Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Badger football: Where are we headed?

Today is my dad's 59th birthday. He started taking me to Badger games a couple years before the start of the X axis on this graph, in 1988, but by the time of Barry Alvarez's first year, 1990, the story was the same. One win.

I'm pretty sure that if you asked my dad, while we were sitting at Camp Randall through a 28-12 loss to California in Barry's first game as coach, to plot a graph of Wisconsin football wins over the next two decades, the line would have topped off at about eight wins, and from time to time dipped back into the two- or three-win range. Sort of like Indiana.

But since then, the number of wins generated by the Wisconsin football program on an annual basis has generally been on the upswing. Everyone remembers the double digit-win seasons of 1993, 1998, 1999, 2005, and 2006. Badger football at its finest.

The point of this graph, however, is to remind everyone that while the Badgers have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success over the past two decades, every peak is followed by a valley.

The '93 Rose Bowl champs were followed by an underachieving '94 team and a '95 team that didn't go bowling. The '98-'99 Rose Bowl champs were followed by an underachieving 2000 team and an '01 team that didn't go bowling. The '06 12-win team was followed by an underachieving '07 team an '08 team that wouldn't have gone bowling if there weren't 845 bowl games in college football nowadays.

So we've been here before.

But wait! you say. This dropoff to near-.500 mediocrity was supposed to happen next year, after the Shaughnessys and Langfords and Levys and Chapmans and Urbiks and Kemps and Beckums have exhausted their eligibility. 2008 should have been great!

Alas, it wasn't, for a number of reasons that have been well-documented here and elsewhere. Add that to the massive losses on the offensive and defensive lines, and expectations for 2009 will be lower than any season since 2004, John Stocco's first year at quarterback. Like the current economic downturn, this latest slide looks different -- worse -- than previous recent downturns in Badger football. There is a very real possibility that 2009 will be a bowl-less season for Wisconsin. That would be disappointing, and would undoubtedly have even more Badger fans calling for Bret Bielema's dismissal.

I would argue that the most critical goal for 2009 is not chasing seven wins or some low-level bowl game, but correcting systemic problems that contributed to the declines of the past two seasons -- regardless of how it impacts 2009. If those are properly addressed, the future looks bright for 2010 and beyond. If not, Barry will be looking for a new coach around the time of my dad's 61st birthday.

Here's what we need to address:

This year's collapse began with subpar quarterback play. First Allan Evridge, then Dustin Sherer failed to play the position efficiently. Inaccurate passing, interceptions, sacks, and lost scrambling opportunities put the Badger offense and defense in difficult positions, and things snowballed from there.

To me, this is the downside to the diversity Paul Chryst has added to the attack. On the whole, Chryst has made the Wisconsin offense far more modern, explosive, unpredictable, and diverse -- in a word, better. In my opinion he is the best offensive coordinator we've ever had and is still the guy we need in that job. But when you don't have a quarterback capable of executing all these nuances, you struggle, as we did this year.

The '99 Rose Bowl was on the Big Ten Network again last week and I watched us run up 38 points on UCLA. There wasn't a lot of mystery to Brad Childress's offense -- hand off to Ron Dayne and Mike Samuel drop back a few times for deep balls to Chris Chambers.

By no means am I advocating a return to the Stone Age offense run by Chilly, and to an extent Brian White. What I am advocating is a shift of the offensive focus from the quarterback back to the tailback. It will always be easier for us to recruit a stud running back or two than it will be to recruit an above-average quarterback -- and history shows we can win without above-average quarterbacks.

If P.J. Hill returns next year, as he should, he and John Clay will be the perfect people to re-emphasize the tailback at the Midwest's version of Tailback U.

This year we averaged just 40.7 rushing attempts per game, the fewest since 1995. That has to change.

One more quarterback-related note: our best have been multiple-year starters. Bevell, Bollinger, Samuel, Stocco. This to me is why every effort should be made to prepare Curt Phillips to start, even if Sherer or Tolzien are better options for winning games in 2009. If there is any chance Phillips will be the guy during his time in Madison, he should be our starter next season.

Player development
We just graduated are very talented senior class, many of whom will find spots on NFL rosters this fall. As a group, though, they weren't highly-rated coming out of high school. They were solid prospects who developed into above-average college football players.

The distressing thing is most of their development came between their freshman and sophomore years, at the tail end of the Alvarez Era. Think about the guys: Shaughnessy, Beckum, Chapman, Levy, Casillas, Urbik, Kemp, VandenHeuvel, Langford, Ikegwuonu, Hodge. Of those guys, who was better as a junior or senior than he was as a sophomore? Langford and Kemp are the only clear-cut answers.

The other guys didn't necessarily regress, but they didn't take the next step toward all-conference performances that their first years starting indicated was possible.

This is troubling. Even though Bielema and his staff appear to be doing a good job recruiting, we will never consistently bring in classes like those of Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State. Never have, never will. And schools like Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois will also finish ahead of us in the recruiting rankings in any given year.

