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
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.
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