From the “importance of continuity” department: In his previous four years as head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, Bret Bielema has never had a multi-year starter at quarterback.
That all changes this year, as senior QB Scott Tolzien returns.
Wisky fans have had the pleasure of watching such notable “game managers” under center as Dustin Sherer, Tyler Donovan and John Stocco. The end result has been an offensive philosophy heavily reliant on workhorse sledgehammers at running back, road-grading linemen and a generally non-threatening passing game.
Must make those frosty November games in Madison plenty entertaining for the “Jump Around” crowd.
So, what has Badger fans so giddy about the 2010 version of Wisconsin’s offensive attack? Well, Wisky was quietly potent last season, leading the Big Ten in scoring at 31.8 points per game, as well as total offense with 416.9 total yards per game. In addition to Tolzien, the Badgers bring back nine other offensive starters from that group.
The Big Ten’s reigning offensive player of the year and darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate John Clay is looking to build on a strong ’09 in which he led the conference in rushing. Five starters are back up front, including potential All-American Gabe Carimi, who has caught the eye of the NFL scouts. The O also boasts proven receiving options in wideouts Nick Toon and Isaac Anderson and tight end Lance Kendricks.
Not surprisingly, though, there’s a catch. Wisconsin’s offense did manage to put up plenty of points in the aggregate last season. However, as Dr. Saturday astutely notes, the Badgers sputtered badly against the better defenses they faced. While Wisconsin was off ringing up 51 points against Hawaii and 44 versus Wofford, Bielema’s team mustered a combined 23 points in back-to-back games versus Ohio State and Iowa.
Gutting weak Ds is nice, but it clearly won’t help the Badgers break through for a conference crown.
For Wisconsin to threaten Ohio State and Iowa this fall, it will be on to Tolzien to up his play in big games. He threw a combined five interceptions and zero touchdowns last season versus the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes in ’09. Worse than the picks, the passing game lacked pop, averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt in the two defeats.
Undeterred by the threat of big pass plays, Iowa and OSU were able to focus on shutting down Clay, holding the Baders to fewer than 2.7 yards per carry. Northwestern gave up just 2.8 yards per rushing attempt to the Badgers in Wisconsin’s other loss in ’09.
In theory, Tolzien’s experience should give offensive coordinator Paul Chryst the ammunition he needs to open up the playbook a bit this fall and keep good defenses a little more honest. Yet, upping the offensive diversity won’t help if Tolzien isn’t up to the task.