Things are no different for the coaches and student-athletes on the Badger football team. But midterms take on additional meaning beyond the players' evaluations by their professors. For them, early October means that six games have been contested in the 2007 season.
The identity of this year's squad has been forged and it's time to take a look back and see what we've learned to date about the 2007 Wisconsin Badgers. Badger Nation hands out our own midterm marks, and some outlooks for the balance of the 2007 football season.
Despite playing a soft schedule, the Badgers have not consistently established a dominant running game, nor have they had as many explosive plays as you might hope. Their offense has been reasonably consistent, however, generally moving the ball and eating clock via the short passing game, which has been very efficient, especially on third down. The raw numbers may suggest a slightly lower grade, but the defense has not put them in many favorable situations in terms of field position. Donovan has limitations but has been put in position to succeed. Beckum has been utilized marvelously.
At times, the defense has struggled against both the run and the pass. They have been gashed by the running teams and played soft against passing teams. They have forced virtually no turnovers and have not made high impact plays behind the line of scrimmage. The tackling and gap control has been atrocious at times. The only thing saving their grade is that they have generally played better at crunch time and have come up with some second half stops. Few answers have been found for their holes and improvement is lacking.
Special Teams: C
Mehlhaff has been solid on both kickoffs and field goals. DeBauche has been woefully inconsistent, both with distance as well as with his pooch punts. Gilreath has provided some spark at times on kickoff returns, but has also been tentative at times when the blocking hasn't been there. Penalties on special teams have hurt field position all too often.
The team has arguably underperformed in every game despite a very favorable schedule. They have seemingly come out slow in just about every game, though halftime adjustments seem to have been pretty good. Offensively, Chryst has tried to remain balanced and has kept the offense moving despite some personnel limitations. Defensively, this team continues to be assignment poor and the tackling, as mentioned, has been terrible. Sufficient depth has not been developed and reliance on too many true freshmen has been a problem. Is Hill already wearing down due to too much workload? Offensive has given the team a chance to win, but defense has given them a chance to lose.
The record is still there to put together a good season, but the flow of play on the field has been troubling given the high expectations coming into the season. Is this team moving forward or backward as the better teams start showing up on the schedule? Time will tell, but without improvement, it will be virtually impossible to meet their goals. They still have time to recover however.
Without P.J. Hill, this team would be average at best. Hill has rushed for 750 yards and 10 touchdowns in only six games. Tyler Donovan numbers are excellent – 60 percent completion, 1400 yards, 11 touchdowns – but has been inconsistent in his passing, often over-shooting and under-shooting his receivers or relying to much on Paul Hubbard or Luke Swan. Now, with Swan out for the season and Hubbard out another month, Donovan needs to connect with his younger receivers David Gilreath and Kyle Jefferson.
The offense line is progressing week by week and is giving decent protection, but as an overall unit, Wisconsin is sixth in scoring offense and redzone offense. Wisconsin's offense has been sporadic at points as well – nearly costing the team games against Iowa and UNLV. The burden will have to rest on the shoulders of Hill and Beckum, who like Hill, continues to put up amazing numbers to help the offense. Beckum has caught 41 passes this season – far and away the best on the team – and tied for the team lead in touchdowns (three).
With as poor as the defense is playing, the offense needs to consistently score points, which will be hard without Wisconsin's senior receivers.
Sure, the Badgers tightened down defensively against UNLV, Iowa and Michigan State with the game on the line, but if the Badgers were performing how they were expected to, the fourth quarter would have been used for garbage time.
Wisconsin returned seven starters, an entire defensive line and the best one-two cornerback duo in the conference. After six games, the Badgers are eighth in total defense (368.8 ypg) and ninth in rushing defense (152.8 ypg) and show no signs of getting better. In fact, the rushing defense has gotten worse in every Big Ten game this season.
