BadgerNation analyzes and grades Wisconsin's offense in 2015

BadgerNation hands out the final grades for Wisconsin's offense from the 2015 season.

QUARTERBACKS

With no running game, injuries to key senior receivers and a leaky offensive line, Wisconsin still managed to win 10 games this season. Why? The Badgers had a veteran under center in Joel Stave.

Stave completed 61 percent of his passes this past season for a career-high 2,687 yards, 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He had nine 200-yard passing games and had more touchdowns to interceptions in six games this season.

The senior certainly had some regrettable performances against Iowa and Northwestern, as he committed seven combined turnovers in the two home losses, but had a number of tremendous performances that set up wins for Wisconsin.

A week after the Iowa loss, Stave led a 70-yard drive in 10 plays to putting Rafael Gaglianone in position to make a 39-yard kick. When he missed it, and UW’s defense got the ball back for the offense on its own 30-yard line with 1:03 remaining, Stave completed three straight passes to put UW in position at the Nebraska 28. Gaglianone didn’t miss that kick.

In the Holiday Bowl, Stave completed 18 of 27 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown to earn game offensive MVP honors. With Wisconsin trailing, 21-20, in the fourth quarter, Stave completed a pair of 17-yard completions to again set up Gaglianone for a winning field goal. He did that despite breaking his nose the series before and having the bridge of his nose taped and a cotton ball shoved up his right nostril.

He still wasn’t fully polished as one would expect from a fifth-year senior, but Stave leaves the program having won a program-record 31 games, a winning percentage of .756 (31-10; third-highest in school history) and throwing 48 touchdown passes (second place all-time at UW).

Backup Bart Houston appeared in seven games but his biggest contribution came in the 24-13 win at Illinois Oct.24. Stepping in after Stave was knocked out early with a head injury, Houston completed 22 of 33 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns that overshadowed two red-zone interceptions.

“(Houston) enjoyed getting the chance to go play,” said head coach Paul Chryst after the game. “It didn’t seem too big for him. I thought he competed. I thought he stood in there. He made some throws and that was good. Certainly a couple he would like back. I thought he competed and he played and that’s fun to see.”

Houston finished the year 27-for-47 for 281 yards, three touchdowns and the two picks. The duo combined to pass for an average of 228.3 yards per game – good enough for 59th in the country. The Badgers finished the season averaging a school-record 32.2 passing attempts per game, only third time in the modern era UW averaged oner 30 pass attempts per game

With Stave graduating, it will be Houston’s experience against redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook’s upside to replace the senior. They will be big shoes to fill.

Grade: B+

RUNNING BACKS

Oh, what could have been? Corey Clement’s year was a health and off-the-field disaster for the junior and derailed what started as a breakout season. Clement mistakenly tried to play hurt in the season opener against Alabama, which may or may not have caused more damage to his sports hernia injuries. It took him eight weeks to come back and he never returned to 100 percent.

Clement finished with 221 yards and five touchdowns on 48 carries (115 yards and 3 TDs came against Rutgers). He scored a touchdown against Northwestern but didn’t play the regular season finale at Minnesota after video surfaced of an off-campus fight he started and subsequently lied about to UW officials. He showed signs of life against USC, rushing for a career-high 19 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown but it was fitting that he got hurt and had to leave the game. Clement put it best – he couldn’t wait for 2015 to end.

What made Clement’s injury worse was that the Badgers had no dynamic backup to turn to, a reason why the Badgers didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher for just the third time in the last 23 seasons and finished 94th in the country in rushing (150.3 ypg). Dare Ogunbowale’s inexperience as a tailback caused some porous rushing games and few explosive plays, as his longest run in conference play was 32 yards.

Ogunbowale had three 100-yard games against porous teams (Miami, Nebraska and Minnesota) and held to less than 57 yards eight times. Where he lacked as a runner, Ogunbowale made up as a pass catcher out of the flat, catching 36 passes for 299 yards and a score. His 36 catches finished second on the team.

Taiwan Deal was pressed into duty likely a year before he was ready and an ankle injury zapped three games from the middle of the season. Even so, the redshirt freshman showed flashes of brilliance – running for 147 yards and two scores against Hawaii and 90 yards and another two scores against Minnesota. He finished with 503 yards and six touchdowns despite never having a carry longer than 17 yards, as he was asked to be the bruiser between the tackles instead of the speedster outside of them.

Speaking of pressed into duty, kudos to Alec Ingold for biting the bullet, switching positions and burning the redshirt to fill in for spot duty. The team’s goal-line specialist, Ingold ran for six touchdowns and was one of the fun stories of the year for the position.

This group should get better, especially if Clement returns healthy and takes some pressure off the group, but this was not a banner year for the position, highlighted by Chryst’s hesitancy to run the ball in short-yardage situations.

Ingold’s production and the running game helping UW keep the axe prevent the grade from being a F.

Grade: D

FULLBACK

Derek Watt has paid his dues at Wisconsin and the Badgers found a way to give back in their Holiday Bowl win. An expanded offensive package saw the 6-foot-2, 236-pound redshirt senior incorporated into a game plan that was rather brilliantly set up.

Used sparingly and effectively, Watt was a factor in the second quarter drive by the Badgers to go up 10-0. Hauling in an 11-yard pass to give the Badgers some breathing room after a Clement rush was stopped at the line, Watt’s reception would spark the first of five-straight positive plays for Wisconsin, with each play resulting in either a first down and finally, a touchdown.

