Grading the Badgers: 2011 Season

A season full of highs and lows, Wisconsin won its second straight conference championship in thrilling fashion and lost its second straight Rose Bowl in thrilling fashion. After letting it all sink in, Badger Nation publisher grades the 2011 season and the Rose Bowl.

(Grades are calculated with 75 percent season, 25 percent Rose Bowl)

Quarterbacks

In terms of performance, class and character, there may never be another Wisconsin quarterback like senior Russell Wilson. The transfer from N.C. State that came in with much fanfare on July 1, fans questioned whether Wilson would be able to pick up the offense, mesh with his teammates and be an effective quarterback. He answered all of that in the first half of the season opener.

Named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after completing 10-of-13 passes for 255 yards and two TDs and running for 62 yards, including a career-long 46-yard TD run, against UNLV on Sept. 1, Wilson never slowed down in what ended up being an amazing season. He finished the season with a pass efficiency mark of 191.78, setting an NCAA record for a season.

He threw at least one touchdown pass in 38 straight games dating back to his time in Raleigh to set a new NCAA record. He threw for 33 touchdowns (the second most for a single season in UW history), ran for six touchdowns and even caught a touchdown pass. Wilson also became the first quarterback in school history to throw for over 3,000 yards by finishing with 3,175 yards – the 11th most in a UW career.

His most memorable play during the Big Ten championship game in the rematch against the Spartans when he found receiver Jeff Duckworth for a 36-yard gain on a fourth-and-6 at Michigan State's 43, Two plays later, Wisconsin took a 42-39 lead and held on for the win. Wilson was named MVP of the game, completing 17 of 24 passes for 187 yards with three touchdowns.

"I'm just blessed to have been with these guys, with Montee and the rest of the team," said Wilson. "It was a great experience for me. Working with Coach Bielema and the fact that he recruited me and took me in and the players took me in, and working with Coach Chryst is truly a pleasure. He's a tremendous coach.

"Every single day I've cherished, and every single moment is truly special. To lose the way we did is only going to make me stronger in the future and help me figure out something else down the road. Maybe win a Super Bowl. You never know."

In the Rose Bowl, Wilson again almost led another amazing comeback, just as he did at Michigan State and at Ohio State. He threw for 296 passing yards, the third most by a UW player in a bowl game, and drove 62 yards in 14 seconds … but ran out of time when the final two seconds ticked off before spiking the ball.

Wilson only threw four interceptions and only one came after the first Michigan State game Oct.22. It's just too bad the one came in the second half against Oregon following a UW interception. Drive down the field and score, which is what they did on five of its last nine possessions, UW likely wins.

With Wilson under center, you never felt Wisconsin was out of the game, and he was one of the key leaders in troubled times.

Without Wilson, the Badgers need to find a stable quarterback. Will Curt Phillips' bounce back from three knee surgeries? Will Jon Budmayr bounce back from another throwing elbow setback? Will Joe Brennan improve from his six games he got into? Time will tell but one thing is for sure, none will be Wilson.

Season Grade: A. Rose Bowl Grade: A. Overall Grade: A

Running Backs

As hard as it will be to lose Wilson, the Badgers have to be thrilled for the unselfish act of Montee Ball deciding to return for his senior year. His stock was at an all-time high after he was named a Doak Walker and Heisman finalists and a consensus first-team All-American, but he still thinks he can get better. Impossible? Ball had nine 100-yard games, resulting in 1,923 rushing yards and 33 rushing touchdowns. In 307 carries, Ball lost only 31 rushing yards or a yard every 9.9 carries.

Ball developed himself as a football player and as a result, he finished fourth on the team in catches (25), yards (306) and receiving touchdowns (6) and finished with the second-most all-purpose yards in a single season in school history.

He also unleashed some great performances. Ball's 30-carry, 151-yard, four-touchdown performance against Nebraska on Oct. 1 in front of a national television audience, had 200-plus yards against Purdue and Illinois and scored three touchdowns against Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.

In Ball's last five regular season games he did this: Purdue (20-223, 3); Minnesota (23-166, 2); Illinois (38-224, 2); Penn State (25-156, 4) and Michigan State (27-137, 3). He added to that against Oregon, rushing for 164 yards on 32 carries and one touchdown. Ball had 122 yards in the first half, but was stymied at points in the second half, resulting in the offense sputtering.

Still, he has yet to have a turnover in three full seasons and his 164 yards rushing were the sixth most by a UW player in a bowl game, but it's the first time UW lost in a bowl game having someone with 150-plus yards.

If Ball is going to be the workhorse next season, what's going to happen to sophomore James White? The 2010 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, White led the team in rushing last season, and was productive in his backup role once Ball took off in late September. White finished with 713 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He was effective in the Rose Bowl with 30 rushing yards and no lost yards, allowing Ball to get some rest late in the first half to be fresh for the stretch run.

Question is: Will White stick around and play second fiddle for a second straight year? What about Jeff Lewis, who will be a redshirt sophomore and be third/fourth in line? What about Melvin Gordon, who was forced to take a medical redshirt after a nagging groin injury kept flaring up? These are all questions UW has to answer, but a good problem to have when a Heisman finalists picks school over the NFL.

