It's time to pass out season grades for the 2011 Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers.
The record-setting 2010 Badgers offense left a tough act to follow, but this year's unit maintained the production and added elements Wisconsin hasn't seen before. Most of those new elements came from quarterback Russell Wilson, who transitioned seamlessly after transferring from NC State and earned consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. Wilson completed 72.4 percent of his passes and ranked second nationally in pass efficiency (191.6), trailing only Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III. His ability to extend plays and attack defenses helped a unit that needed greater balance this year. Wilson shared a backfield with Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, who led the nation with 38 touchdowns (32 rush, 6 receiving), one shy of Barry Sanders' single-season NCAA record. Ball and Wilson had the best combined running back-quarterback season in Big Ten history, and Wisconsin ranked fourth nationally in scoring. Center Peter Konz led the offensive line and the receivers had big years working with Wilson.
The unit wasn't quite as dominant as its numbers indicate, although it's notable that Wisconsin finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense and pass defense. The Badgers lacked a superstar like All-American J.J. Watt in 2010 but received production from several sources, namely linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, and defensive backs Aaron Henry, Shelton Johnson and Antonio Fenelus. Wisconsin once again showed play-making ability on defense and recorded 24 takeaways, the third-highest total in the league. The Badgers held 10 opponents to 17 points or fewer and only seemed to struggle in the two games against Michigan State, which boasts tremendous speed on the edges, as well as with Ohio State's rushing attack led by Dan Herron and Braxton Miller.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
The kicking game was Wisconsin's Achilles' heel this season, and major mistakes surfaced in both regular-season losses. Wisconsin had punts blocked against both Michigan State and Ohio State, both of which led to touchdowns. And if Michigan State isn't flagged for running into the punter in the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin might have lost after allowing a long return by Keshawn Martin. The Badgers had some bright spots, such as punt returner Jared Abbrederis, who ranked third nationally (16.1 ypr), and punter Brad Nortman. But it's hard to look past the two breakdowns.
Wisconsin began the season as the Leaders division favorite and elevated expectations with its blistering start. Anything less than a Rose Bowl appearance would be considered a significant disappointment. A handful of players in East Lansing and in Columbus prevented Wisconsin from having a truly special season, but the Badgers rebounded in November and outlasted Michigan State in Indianapolis despite being outplayed most of the game. Wisconsin is making consecutive Rose Bowl appearances for the first time since 1998-99, but the Badgers need a win to validate themselves as nationally elite.