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Key stats tell story of return to 'Wisconsin football'

When Bret Bielema first talked about a return to playing "Wisconsin football" during the offseason, many of us were understandably skeptical.  The Badgers had just limped to an unimpressive 7-6 finish, capped off by a nightmarish 42-13 loss in the Champs Sports Bowl. 

But it was the way in which Wisconsin failed that was so uncharacteristic, and led to such doubt over whether Bielema could restore the program to its traditional place of strength.  The team seemed undisciplined, unfocused and even uninspired at times.  The Badgers broke down defensively at critical moments, turned the ball over with alarming carelessness and accumulated penalties at a ridiculous rate.  They did not run the ball with their usual effectiveness, and that trademark "Badger toughness" was simply M.I.A.

Fast forward to today, two-thirds of the way through a generally successful 2009 campaign, and most casual observers would tell you the Badgers have made improvement.  A look at some key statistics, however, suggests that the strides have been even bigger than one might think.  Wisconsin has engineered a complete turnaround in key statistical categories that it struggled in a year ago. Despite two disappointing losses to more veteran-laden teams, the results on the field have, by and large, reflected this positive reversal.

When we think of Wisconsin football, the first things that come to mind are the running game and defense.  In Big Ten play so far, the Badgers rank first in the conference in both rushing and run defense.  If those figures hold up over the final three Big Ten games, Wisconsin will be the first team in the conference since 1951 to finish first in both of those categories.  John Clay is the Big Ten's leading rusher and O'Brien Schofield is among the best players in recording tackles-for-loss in the nation.  The Badgers are also near the top of the Big Ten in total defense and turnovers forced, demonstrating the type of big-play opportunism prevalent in the past but missing a season ago.

Wisconsin is tied for the fewest number of penalties committed in the Big Ten.  Consider that at this time last year, the 2008 Badgers had already been whistled for more penalties than in any season since Barry Alvarez became the head coach in 1990.  That type of disciplinary improvement in one year is unbelievable and has especially helped the defense get off the field more quickly.

With a productive running game, a stingy and opportunistic defense and a disciplined team overall, the Badgers have almost completed the reversion to their roots.  There still is one aspect that must improve, however.  Wisconsin must learn to take better care of the football.  Scott Tolzien has not thrown an interception in four of his eight starts, but two of the four games in which he threw picks were Badger losses.  There is definitely a correlation.  The running backs and wide receivers fumbled six times in one game.  Fortunately, the opponent was Wofford, so it had very little effect on the outcome.  Once the Badgers add an error-free offense to their arsenal, they will be tough to beat, as long as they maintain their success in the areas they have already improved.

Things have certainly changed in just one season, and they have changed in a way that is generating legitimate excitement about the future of the program.  All that remains to be seen is whether Wisconsin can sustain these trends for the remainder of the season and in years to come.


-Jake Harris