Special props this season, as well, to Bradie Ewing, the walk-on turned senior captain. Ewing didn't have a carry, but he was a tenacious lead blocker to open allies for the running game and caught all 20 passes that were thrown his way. He will be sorely, sorely missed.

Season Grade: A. Rose Bowl Grade: A. Overall Grade: A

Receivers

A group without much depth or experience entering the season, the Badgers relied heavily on the abilities of senior Nick Toon and sophomore Jared Abbrederis to lead the group and provide capable weapons for Wilson. The duo did not disappoint as they became the first UW duo to have at least 50 catches and 900 receiving yards in the same season.

Toon bounced back nicely from an injury-plagued junior season to lead the team in catches (64), yards per game (71.2) and touchdowns (10) while Abbrederis' 55 catches were for a team-best 933 yards and eight touchdowns.

Jacob Pedersen also added eight touchdowns, meaning at least two players scored more than seven touchdowns in a season for the first time in school history. With two more years left, he's only going to get better.

Toon produced career highs in receptions, yards (926) and TDs, and he capped his career with an impressive 9 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown in the Rose Bowl, redeeming himself from a subpar performance in Pasadena last year. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, it lost for the first time in a game where Toon caught a TD pass (UW was 12-0).

The loss of Toon hurts, but Abbrederis' performance in the Rose Bowl and leading up to the road game appears to have softened that blow. Abbrederis has 346 yards of total offense (one off Ron Dayne's program record) and became one of Wilson's favorite targets. His fumble in the fourth quarter was unfortunate, as the ball was punched out and just sat there teetering the goal line, but shouldn't dampen his season.

The play of the year though has to go to Duckworth, whose 36-yard catch on fourth down in Indianapolis was one of the big reasons UW got to the Roses Bowl. After a catch like that, one has to hope that it gives the quiet Duckworth a heaping pile of confidence heading into the spring.

Season Grade: B. Rose Bowl Grade: B. Overall Grade: B

Offensive Line

Having to replace two All Americans on one side of the line and having to rely on a fifth-year senior right tackle with six knee surgeries under his belt may have seemed like a big task for offensive line coach Bob Bostad and his group. Truthfully, they made it look pretty easy at times.

The running game ran for 3,298 yards last season and only lost 280 (38 of which were charged to team rushes), impressive considering the offensive line went through four different starting combinations this year. Wisconsin gave up 23 sacks during the season (about 1.77 a game), a number that does look better because of Wilson's maneuverability, but the line only gave up three sacks in two games.

Despite missing three games with a dislocated left ankle, Peter Konz was named an All-American by two different publications while Kevin Zeitler and Josh Oglesby were consensus first-team All-Big Ten selections. Travis Frederick was a consensus second-team selection while Ricky Wagner was a consensus honorable mention. That's a lot of hardware for a group, and proudly carried on the tradition of o-line U.

Wisconsin racked up 508 yards and held the ball for 35 minutes, 42 seconds. The problem certainly wasn't with them.

Season Grade: B. Rose Bowl Grade: B+. Overall Grade: B

Defensive Line

If it wasn't for injuries and an early jump to the NFL, this group could have been really special this season. Instead, the Badgers struggled at times to find production with J.J. Watt in the NFL and David Gilbert forced to take a medical redshirt after breaking his foot in week four.

A year after having 40 tackles for loss and 18 sacks, Wisconsin's front had 27.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Not a huge drop off in the sack department, but still significant. Louis Nzegwu battled nagging injuries to lead the line with 38 tackles (8 less than last season) but got help on the other side from Brendan Kelly. Plagued with groin problems throughout his career, Kelly bounced back to register 35 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks. With a healthy offseason, he'll make a nice compliment to Gilbert.

Senior captain Patrick Butrym's numbers were down, but his leadership helped Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout all registered new career highs in tackles. UW will need to continue cultivating its young players.

The Badgers ranked 46th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 138 yards per game – a number that was benefited by Wisconsin allowing only 23 rushing yards rushing on 24 carries against Oregon State and 64 yards on 25 carries against Northern Illinois a week later. The Huskies enter the Godaddy.com bowl averaging nearly 247.6 yards per game, which is 10 more than Wisconsin.

Not many teams were able to slow Oregon's no-huddle, spread offense this season, and Wisconsin certainly wasn't the first to succumb to the Ducks' attack. Still, the final rushing numbers were ugly, as the Ducks ran for 345 yards on 40 carries — an average of 8.6 yards. In particular, De'Anthony Thomas made Badgers defenders look silly. He ran the ball just twice. He gained 155 yards and scored two touchdowns. Throw in the 100-plus yards that LaMichael James unleashed, it's a sign that Wisconsin needs more playmakers and more pressure in the backfield, as UW's line got no sacks and two tackles for loss.

The only thing that saves the grade from failure is Louis Nzegwu's 33-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.

