Offensive personnel shifting, but system keeping Wisconsin steady
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin offensive guard Ryan Groy tried to calm everyone around him in January. Sure, the Badgers had just hired offensive coordinator Matt Canada from Northern Illinois, but Canada wouldn't bring the spread offense that produced so much glorious weeknight MACtion to Camp Randall Stadium. That would mean Wisconsin would throw more. It would mean the Badgers would turn their broad backs on years of beautiful rushing tradition. It would mean the offensive linemen would have to -- gasp -- slim down. Canada wouldn't do that.
"I heard so much about the spread," Groy said. "I was like, 'There's no way we're running the spread. All right?'"
Groy's gut instinct was correct. (When one weighs 322 pounds, as Groy does, one's gut is especially wise.) Yes, Badgers coach Bret Bielema hired a man who ran the spread. But what Canada really wanted to do was get back to the straight-ahead power game the Badgers love to play and Canada used to coach. He wasn't alone, either. Bielema said plenty of coaches wanted to scrap the flavor of the decade and come to Madison to coach something a little more time-tested. "I heard a lot from coaches," Bielema said, "who want to run what we run."
What Wisconsin runs is straight at you with 320-pound-plus linemen paving the way for a stable of capable tailbacks. Currently, that stable is led by Montee Ball, who scored 39 touchdowns last season, was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy and who came back when he received only a third-round grade from the NFL's draft advisory council.
By embracing the power running game that used to symbolize Big Ten football, Wisconsin has created a niche. By clinging to tradition, the Badgers have become the outliers. For example, spread teams often have no true tight ends or fullbacks on the roster. So who plays those positions on the offensive scout team that simulates the Badgers? "We're a very unique preparation," Bielema said. "When you've got seven days to get ready for an opponent, it's not the easiest thing to prepare for. I've read comments in papers where coaches have said, 'We're getting ready to play Wisconsin. We've got to be tough this week.' Well, you can't tap somebody on the head on Monday and say, 'You're tough.' It's something that's in the program 365 days a year."
That system is a huge reason why quarterback Russell Wilson made such an easy transition as a transfer last season. It's also why Danny O'Brien should find things much easier when he arrives in Madison this summer. He'll enter an offense that has run the ball 65.3 percent of the time in the past three seasons, and Bielema and Canada have assured their players that philosophy won't change. That doesn't mean O'Brien will automatically take over the Wisconsin offense and lead the Badgers to a third consecutive Big Ten title, but it does mean he should have a chance. "Coach B knows what he's doing," Ball said. "It worked last year. It should work this year."
The comparisons between O'Brien and Wilson are obvious. Wilson used the NCAA's one-time graduate transfer exception to leave NC State and head to Wisconsin to play his final year of eligibility. O'Brien used the NCAA's one-time graduate transfer exception to leave another ACC school, Maryland, and head to Wisconsin to play his final two years of eligibility.
Like Wilson, O'Brien had a phenomenal freshman season followed by a decline. Here is where their paths diverge. Wilson's numbers sagged because he had less talent around him in successive years and because he devoted part of his energy to the pursuit of a baseball career. O'Brien's numbers sagged in part because his school fired its coach/offensive guru (Ralph Friedgen) and brought in a new coach (Randy Edsall) who hired an offensive coordinator (Gary Crowton) who radically altered the offense. It's quite telling that neither O'Brien nor Crowton will be at Maryland in 2012.
Wilson left NC State because Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien was forced to pick a quarterback. Mike Glennon also had his degree, and he intended to transfer using the same rule if Wilson was named the starter. With Glennon in Raleigh and Wilson pursuing baseball, O'Brien's decision was easy. Wilson came to Wisconsin with more experience than O'Brien; he was a three-year starter at NC State, and his time playing professional baseball had also taught him to jell quickly with new teammates.
As a redshirt freshman in 2010, O'Brien started 10 games and threw for 2,438 yards, 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In 2011, O'Brien was yanked midseason in favor of C.J. Brown. O'Brien had a chance to win the job again after Brown got hurt, but O'Brien broke a bone in his non-throwing arm against Notre Dame on Nov. 12 and couldn't play again. For a 2-10 team, O'Brien threw for 1,648 yards with seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
Because of the similarities in their stories, O'Brien likely will come in with the same expectations as Wilson. Like Wilson, O'Brien will have to win the job. To do that, he'll have to beat out walk-on Joel Stave, who led the Badgers' offense for most of the spring as scholarship quarterbacks Jon Budmayr, Curt Phillips and Bart Houston nursed injuries. Those injuries, in fact, are why Bielema sought to sign O'Brien. "I'm not going to leverage the entire well-being of our team," Bielema said, "on only two healthy quarterbacks."
Should O'Brien win the job -- and it seems he'll have every opportunity to do just that -- he'll enjoy some of the same perks Wilson did. Because of that line and tailbacks Ball and James White, most defenses place an eighth player in the box to help slow Wisconsin's run game. So O'Brien will know whether the defense is sacrificing a safety or a cornerback before the play even begins. Also, if Wisconsin uses play-action, O'Brien is more likely to find an open target because the linebackers and safeties almost always take a step toward the line of scrimmage on fakes because they must respect the run.
But will O'Brien (or Stave) have legitimate pass-catching targets? Nick Toon, who caught 64 passes for 926 yards and 10 touchdowns, is now a New Orleans Saint. Speedster Jared Abbrederis is back, and he should be better after doctors repaired the broken foot Abbrederis played on for most of last season, but defenses can smother one deep threat. If one of Wisconsin's final spring practices is any indication, less experienced receivers such as Marquis Mason and Chase Hammond have yet to make the most of the opportunity before them. "Somebody step up," a frustrated Bielema yelled as the Badgers huddled. "Somebody [expletive] step up at the wide receiver. You'll play."
Shortly after Wisconsin's spring game, Bielema left for a two-week honeymoon. In his professional life, he has never stepped away from work for that long. Work likely intruded briefly -- Ball was issued a $429 ticket May 5 for trespassing after he refused to leave someone's porch after being asked -- but for the most part, Bielema has a system in place that should allow him to breathe a little even if he doesn't know whether his second consecutive grad-school quarterback transfer will work out as well as his first.
If O'Brien does succeed, Bielema probably will get a piece of NCAA legislation named after him. "They very well might start a new rule that prevents it," Bielema (sort of) joked. But unless the rules change to keep the Badgers from collecting 300-pounders and handing the ball to able backs, Wisconsin's time in the upper echelon of the Big Ten should last a while.