I was having a discussion on what it takes for a college football program to truly rise to prominence as I watched the Wisconsin-Oregon State game with a friend of mine who is a bit less obsessed with sports. As I explained it, at least, the rise is a gradual process. Winning feeds into TV feeds into recruiting feeds into winning, and it takes a sustained run of strong seasons and national visibility to rise into the ranks of, say, an Alabama, an LSU, an Ohio State or a USC.
Over the last two years, Wisconsin has been an elite program, and I don't think there's any denying that. Sure, they lost both Rose Bowls, but both were against top-4 teams and they came away with two consecutive conference championships. How quickly, the question was, can a program really fall from such a lofty perch?
Today, the Badgers are outside of the AP top 25 and Bret Bielema has already begun firing those he brought in to replace his six lost coaches. So I'd just say college football is a fickle mistress.
There's this thing they call Wisconsin football. Take a bunch of big, hulking, lumbering, bacon-built dudes, throw them at the other team, and gain a bunch of yards. Step one, sure. Every offensive lineman listed on Wisconsin's official roster weighs at least 300 pounds; all but one is listed at 6-foot-4 or taller.
Step two, not so much. You'll see in the box scores that the Badgers ran for 35 yards on 23 carries. That's not entirely correct -- for some reason, the NCAA insists on counting sack yardage into rushing yards when it truly belongs as passing yardage.
The correct numbers have the Badgers rushing 19 times for 72 yards, or 3.8 per carry. That's the same rate as the Badgers mustered against Northern Iowa, but the context isn't quite the same. Many of the Badgers two or three yard runs came on short-yardage downs against the Panthers; the Badgers still managed a semi-respectable 48% success rate (click for more info on success rate). That was not the case against Oregon State -- many of their two or three yard runs came when five or more were needed; multiple no-gain runs came on "and-1" situations.
Success rate is more important than yards per play in the running game because teams are willing to play soft and give up four or five yards on third and longs, which can artificially inflate the yards per play number. The Badgers managed just a 31.6% success rate on the ground against Oregon State. For reference, the worst success rate in the FBS last season was New Mexico State, at 33.3%. When you throw in the impotent passing game, the Badgers' success rate last week? 33.3%.
And that's how you get punt after punt after punt after punt. The odds of failing three straight plays with a 33.3% rate is 29.7%, and even then, not every success begets a first down (certainly not when you average 3.8 yards per play).
Teams get around low success rates all the time. All it takes is a few big plays. The Badgers were a team incapable of making the small play on Saturday, much less the big one. A Danny O'Brien pass to Jared Abbrederis yielded 26 yards on the 16th play of the game (the Badgers' fifth drive, in the second quarter, for perspective). Nothing else went over 15 yards. Losing Abbrederis was massive, and it shows the lack of depth in the receiving corps as well as how much help Danny O'Brien needs to make things happen on the offensive end.
Whereas the box score paints an overly negative picture for the running game, the passing attack gets hammered when we rightfully assign sacks. O'Brien took three sacks for 34 yards (and also a kneel for one, which isn't included in either runs or passes), and on the whole the passing attack only generated 152 yards on 41 attempts, a 3.70 yards per play that would embarrass even some of the worst running games in the nation.
Adjusted yards per pass attempt paints an even worse picture -- the statistic adjusts for touchdowns and interceptions by assigning a 20-yard bonus for every touchdown and a 45-yard penalty for every interception. Before sacks, O'Brien grades out at 3.8, tied for 157th of the 177 QB games with at least five attempts at Wisconsin since 2000. Including sacks, that number falls to 3.1 (I lack full sack data for other games, unfortunately).
To sum it all up:
It was just the fifth time since 2000 the Badgers failed to manage 3.5 yards per play. Horrible, no good, very bad. Et cetera. And yet, the Badgers were inches away from recovering an onside kick with a chance to win the game.
It's really unfortunate the accomplishments of the defense this week have to be completely overshadowed by the offense's failures -- and they do, to be sure -- because Chris Ash's unit should be proud of their performance Saturday.
The Badgers dominated Oregon State's running game just as they did to Northern Iowa, but this was a better opponent in their own house. The Beavers managed 86 yards on 26 rushing attempts for just a 33.3% success rate of their own.
And this time, the Badgers managed, for the most part, to halt the big play. The Beavers managed just 5.3 yards per pass attempt and had just two plays over 25 yards. There were very few of the seemingly characteristic breakdowns in the Wisconsin secondary; it's just that one of them turned out to be very important, resulting in the 20-yard touchdown to Brandin Cooks to take the insurmountable 10-point lead.
This was a defense that not only looked good, it looked like one that could carry a mediocre offense to a victory. Now if only the offense could be mediocre.
Montee Ball just didn't look like the dynamic force that emerged in the second half of 2010 and carried Heisman aspirations into this season. It's safe to say those are gone. Ball mustered just 94 yards of offense and that includes his biggest play, drawing a 15-yard pass interference call in the fourth quarter. Ball average just 4.3 yards per play, which just isn't enough with the rest of the talent around him.
And, of course, that might be the problem. Particularly without Abbrederis, there was nothing to call attention away from the running game, and the offensive line just hasn't shown anything near the kind of push we've come to expect from those Wisconsin hogs. It's why you probably won't hear too much complaining about the firing of offensive line coach Mike Markuson.
Jeff Duckworth, invisible in week one, had the most notable offensive game for the Badgers, catching seven passes on nine targets for 55 yards, mostly coming on the last-ditch drive to put the Badgers on the board. He had fallen down the depth chart, but with the absence of Abbrederis he may offer the most consistent target for O'Brien as opposed to youngsters Kenzel Doe (nine yards on two targets) and Jordan Fredrick (11 yards on two targets).
But other than that, nobody showed anything of note. James White managed just 23 yards on five touches. Jacob Pedersen needed seven targets to pick up 36 yards. Some of the blame (most?) lies on the offensive line and on Danny O'Brien, but at this point it's difficult to see where the talent to drag this offense up will come from.
For the Beavers, the stars were running back Storm Woods (87 yards on 16 plays) and Brandin Cooks (75 yards and the touchdown on nine targets). Quarterback Sean Mannion hardly impressed -- he was accurate in the short game and completed 61.7% of his passes, but there wasn't as much available down the field as one would have expected after watching UNI true freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen carve up the Badgers in the opener.
Hopefully for the Badgers, that credit belongs to the defense. If this week is any indication, they'll be in the awkward place of needing a defense responsible for all three of last season's losses to carry this team to victories in the coming weeks.