Big Ten Spring Review: Wisconsin

Our look around the Big Ten now that spring football is over finishes up with Wisconsin, which gave reached the league title game last year and won a bowl game vs. an SEC foe but also got pasted by OSU in Indianapolis and has a new coach in 2015.

Our review of spring football across the Big Ten finishes with Wisconsin, another one of the Big Ten West teams Ohio State will only face if both teams make the Big Ten Championship Game. The Badgers tried that last year and it did not go so well for them.

Quick 2014 review: Wisconsin overcame losses to LSU and Northwestern in the first six games to put together a seven-game winning streak to end the regular season and win the Big Ten West. That led to a Big Ten Championship Game in which everything that could go wrong did as Ohio State rolled to a 59-0 victory. The Badgers rallied for a 34-31 overtime victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, however.

Of course the offense generally started and stopped with standout tailback Melvin Gordon, who ran for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns despite not having a quarterback who could complete 60 percent of his passes. The Badgers’ big-play run-oriented offense was complemented quite well by a stingy defense that recovered from losing eight starters to be one of the best in the country, at least statistically. They were fourth nationally in total defense with good marks all around aside from the red zone, where they finished 116th nationally.

The Football Outsiders advanced stats had Wisconsin No. 3 in the Big Ten and 18th nationally in F/+. They showed an offense that was strong both in terms of play-by-play success and creating explosive gains, though Wisconsin struggled to put together methodical drives and was a little susceptible to three-and-outs. Defensively, the Badgers were equally tough against the run and the pass (ranking 29th in both as far as S&P+) but elite on passing downs and just above average on standard downs. The front seven was good at creating big plays while the secondary was not.

Spring game recap: Running back Dare Ogunbowale ran for two touchdowns and receiver Robert Wheelwright caught two as the team coached by Wisconsin basketball player Josh Gasser easily topped one coached by Duje Dukan, Gasser’s teammate. Senior quarterback Joel Stave hit Wheelwright for a 17-yard touchdown to open the scoring while backup quarterback Bart Houston threw for 103 yards and also hit Wheelwright for a touchdown. Ogunbowale led all rushers with 86 yards while Taiwan Deal added 76. Standouts on defense included linebacker Leon Jacobs and end Chikwe Obasih, who had 2.5 tackles-for-loss apiece. Safety Evan Bondoc led all tacklers with 12 stops, and he broke up two passes.

“(We) appreciated the way the group worked this spring,” first-year Badgers head coach Paul Chryst said. “And I think it was important for us of us coaches to get to know this team, and I think that's begun. There's still a lot of getting to know them and get a feel for who they are, but it was fun this spring being with this group of guys.”

Issues addressed: Generally when a new coach arrives, there are myriad issues to address in the spring. Chryst is not all that new to Madison, though, having played quarterback and been an assistant there before leaving to become head coach at Pittsburgh.

The biggest question of the spring on the offensive side of the ball then was clear: Who will replace Melvin Gordon? The obvious choice is Corey Clement, his primary backup a year ago, while Ogunbawale and Deal made their case to get some carries as well.

"I thought Taiwan had a couple runs where he showed really good patience and vision," Chryst said after the spring game. “As he gets more comfortable with the offense and maybe with himself, too, that'll help. Dare is a guy that's been around it, a little bit more mature, a guy that I think can contribute in a number of different ways.”

Chryst was considered a strong developer of quarterbacks during his previous stint in Madison, and he finds in Stave a player who has displayed a strong but erratic arm while starting 28 games the past three seasons.

Finding a second receiver to complement steady senior Alex Erickson would surely help Stave this fall, and that could be where Wheelwright comes in. If not him, Chryst also mentioned veteran Reggie Love.

“As a group, there's still some question marks, and yet I think there's some guys that have shown the ability to be significant contributors,” Chryst said. “That’s a great illustration how group-wise, if they can take advantage of the summer and then lead into fall camp with it… Because if we're going to be any good, we've got to get some production at that position.”

The head coach said fewer questions exist on defense, where the top two linemen graduated but leading tackler Michael Caputo returns at safety along with a strong pair of outside linebackers in Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert.

“I thought the one unknown coming in was the inside linebacker position, and you know, probably like we were talking about on offense, that we're not really where we want to be, but I liked what Leon and T.J. (Edwards) did,” Chryst said.

Obasih returns to start at one end spot in the Badgers’ 3-4 while Chryst hopes Conor Sheehy and Alec James provide depth on the other side with Arthur Goldberg holding down the middle.

“I think if you look at it right now and assess where we're at, there's certainly fewer question marks on defense, but I think that overall we've got some guys that if we're going to be good, they need to be good, and I think they're capable of being that,” Chryst said.

Ohio State's Eight Conference Foes:
Oct. 3: Indiana
Oct. 10: Maryland
Oct. 17: Penn State
Oct. 24: Rutgers
Nov. 7: Minnesota
Nov. 14: Illinois
Nov. 21: Michigan State
Nov. 28: Michigan

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