The advantage we always had under Alvarez and his staff was unmatched player development. They took those two- and three-star guys and made them into All-Big Ten players. Five-star guys like Joe Thomas became all-time greats.

I'm not seeing similar player development under this staff. Next year in particular, we'll need the wide receivers and defensive backs to take a big step forward, because they'll have more experience than our guys in the trenches. We're not going to trade for Regis Benn or sign Donvan Warren as a free agent, so this improvement is going to have to come from within. It's on the coaches (and the players) to make it happen.

By swagger, I'm not talking about Brian Urlacher in an Old Spice commercial or Florida State running out to midfield and taunting the opponent. I'm talking about taking the field secure with the knowledge that you are better prepared both physically and mentally to beat your opponent.

The Badgers have lacked that these past two years. Sure, they've run around the field showing emotion, and said the right things in the press. But it's been superficial. Bluster and bravado are no substitute for genuine confidence and swagger, the kind of confidence and swagger you get from ...

Reading yet another Badger football history book the other day brought back fond memories of the leaders this program has had in recent times. Chris McIntosh. Donnel Thompson. Joe Panos. Cecil Martin.

Recent Badger teams have lacked guys like this. Plenty of good players and guys who led by example, but few who set the tone in a way that everyone could see.

Leadership candidates for the next two transition years: Gabe Carimi, John Moffitt, Jay Valai. All three are well-spoken starters with charisma and all-conference ability. It's on them to bring the others along with them on the march back to the top.

Sign of the times: my Fire Bret Bielema? post from earlier this fall is still the most-read post on this blog in the last 30 days. Here's my take on the coaching staff.

Bielema should not be replaced. He deserves five years to show what he can do, just as I think all college coaches deserve five years. If at that time the program still looks as it does today, he should be replaced.

We're not Notre Dame or Alabama, programs that can turn over coaches every three years if things aren't going as well as planned. Why? We don't have the money to pay for top available coaches (or buy out coaches' contracts) and we don't have the name recognition for recruiting to continue unimpeded in the face of staff turnover.

So what does Bielema have to show in the next two years?

Obviously he needs to be a better game manager. This year everything went wrong. Trying to score at the end of the first half against Penn State and Florida State backfired horribly. The defense was disorganized in critical situations. Chryst shouldn't be allowed to call options on third-and-1 ever again. The penalty he incurred against Michigan State, while petty on the ref's part, should not have happened.

In 2006 Bielema's aggressiveness drew raves, as we often scored at the end of the first half and stayed a step ahead of opponents. This year nothing worked. He needs to find that happy medium between his risk-taking sensibilities and Barry's conservative ones. You know that ridiculous play that resulted in Florida State's first touchdown would not have been called under Alvarez.

Also, as noted in the season review post, we were beaten soundly in the second half of our losses this year. We need to win the battle of the halftime adjustments darn near every time out.

Preparation also needs to improve dramatically. All the mental errors that drove us nuts this year don't just spring up on Saturday. They are stamped out on Wednesday and Thursday. We don't have the overwhelming talent to overcome those mistakes.

Finally, Bielema needs to take a close look at his staff. His first staff, with the likes of Bob Palcic and Mike Hankwitz, seemed to be a good blend of youth and experience. Now it's all youth. I'm not going to single out one particular position coach for criticism, because all the units had their good and bad moments this year. But that sort of inconsistency is not surprising when so many of the coaches are in their 30s.

What Bielema should do is bring in at least one older hand as an associate head coach, a Dan McCarney type. Perhaps he's been reluctant to do so because he's afraid it would challenge his authority as a young head coach. If so, he's got to get over it. He needs someone to talk him out of letting Evridge and Sherer throw from their own 10 with a minute left in the first half. He also needs a couple of guys whose forte is player development and not just recruiting.

Bielema's staff doesn't need to be a full-fledged team of rivals, but he needs to institute some checks and balances for this thing to work better.

And he needs to stop coaching special teams and find someone else who can.

Bielema can be the guy who leads us on a fourth upward slope. The question is whether or not he can work through these growing pains before Barry is forced by external conditions (ticket sales?) or his own gut to make a change.

As the offseason progresses I'll get into more detail about what I'd like to see happen in spring ball and the summer, and hopefully we'll finish strong on what is shaping up to be a nice recruiting class.

But for now I'll leave you with five keys to turning this thing around.

-De-emphasize the quarterback, re-emphasize the tailback

-Focus on player development

-Get that swagger back, legitimately

-Find the leaders who will insist on nothing less than success

-Evaluate the coaching staff, find a better mix


Phil Mitten said...

I think Chris Pressley was a leader. Unfortunately, he was injured too often to be very effective in that role over his career.

It all starts at the top, on the field (QB) and off (Bielema). Even when we didn't have skilled QBs, they were at least leaders. At least Donovan had a leader's swagger ...

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