First-year safety starters Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant have struggled after decent starts, Elijah Hodge and Jack Ikegwuonu can't stay healthy and the front line is like a bull in a fine china shop – a disaster. There's still plenty of time to turn it around and win the conference, but the chance to win a national title has run right past the Badgers – kind of like another team's running back.
Special Teams: A-
Bret Bielema came out last week and said that Taylor Mehlhaff was the team's MVP so far and no statement could be more accurate. Other than missing a seemingly easy 38-yard field goal against Illinois (a field goal that could have changed the outcome), Mehlhaff made his first nine field goal attempts, including a 51-yard boot that practically saved the team in Vegas.
Gilreath has improved every week and has given the Badgers a true deep threat for the first time in years. Against the Spartans, Gilreath registered 199 return yards, including a school-record 189 kickoff return yards and a season-long 56-yard return. He's a threat every time he touches the ball.
The only thing keeping the Badgers from an ‘A' is that the special team penalties have plagued the Badgers and Ken DeBauche has been inconsistent this season. But, if 47.6 average on eight punts against Iowa is any indication, DeBauche is rebounding.
As I wrote in my Monday column, I have nothing but respect for Bielema, but his comments about a national championship not being a priority were surprising and disappointing. Granted, his 1-0 philosophy has worked 17 out of 19 times and I am not going to tell him how to coach, but to not have a national title as a goal is what separates this program from the top-tier programs of college football.
http There needs to be accountability from the coaching staff for poor performances. The defensive woes have been due to poor tackling, which is fundamental and needs to be corrected by the coaching staff. So far, it hasn't. Bielema talked about how injuries effected what defensive packages they used and couldn't use against Illinois. Sorry, but that's a weak excuse and not going to cut it.
Paul Chryst continues to do an excellent job with the offense, despite being short-stacked, but the woes of the defense have clouded his work this season.
Falling way short of expectations this point in the near, an inconsistent offense hampered with injuries, an experience defense that looks lost and confused and failing to beat anybody in a convincing fashion. Bielema said that Wisconsin football isn't a sexy team and that they don't win style points. Remind you, Bielema is the same coach that openly criticized the BCS for not getting a bid and the BCS rewards successful teams winning in a sexy way. The Badgers should be 6-0 and, if you look at the preseason poll, number two in the country behind LSU.
There's still plenty of time to stop the leaking. There's also plenty of time to book your hotel reservations for Detroit and the Motor City Bowl.
The offense has been crippled by injuries – missing wide receivers Kyle Jefferson, Luke Swann and Paul Hubbard have depleted the passing attack, halfback P.J. Hill got nicked up and tight end Andy Crooks hasn't played a single down. Additionally Lance Smith got suspended for five away games.
Wisconsin ranks sixth in scoring, fifth in passing and sixth in rushing in the Big Ten. All of that spells mediocrity. Injuries have caused Wisconsin to entirely become dependent upon Hill and Travis Beckum to carry the offense.
Give credit to them for keeping it together, Hill averaged 4.7 yards per carry and quarterback Tyler Donovan has 60 percent completion. If injuries hadn't this talented offense, they would be much better.
Even judging the defense before last week's loss, they still have been terrible this year. The inexperience for the two safeties has shown, linebacker Elijah Hodge and Allen Langford are underperforming and cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu's injury has turned the secondary from the strength into a weakness.
The Badgers rank eighth in scoring defense, fifth in pass defense and eighth in rush defense in the Big Ten. The two most critical categories show how bad the defense has become – the Badger's red zone defense ranks dead last and second last in turnover margin. Basically, their defense can't play any worse.
Special Teams: B+
David Gilreath – with his amazing speed – has improved the return game. In the Big Ten, he ranks fourth in punt returns and seventh in kickoff returns. His yardage isn't as important as his big play potential and steady hands.
Kicker Taylor is 9-for-10 on field goals and perfect on extra points. His strength has been his big leg, he's 3-for-3 on field goals more than 39 yards. Punter Ken DeBauche ranks fifth in the Big Ten. He has a few mistakes, but he has produced for the most part.
