- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our series of grades for each Big Ten's regular season comes to a close with a look at the Wisconsin Badgers.
If you just look at the final numbers, you'd say Wisconsin had a typical year on offense. The Badgers scored 30.8 points per game and finished 12th in the nation in rushing yards per game, at 237.8. In reality, the offense struggled early on as the line and running game weren't in sync. The promotion of Bart Miller to offensive-line coach improved things, but Wisconsin piled up stats against teams like Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue. The Badgers scored only 13 points against Michigan State, 14 against Ohio State and 21 at Penn State, all losses. The passing game was a mess at times as the team went through three starting quarterbacks. Danny O'Brien didn't live up to billing. Joel Stave showed promising signs before getting hurt. Curt Phillips finished the season but wasn't asked to do a whole lot with his arm. Finding a reliable receiver other than Jared Abbrederis proved problematic. Still, Wisconsin erupted for 70 points in the Big Ten championship game, and Montee Ball had another outstanding season after a slow start.
This was maybe the most underrated defense in the Big Ten, if not the country. Only one team, Nebraska, scored more than 26 points against Wisconsin. The Badgers finished 13th nationally in total defense and tied for 19th in scoring, allowing just over 19 points per game. Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor were their normal brilliant selves, while the defensive line gummed up opposing teams' running attacks and the secondary shored up some of the problems it exhibited a year ago. While still overshadowed by the offense, Chris Ash's defense played great all year long.
Special teams: C-minus
The good: Wisconsin led the Big Ten in kickoff returns (though it only had a league-low 20 attempts), ranked fifth in punting and punt returns and third in kickoff coverage. The bad: The Badgers made just 10 of 18 field goals, an atrocious percentage that certainly cost them in their many close losses.
Ordinarily, a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth would automatically result in an A grade. But this was anything but an ordinary year. Wisconsin only got to Indianapolis because of the probation at Ohio State and Penn State; a third-place Leaders Division finish and 7-5 regular-season record fell well below expectations in Madison. The Badgers weren't able to protect Camp Randall Stadium in home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State and would have lost to Utah State if not for a missed chip-shot field goal by the Aggies. The Badgers were in every game and lost their five by a total of 19 points. Ultimately, the Big Ten championship game performance redeemed much of the year, and a victory in the Rose Bowl would elevate this grade. But a loss in Pasadena would mean an 8-6 final record and mark Wisconsin as one of the least accomplished Rose Bowl teams in history.
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