Season Grade: B. Rose Bowl Grade: D-. Overall Grade: C+

Linebackers

In his first season at middle linebacker, Chris Borland finished with 143 tackles and a team-high 19.0 tackles for loss, the most for a Badgers linebacker in school history and the most for a middle linebacker in the country this season. It's one of the main reasons that UW coach Bret Bielema was appreciative that Borland was a consensus first team All-Big Ten selection. The other was probably an ‘I told you so' moment, seeing as how much his decision to move him was criticized at the outset.

As good as Borland's season was, linebacker Mike Taylor's season was right on par. He finished with 150 tackles and three forced fumbled, one of which was returned by Nzegwu for a touchdown. Taylor was finally healthy this season and it showed, as he led the team with 13 tackles in the Rose Bowl and a QB sack.

Senior Kevin Claxton finished with 45 tackles and was very serviceable this season working next to the dynamic duo, but played sparingly in the Rose Bowl with UW sticking in nickel defense throughout to try to slow Oregon. It didn't work, as Oregon ran through this unit to the tune of 621 yards.

Taylor tallied 22 tackles against Ohio State — the most by a Badgers player since 1988. Borland registered double-digit tackles in seven games this year. Having those guys back next year is something to build around.

Season Grade: B+. Rose Bowl Grade: C-. Overall Grade: B

Secondary

Let's start with the positives. Prior to the Rose Bowl, the Badgers were third in the country in pass defense, allowing 155.0 yards per game through the air. Oregon State and Michigan State were the only teams to pass for more than 200 yards against UW this season. Putting that number in perspective, UW had allowed fewer than 160.0 yards passing just once since 1991.

OK, now with the negatives. This unit was underwhelming throughout the season at key points with mental lapses. Against Michigan State, tackling was poor and not knocking down a 44-yard Hail Mary pass is inexcusable. Granted, part of the blame goes to Abbrederis for mistiming his jump and to Taylor for not boxing out, but Marcus Cromarite was on the ground and Antonio Fenelus wasn't in the end zone when MSU's Keith Nichol caught the ball at the 1-yard line. That play ruined UW's undefeated season and a possible national title berth.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Wisconsin again allowed a long touchdown pass in the final minute one week later in a loss at Ohio State because of a miscommunication in the secondary. There were a lot of issues in those two losses across the defense, but the secondary's mission is the last line of defense and they failed in those two instances.

When it comes to the Rose Bowl, it's film that Dezmen Southward and Cromartie should watch over and over again. Both players struggled and were wisely picked on by Oregon. As a result, Oregon passed for 276 yards and three touchdowns. Cromartie will be a No.1 corner and Southward likely the starting safety. They need to take big steps forward after getting a year of experience that included some rough patches.

Losing Fenelus, a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection, is going to hurt (just look at his shutdown performance against Illinois' star receiver A.J. Jenkins to see why) and losing emotional senior Aaron Henry - 67 total tackles, eight pass deflections, tied for team lead with four interceptions and a sack – will be hard to replace. The Badgers need vast leadership and improvement from this unit, which was arguably the weakest on the field this season.

Season Grade: C. Rose Bowl Grade: F. Overall Grade: C-

Special Teams

This unit was underwhelming throughout the season at key points with mental lapses. Sound familiar? If it wasn't for key regular season breakdowns by both the secondary and special teams, Wisconsin would be still two days away from playing its bowl game.

Getting a punt blocked is one thing, but getting two blocked in back-to-back weeks that lead to touchdowns for the opposition is downright sloppy. I feel bad for Robert Burge, whose name will always be remembered as the guy who missed his blocking assignments, and was replaced for the remainder of the year.

In addition to the punt team, the kickoff team continued to have leaks. In a game against Purdue on Nov. 5, Raheem Mostert brought back five kicks for 206 yards and generally embarrassed the Badgers. In Pasadena, UW surrendered a 46-yard kickoff return to Thomas but the Badgers held Thomas to a 25.0-yard average on five returns, 2.7 yards under his average.

On the flip side, Wisconsin's return game saw Jared Abbrederis emerge as one of the nation's top punt and kickoff return men this season. He averaged 15.8 yards per punt return, which ranks in the top five in the country, with nine of his 20 returns going for at least 17 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown against South Dakota.

He also boosted the kicking game, which was evident by his 60-yard return in the Rose Bowl that set up one of Wisconsin's six scores.

In addition to fixing the blocking problems this spring, the key will be finding two players to replace a spectacular four-year duo, and consensus honorable mention all-conference selections, in the special teams game. Punter Brad Nortman has handled every punt for UW over the last four years, starting as a true freshman. He ranks third in school history in career punting average and sits fourth in with 8,294 career punting yards.

Kicker Philip Welch overcame injuries at the start of the season and finished ranked second in school history in career field goal percentage, career field goals made with 59 and career points with 384. Sophomore Alec Lerner handled the kickoff duties in Welch's absence, but was replaced when his leg strength and direction became iffy. Expect redshirt sophomore Kyle French to handle the field goal and PAT duties (he was 3-of-5 in place of Welch) and redshirt freshman walk-on Drew Meyer to handle the punter. The loss of long snapper Kyle Wotja, one of the toughest players in the program, also will have to be addressed.

Season Grade: C+. Rose Bowl Grade: B+. Overall Grade: B-


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