With three blocked kicks, an explosive return game and consistent kicking have usually given the Badgers the advantage in special teams.
Bret Bielema had the longest winning streak in the country while having numerous injuries. He has successfully ushered in many true freshmen that have played well. The team also ranks first in time of possession in the Big Ten.
But the team is fourth in penalties in the conference, Bielema's decision to go for a two-point conversion in the third quarter against Illinois didn't work out, and the defensive staff has not fixed recurring problems.
Overall, the team hasn't been consistent. If you don't count the two blowouts against lesser opponents, the Badgers have only outscored their opponents by nine. The great plays have not been always been there and they got hurt for that last Saturday.
The Badgers would have gotten entirely different ratings before their winning streak ended last week, but they never played like the fifth best team in the country.
At 5-1, Wisconsin is still in the running for a Big Ten title. Yet, their obvious weaknesses and devastating injuries have all but ended their chance for a National Championship. With an experienced and talented team, they have underperformed, and have done so nearly every week. They beat the bad teams by a lot, barely beat average teams at home and lost their first tough road game of the year.
Wisconsin isn't typically viewed as a high-powered offense, but that's certainly the case this season. The Badgers have been able to put up big numbers—both on the ground with P.J. Hill and through the air behind Tyler Donovan's arm. However, the Badgers lost Luke Swan for the season and are already without top receiver Paul Hubbard, which leaves a receiving corps with very little experience. Also, the Badgers should be careful with Hill's carries. He suffered a minor groin injury in the loss to Illinois and is on pace to eclipse 300 carries on the year.
What was supposed to be one of Wisconsin's strong points this season is its absolute weak point, and it's hard to figure out why. The inexperience at the safety positions is certainly an issue, but otherwise the talent is there—things just aren't coming together. If it weren't for the offense's ability to put up points, the Badgers would probably have more than one loss at this point.
Special Teams – B
Kicker Taylor Mehlhaff has been superb this season, missing only one field goal—a 38-yard attempt at Illinois that he said he simply mis-hit. Punter Ken DeBauche snapped out of an early season slump and is booting the ball well again. And freshman return man David Gilreath is showing flashes of the play making abilities he has. There have been mistakes here and there—mainly penalties on the coverage team—but overall the Badgers' special teams have been solid.
It's hard to fault Bret Bielema for any of the problems Wisconsin has had—after all, the Badgers are 5-1 and coaching is all about getting the victory. However, the second half of the season will be telling of Bielema's coaching abilities—to see how this team bounces back from the 31-26 loss to Illinois. The fact of the matter is the Badgers haven't played well all season—it just didn't hurt them until they faced the Illini.
There's no question Wisconsin has been overrated for the first half of the season—the fall to No. 19 in the Associated Press poll is much more realistic than No. 5. With that said, the Badgers have been competitive in every game and won the majority of them so it's hard to hold anything against them. The Badgers have the potential to be one of the nation's top teams; they just haven't shown it yet. Maybe the drop in the polls will help put things in perspective for this team and turn the season back around.
Badger Nation Guest TA: Old Uncle C
The departures of LT Joe Thomas and QB John Stocco, both 3 year starters, left large shoes to fill for the Badger Offense. To date, first year starters Tyler Donovan and Gabe Carimi have done yeoman's work in filling them. Donovan's mobility has added a dimension to the offense that Stocco could not, using his feet to make plays both outside the pocket and on the run. Carimi and his returning linemates have done a nice job opening holes for P.J. Hill, whose off-season efforts are leading to a fine second campaign, and offering generally solid protection for Donovan.
TB Lance Smith may be the most improved player on the roster, but a season-long road game suspension has limited his impact. TE Travis Beckum continues to be a revelation at the position, posing matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. Injuries to veteran WRs Luke Swan and Paul Hubbard leave question marks on the outside. True freshman Kyle Jefferson has the look of a future star. Fellow frosh David Gilreath's electric speed may add another dimension to the offense. But, short of Hill, Beckum and the veteran offensive lineman, this is still a young unit bereft of substantial Big Ten experience.
