska on Oct. 1. However, the Badgers' undefeated season hopes were spoiled with tough back-to-back road losses to Michigan State (37-31) and Ohio State (33-29). The setback to MSU came on a Hail Mary, and the very next week the OSU game was decided by the Buckeyes' 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds on the clock. Rather than dwell on those losses, Wisconsin dug deep and ran the table with five straight wins. The last of those victories came against the Spartans in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game. The Badgers converted a 4th-and-6 on their final drive to complete the comeback and exact some revenge for their first loss of the season. It also earned them a spot in the Rose Bowl for the second straight season to take on sixth-ranked Oregon. The teams combined for a Rose Bowl-record 83 points, but the Ducks scored the final 10 points to win the Granddaddy of Them All.
While it was certainly a tough way to end an otherwise fantastic season, the Badgers took a business-like approach into the offseason. Despite losing six players to the NFL Draft in April, the team is primed for more big things in 2012.
OFFENSE: One of those players who has since moved on to the NFL is quarterback Russell Wilson, the most efficient passer in the nation a year ago. The offense must also replace three all-conference linemen, including first-round pick Kevin Zeitler. On top of those departures, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst also left to become the head coach at Pittsburgh. Then, in the early- morning hours of Aug. 1, senior Montee Ball, the third-leading rusher in the nation and a Heisman runner-up last season, was attacked by five men in what police called an "unprovoked assault." The star running back was knocked to the ground and kicked in the head repeatedly. He suffered a concussion that kept him from participating at the start of preseason camp. Assuming he is healthy and ready to go for the start of the season, Ball gives the Badgers' offense a dimension that few, if any, other teams enjoy.
The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the year is coming off a 1,923-yard rushing season in which he tied Barry Sanders' NCAA record with 39 touchdowns and was named a Heisman finalist. Fortunately for Wisconsin, Ball decided to return for his senior season after NFL evaluators gave him a third-round grade for April's draft. And even if Ball goes down, backup running back James White, a junior, has piled up 1,765 yards and 20 TDs over the last two seasons.
New coordinator Matt Canada won't be running the same spread offense that he had success with at Northern Illinois and Indiana, though he does plan to open things up a bit. Fortunately, he can turn to new quarterback Danny O'Brien, a transfer from Maryland, to run the show. Bielema is hopeful he can tap into the skills that earned O'Brien ACC Rookie of the Year honors as a redshirt freshman a couple of seasons ago. O'Brien takes over the reins of a unit that ranked sixth in the nation last year in scoring offense (44.1 ppg) and has some weapons in tow for 2012.
One of those weapons is junior wideout and return specialist Jared Abbrederis, who caught 55 passes for 933 yards and eight scores a year ago. Junior tight end Jacob Pederson earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after catching eight touchdown passes in 2011.
The offensive line, despite three key departures, remains a strength behind senior left tackle Ricky Wagner, who originally came to Wisconsin as a walk-on tight end but is now the school's latest Outland Trophy candidate.
"A lot of people predict him to be a top ten pick a year from now," Bielema said at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon. "I told him when I moved him a year ago he had big shoes to fill. Every left tackle that started for me at my years at Wisconsin has won the Outland Trophy and been a first-round Draft pick. So he's hopefully going to live up to the same standards."
DEFENSE: On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin ranked 13th nationally in scoring defense (19.0 ppg) and 15th in total defense (316.4 ypg) a year ago.
A big reason for that was the linebacking corps, which was arguably the best in the nation. Fortunately for the Badgers, the two key members of that unit return in junior middle linebacker Chris Borland (5-11, 250) and senior weakside linebacker Mike Taylor (6-2, 222). Taylor led the Big Ten with 150 tackles, including nine for loss. He also forced three fumbles and came up with two sacks and two interceptions. In the middle, Borland earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors after posting 143 tackles, including 19 for loss. Borland also had five forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks and two picks.
Up front, big junior tackle Ethan Hemer (6-6, 305) holds down the fort in the middle, while junior end Beau Allen could be in store for a big year now that he's starting. Allen, a former blue-chip recruit, had four sacks in part-time duty last year.
In the secondary, Wisconsin must somehow replace safety Aaron Henry and cornerback Antonio Fenelus, two members of the All-Big Ten first-team a year ago. However, Bielema thinks he has something real special in the safety tandem of senior Shelton Johnson (6-0, 200) and junior Dezmen Southward (6-2, 210). Those two both showed a knack for making timely plays last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Between Abbrederis and White, the Badgers are in good hands in the return game. Abbrederis ranked third in the nation with 15.8 yards per punt return and took a 60-yarder to the house, while he also averaged a healthy 24.6 yards on kick returns. White averaged 21.0 yards per kick return and, with Abbrederis more involved in the offense, could retain that post.
The team is counting on redshirt freshman walk-on Drew Meyer to replace four- year punter Brad Nortman. Similarly, four-year kicker Philip Welch has moved on, leaving the gig up to sophomore Kyle French, who was 3-of-5 in limited duty last year while Welch missed the first four games.
OUTLOOK: Wisconsin has the pieces in place to become the first Big Ten school since Michigan in 1977-79 to play in the Rose Bowl three straight seasons. With fellow Leaders Division members Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play, there isn't much standing in between the Badgers and another date in the Big Ten Championship. However, games aren't won on paper.
Still, it's tough to envision a scenario where the Badgers struggle for any prolonged period. The offense, despite losing three key starters from last year's line, is stacked. Of course, it all starts with Heisman hopeful Montee Ball. Abbrederis and Pederson add to the skill positions, while Wagner looks to be the next in an impressive line of tackles under Bielema's watch. The biggest question -- outside of Ball's health from that early-August attack -- is whether O'Brien has what it takes to pick up a new offensive scheme and run it well. The defense boasts playmakers at every level, while the special teams has a couple of home run threats in the return game. Put simply: there aren't many visible chinks in the Badgers' armor. Another Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth are no doubt reasonable goals.