Watt would also add a 19-yard run – the longest of his career - during a field goal drive and seven more rushing yards on a touchdown drive in the third quarter. It seemed like the Badgers found the scoreboard on every drive in which he was involved.

His five carries for 32 yards were career highs against USC. In fact, they eclipsed the combined totals of his first three seasons.

After being talked about for the past two seasons, Wisconsin finally integrated Watt into the passing game. The results were a career-high 15 catches for 139 yards.

They don’t make them like Watt, which is a shame.

Austin Ramesh will likely be Watt’s successor and got his feet wet this season. Ramesh and Watt made their biggest contributions together against Hawaii, where UW ran for 196 of its season-high 326 rushing yards out of a two-fullback set – known as the “31” personnel (three running backs, one tight end) or “32” personnel (two running backs, two tight end).

Grade: A-

RECEIVEING

Whether he gets a year of eligibility back or not, Alex Erickson has nothing left to prove for Wisconsin. After catching five passes for 54 yards against USC, Erickson finished the season with 77 receptions for 978 yards, falling just shy of becoming the fourth player in school history to record a 1,000-yard season. His 1,877 receiving yards puts him 10th all-time and his ability to develop a connection with Stave was UW’s best third-down weapon throughout the season. He kept the position afloat the last two seasons.

After years of preseason injuries taking him out of the running for meaningful reps, Rob Wheelwright showed that he has more than enough ability to be a standout target. Wheelwright had been averaging 3.5 catches for 46.1 yards over his first eight games when, ironically, he was injured again after breaking his leg against Illinois. He proved he was healthy when he returned for the bowl game, as his leaping one-handed catch along the sideline in the bowl game was one of the standout plays of the season. He finished with 32 catches for 416 yards and four scores.

With Wheelwright being out, UW got a good look at redshirt sophomore Jazz Peavy, who didn’t disappoint. Limited to only two games entering the season, Peavy played in every game for UW and had some standout performances (4 for 44 vs. Nebraska, 5 for 88 vs. Northwestern). He’s not a blazer, but his routes are solid and he understands the playbook. Heading into 2016, he should be the team’s No.2 receiver.

Since I don’t know what position to list him at on offense, Tanner McEvoy’s work as a wildcat quarterback provided a nice little punch (17 for 132 and two TDs) but didn’t live up to the offensive hype at receiver (10 for 109).

Reggie Love (7 for 38) will be a senior next season and need to earn the trust of the quarterbacks and coaching staff that he knows his playbook and can catch balls thrown to him. It’s also time for George Rushing and Krenwick Sanders to step up to the play heading into their junior seasons.

Erickson bumps this grade up a full letter.

Grade: B-

TIGHT ENDS

Another one of the key injuries on Wisconsin’s offense this season, Austin Traylor was limited to eight games after suffering an arm injury against Iowa. Up until that point, Traylor had started to emerge as a legitimate tight end prospect with high upside, catching 10 passes for 156 yards and three scores. He returned for the final three games of the season and made the biggest impact in the bowl game when he had a career-high 47 receiving yards along with a touchdown.

In his absence, Troy Fumagalli’s role expanded, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the bright young stars on Wisconsin because of his size and ability, Fumagalli had at least 45 receiving yards in a four game stretch in October and should transition well to the No.1 role in the offense, as his 6-6 frame should be a comfort zone for a new quarterback. UW will need more from him going forward.

After playing on special teams in 14 games the last two seasons, Eric Steffes started to see his role expand with Traylor’s injury and should be a weapon next season.

Grade: B-

OFFENSIVE LINE

As we expected, it was a huge step down from what Wisconsin fans have been spoiled with, but I don’t think anyone – including the coaches – could have expected this much of a headache from the offensive line. Not only did the Badgers suffer through injuries throughout the offseason, including a wealth of problems in fall camp, the injuries carried over into the season and caused many below-average performances.

The biggest disappointments were against Purdue, failing to rush for 100 team yards against one of the worst rush defenses in the Big Ten, and giving up six sacks and minus-26 rushing yards against Northwestern.

Not only was there no chemistry from week to week, there was no consistency because of the injuries, as UW went through seven different offensive line combinations in 13 games. Ghastly. As a result, UW gave up a lot of pressures that changed the course of games, including Stave getting injured against Illinois after the pocket instantly collapsing and a critical turnover when senior left tackle Tyler Marz was beaten off the line against Iowa for a blindside hit. Those are just two of many examples I could list.

Of the starting offensive line UW had against Alabama, three players - Hayden Biegel, Dan Voltz and Walker Williams – were lost to season-ending injuries, forcing UW to rely on four redshirt freshmen (LG Micah Kapoi, C Michael Deiter, RG Beau Benzschawel and RT Jacob Maxwell) to anchor the line. With Marz taking a step back this season, UW didn’t put a lineman on the All-Big Ten first team for the first time since 2008.

However, the starting line the final two games of the season should yield some excitement. Against Minnesota and USC, the latter being a school that registered 37 sacks in 13 games, UW’s four freshmen line gave up no sacks, paved the way for 257 rushing yards against Minnesota and helped register a come-from-behind bowl win over the Trojans.

Those last two games save their grade, but I'm curious how good this group can be in the spring with only having to replace Marz for 2016 and having versatility out of Kapoi, Deiter and Benzschawel.

Grade: D


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