The 2007 offense is racking up yards at 40 yards/game higher pace than last season, but has shown its youth with sporadic output at critical junctures.
Good defenses are built up the middle, offering stalwart interior protection against an offense's most efficient path to racking up yards. Graduation stripped the Badger defense of leaders and key playmakers at MLB (Mark Zalewski), SS (Joe Stellmacher) and FS (Roderick Rodgers). Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced DT Mike Newkirk to DE, depleting an experienced, but thin, DT rotation of valuable depth. Replacement safeties Aubrey Pleasant and Shane Carter have struggled in the back end, both in pass coverage and run support. Redshirt sophomore MLB Elijah Hodge has been slowed by injury, preventing him from realizing the potential he flashed backing up Zalewski last season.
The trickle down effect of the losses and their replacements to the balance of the defense has been devastating. CBs Jack Ikegwuonu, a pre-season All-Big Ten selection, and Allen Langford have been forced to play soft coverage atypical of last year's effective scheme. Pre-season injuries to OLBs Jonathan Casillas and DeAndre Levy have limited their ability to pick up the slack. Talented junior DE Matt Shaughnessy has seen consistent double-teams, limiting his ability to make plays. As a result, the defense is allowing 369 yards/game and 24 points per contest, good for 57th and 50th in the nation, respectively. Last season, the Badger D ranked third in both categories.
Special Teams: B
PK Taylor Mehlhaff has lived up to his billing as one of the top kickers in the nation. The strong-legged senior is one of the brightest spots on this year's team. On kickoffs, the Badgers are 28th in the nation in average yards per return allowed, up from 68th last year. He has been accurate and clutch on his field goal attempts.
P Ken DeBauche is finally flashing some of the ability that made him one of the top punters in the nation as a sophomore. His performance against Iowa was game changing. Despite this, he has been plagued by inconsistency from kick to kick and game to game and must play at the top of his game to deflect pressure from the defense.
True freshman David Gilreath came into the Badger program with a reputation for elite speed and agility. The first year KR/PR hasn't disappointed and has been a weapon not seen since WR Brandon Williams manned the spot. His play has steadily improved, portending good things for the Badger return game. Head Coach Bret Bielema's increased attention to kick coverage units in the off-season has borne fruit on the field on Saturdays.
What more can be said about Bret Bielema? After a 12-1 campaign as a rookie, the high-water mark for single season wins in school history, he stands halfway through his sophomore effort with only two losses against 17 wins. Both losses have come at the hands of quality Big Ten opponents on the road, and the Badgers were competitive in both games. Camp Randall has regained its status as a home fortress where no one wants to play.
Paul Chryst continues to be an efficient and creative Offensive Coordinator, taking full advantage of the weapons offered to him. He game plans to the strengths of his personnel. Defensive Coordinator Dan Doeren was handed a tough task in replacing the departed seniors, and has yet to find solutions. While any coach would struggle to replace the leadership, the cupboards of young talent, particularly at LB and in the defensive backfield, appear to be well stocked. The lack of development from game to game by the safeties is troubling.
Based on last year's performance, the number of returning starters and their lofty pre-season ranking, this is a Badger team that was supposed to contend for a BCS bowl. While that goal is certainly still within reach, the fashion of their victories is more befitting an October pumpkin than a glass slipper. Development of a steady defense to compliment a potentially explosive offense seems to be the only way to get back to the ballroom.
Offensive Half-Season MVP: WR Luke Swan/RB P.J. Hill
Defensive Half-Season MVP: DT Nick Hayden
Special Teams Half-Season MVP: PK Taylor Melhaff
Offensive Newcomer of the Half-Season: OT Gabe Carimi
Defensive Newcomer of the Half-Season: DE Kirk DeCremer
Special Teams Newcomer of the Half-Season: PR/KR David Gilreath