Brenner: Punchless Problems

While the Badger world had been consumed with the status of quarterback Allan Evridge this week, Badger Nation's Aaron Brenner suggests that maybe the real problem for UW's success is in the Badger backfield.

MADISON - It's midterm season, and damn, those tests are hard.

So, allow me to offer you a temporary reprieve with the easiest pop quiz you've ever taken.

I'm going to describe a football team, and you'll tell me who it is. Ready?

Fact #1: This team scored 89 points in its first two games, including a 51-point effort in game two aided by an aerial assault of five completions of 25 or longer and nine of at least 20 yards.

Fact #2: Since then, this team has averaged 18.3 points per game, compiling a 1-2 record.

Fact #3: That's because this team has recorded just three plays of 25 yards or longer in those three games.

Fact #4: This team's star running back doesn't have a rush longer than 14 yards since the season opener, and its All-American tight end hasn't scored or caught a ball for longer than 20 yards.

Bonus hint: This team's marching band was so offended by the above three facts, they decided to take their trumpets and stay home in protest during the last game, a nationally televised affair under the lights.

OK, pencils down. You guessed…why, your very own University of Wisconsin Badgers?

Ding ding ding!

Seriously, is there any better way to describe how UW has gotten off to its first 0-2 start in the Big Ten Conference standings since 2002?

While there's certainly other reasons for the Badgers' devastating start, it seems that UW's offense has not been innovative enough to generate the big plays that can help a sputtering offense put points on the board in a hurry.

Quarterback Allan Evridge is an easy scapegoat from the standpoint that he hasn't gained enough confidence from UW offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Paul Chryst to throw downfield more.

UW head coach Bret Bielema hinted at his Monday press conference that Evridge will be on a short leash this weekend against Penn State. That's nice, probably a good way to grab Evridge's attention.

But Bielema added that if Evridge's proverbial plug were to be pulled, it would be junior Dustin Sherer as the next man in. Really? Dustin Sherer – he of the two career completions – going to turn this thing around?

It seems that no quarterback on the Badgers current roster – perhaps save for top prospect Curt Phillips, who under no circumstances should shed his redshirt – has the accuracy or consistency to do what is asked of him by Chryst and the offensive staff.

Look, maybe it's faulty recruiting; I don't know. That's another discussion for another time. But the quarterbacks aren't the only ones responsible for making UW's offense a one-dimensional unit.

How about a little accountability from Wisconsin's darling running back, P.J. Hill? Remember him, the guy who was supposed to emerge as one of the top offensive players in the nation?

Sure, he's great around the goal line. But what about the other 95 yards of the field? Hill has been shut down the last two weeks, and hence, so has his team.

So, I asked Hill on Tuesday what was up with this season gone mediocre.

"We've been playing a lot of good run defenses so far," Hill said. "It's not all about me breaking a long run, it's just what I do when I get the ball in my hand. One of our keys is 4-plus yards, I've been doing that."

Well, just barely. Since his 211-yard outburst against Akron – a game that placed Hill's name squarely in the thick of the Heisman conversation – Hill has averaged 3.8 yards. So, close, but not quite.

Hill continued: "I've been pacing myself a little bit, because every handoff I get is not going to go for a big gain."

No, not every carry will go for a big gain, and not every rush will end up as a touchdown. But P.J., could you humor us and fit in one or two long rushes every now and then?

In the 82 opportunities Hill has had to run the football since Akron, his longest rush is 14 yards. 14 yards! That is just not going to cut it; especially when the passing game has been this anemic … er, inconsistent.

You think Beanie Wells, bum foot and all, is telling people over in Columbus that's he's okay with just four yards a carry? I'm not saying that a four-yard average isn't good, but I'm guessing Beanie is thinking six points every time his number is called.

Thing is, Wisconsin has a tailback with that kind of mentality. His name is John Clay.

The Wisconsin faithful at Camp Randall Stadium have already fallen in love with the redshirt freshman out of Racine. Why? Oh, maybe it's his freakish athleticism to go with a 6-foot-2, 237-pound body … or his 6.7 rushing average and four touchdowns on just 39 carries … or his dazzling leap over an Ohio State safety that had Badger fans humming the Sportscenter theme.

For me, it's how he shows every play how badly he wants to pound down defenders, or hit the hole as fast as he can to create those much-needed big plays with his legs when the UW offense can't do it through the air.

For the record, Clay has been saying the right things during interviews, or the politically correct things, at least: that he's happy with whatever playing time he gets, that the coaches have a plan for him, that everything happens for a reason …

Blah. Blah. Blah. I'm probably one of the last people among my media brethren to jump on the Clay bandwagon, but it's only because I needed more persuasion than others.

I think the light bulb turned on the other night, when I asked Hill what has to change in order to create big plays. He uttered one of the weirdest statements I've personally heard from a Badger player in my three years covering the team.

"It's just all about putting out, probably, personnel changes," Hill said. "If the coaches see that you are playing on the team that's going to make big plays, you're going to be the one on the field to make big plays."

I'm not sure, but was that an invitation for No. 32 to replace No. 39? Who knows, but there's no question that Clay is itching to hit home runs for this team; Hill's play suggests he's content to smack singles, with the (very) occasional two-bagger.

I'm not necessarily saying Hill should be benched completely, and I'm not saying Sherer should be wearing anything on his noggin but a headset this Saturday.

But if Evridge, Hill, and the rest of the offensive starters don't get it together, like right now, there should – nay, will – be changes in the offing. And it won't be pretty.


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