With six games in the book, it's amazing that we are already halfway through the 2009 regular season schedule. At 5-1, it's safe to say the Badgers are playing a little bit above expectations, but one could easily argue they still have a lot to improve on.
Wisconsin's six opponents are a combined 18-15 so far this season, which is not a bad number when you consider its opponents have played tough schedules (Fresno State lost to two Top-15 schools, Minnesota lost to California and Ohio State lost to USC).
If the Badgers can get by Iowa this weekend, an 11-1 regular season record would not be out of the question with the remaining schedule. Not including the Hawkeyes, UW's remaining opponents are only 14-15. But if that is going to happen, UW will have to improve in some areas.
Here's a unit-by-unit report card for the first half of the season:
Quarterback - B
Scott Tolzien has yet to give himself an "A" performance this season even though I might have after a couple of his efforts. He's at least been a B+ at home and more like a C+ on the road, but when you consider the prospects for UW's quarterbacks coming into the season, it's hard not to give a B grade here. Wisconsin is still only ranked seventh in passing in the Big Ten, but Tolzien still ranks third in passing effeciency with a 139.60 rating.
Running back - B
Expectations for running backs at Wisconsin have gotten so high that most fans would be shocked to know UW leads the conference rushing despite it being a struggle at times this season. John Clay is the conference's leading running back (106.8 yards per game) and has only started one game. When's the last time that happened?
Still, fumbling has been a problem and while Clay came up big with a 72-yard touchdown run at Fresno State and singlehandedly took over the second half of the Minnesota game, the rushing attack could still be more consistent.
Receivers - C+
Don't get me wrong, the receivers have improved and while a tight end (Garrett Graham) still leads the team in catches and touchdowns, Nick Toon leads the team in receiving yards (322) and averages 53 yards per game. But the reality is that UW's receivers are still not great. They only have three touchdowns on the season and Issac Anderson hasn't caught a touchdown pass since the first offensive play of the season when he caught an 80-yard bomb from Tolzien. David Gilreath, Maurice Moore and Kyle Jefferson have a combined 13 catches.
Tight ends - A-
What more can you ask for from Garrett Graham? With 27 catches, he ranks third in the nation for catches among tight ends (the leaders have 28) and he has four touchdowns on the year, including three in one game. Meanwhile, Lance Kendricks is fourth on the team in receptions and has two touchdowns himself. That's right, UW's tight ends have double the touchdowns than the receivers. What's new?
Offensive line - B-
Roughed up by injuries, the line has been better, but still inconsistent. Ohio State called the UW offense line "the best we've seen all year" and that included USC. But that was before the game. Tolzien was sacked six times, and while the line had only given up two sacks all year in its first five games, the reality is that it really hadn't been tested yet. The return of John Moffitt helped the running game, but in the first four games, John Clay and Zach Brown found few holes to run through.
Defensive line - B+
O'Brien Schofield continues to perform like an All-American. That's right, I said it. He leads the country in tackles for loss with 14.5 and is twelfth in sacks with 6.5. His TFLs add up to 74 yards lost. That's 12 yards more than David Gilreath has accumulated on all his end-around rushes combined this season. After a hot start, J.J. Watt has cooled off a bit, but he, Dan Moore, Patrick Butrym and Louis Nzegwu have all been key contributors this season.
Linebackers - B
The linebackers have been solid all season. None of them will be first-team All-Big Ten, but you can't complain about the performances of Mike Taylor, Jaevery McFadden and Culmer St. Jean. They certainly haven't made any major mistakes. And you have to be happy that redshirt freshman Taylor leads the team with 43 tackles and has contributed 6.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.
Defensive backs - C-
This would be a "D" if were not for free safety Chris Maragos' 28 tackles, three TFLs, one sack and three interceptions. Otherwise, Jay Valai has made no one miss Shane Carter and Aubrey Pleasant, who were kicked off the team in August, but the cornerbacks have not been good.
Who would have thought sophomore Aaron Henry would have zero interceptions and only three pass break-ups halfway through the season? All four cornerbacks have been beat deep and given up touchdowns they could have stopped with easy fundamentals. For the most part -- save the first half against Fresno State -- the corners have put together solid games. Unfortunately, they consistently give up two or three big plays a game that put the entire team in a hole or allow the other team to dig out of one.
Special teams - D
Here's a trivia question for you. How many total yards does David Gilreath have on punt returns this season? The answer? An astonishingly low 29 yards on seven returns. That's 4.1 yards per return. And seven returns is also a low number because he has played head games with himself all season long, calling fair catches in situations where he could have returned the punt and not called a fair catch in situations where he should have.
Meanwhile, Bret Bielema replaced Gilreath on kick returns -- where he is actually averaging an OK 21.5 yards per return -- instead of on punt returns. Bielema's coverage teams have not been good either. While UW's punt coverage team ranks a very average 51st in the country, its kickoff coverage team ranks 120th out of 130 FBS teams, giving up 26.28 yards per return. Maybe its finally time the head coach gives up his special teams duties.
Coaching - B-
There's no question the players bought into a new mindset this offseason that encouraged focus, physicality and commitment. But UW is still averaging six penalties per game (No. 42 in the country) and that is costing them 52.5 yards per game.
The game plans have been better this year, but there is still a void in execution (see Ohio State game). Baby steps, my friends.