Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Midseason report: Wisconsin
By Adam Rittenberg
Record: 5-2 (2-1 Big Ten)
It feels like Wisconsin has had two different seasons crammed into the first seven games.
The Badgers were a mess the first three weeks: squeaking past FCS Northern Iowa, nearly being shut out at Oregon State and getting lucky in a 16-14 win against Utah State. An offense that had set records the past two seasons plummeted in production, saw a coaching change after Week 2 (line coach Mike Markuson was sent packing) and a quarterback change after Week 3.
The ride has smoothed out after the early turbulence, as Wisconsin has won three of its past four games, including strong performances against both Illinois and Purdue. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave has performed well as the top quarterback, and the much-maligned line is looking more like its old self, opening up holes for senior running back Montee Ball, who recorded a career-high 247 rush yards and three touchdowns Saturday against the Boilers. It hasn't been the season Ball had envisioned, as he sustained a concussion -- his second in as many months -- against UTEP and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in the first five games. But his performance has spiked the past two weeks and the future looks promising.
All the attention on the offense's woes has masked a solid performance by Wisconsin's defense, particularly linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor. The unit has overcome several injuries to rank in the top 30 nationally in both points allowed and yards allowed.
Wisconsin still isn't the same team we saw in 2010 and 2011, and the first half hardly went according to plan, but the recent rebound has put Bret Bielema's Badgers where we all thought they'd be -- in the driver's seat to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis.
Offensive MVP: WR Jared Abbrederis. Until the past two weeks, when Ball emerged, Abbrederis was Wisconsin's most consistent offensive weapon and a huge help for Stave in his transition to the starting role. After missing a game and a half with a concussion, Abbrederis returned and recorded three consecutive 100-yard receiving performances, catching a touchdown pass in each contest. He leads the Big Ten and ranks 21st nationally in receiving yards per game (93.2). He has six or more receptions in four of the five games he has completed.
Defensive MVP: LB Chris Borland. Although Taylor gets more tackles, Borland is Wisconsin's top playmaker on defense and one of the best in the entire league. He leads the Badgers in forced fumbles (2), fumbles recovered (2), sacks (4) and pass breakups (5), ranking second in total tackles (60) and tackles for loss (7.5). Borland earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors against UTEP (2 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, 2 pass breakups) and has turned things up a notch in Big Ten play. Taylor also merits a mention with a strong first half.